One of the exciting things about Cape Town, South Africa, is you have the opportunity to cage dive with Great White Sharks! Seriously… they drop you into the freezing cold ocean in a metal cage, toss mashed up fish into the water, and sharks come and swim around you, right past the cage, and sometimes straight at you! When James and I heard about this unique and thrilling activity, we knew for SURE that we wanted to experience it for ourselves!
The best time of year for shark cage diving is winter—around June through August in South Africa— so by the time we were able to schedule a date to dive, it was already the end of November: pretty much the beginning of summer. However, we were still assured that shark sightings were highly possible, so we booked a trip with a group of our friends for some thrilling adventure!
Now, a few things to note about shark diving: some people are skeptical and/or negative about this activity, as they say that the practice of luring sharks and putting humans in cages around them causes the sharks to be aggressive and attack swimmers on shore. This controversy in South Africa started back in 1998, when 13 Shark bites occurred in South Africa alone… and media blew it out of proportion and blamed the attacks on the cage diving industry. In reality, shark attacks were high all over the world that year, and cage diving in South Africa is actually done in a responsible way that doesn’t teach or train sharks that boats or humans are a source of food (unlike in the Bahamas, where the practice of cage diving has often been rumored to cause shark attacks on shore). By law, in South Africa, you are not allowed to intentionally feed sharks. Though putting mashed fish into the water and attracting the sharks with food is not the best option and remains controversial, scientists have been unable to show any form of habituation in this area of South Africa. In addition, in order to “train” animals, consistent positive reinforcement is needed, but since the fish head lure put out for sharks is often never actually bitten (the crew member pulls it away at the last minute so the shark doesn’t actually catch it) then the sharks never really learn that the boats and cages are a source of satisfaction.
Anyway, so a group of us drove a couple hours south of Cape Town to a small town called Gansbaai, and stayed at a B&B for the night. After a lovely dinner and drinks, we crashed out for the night full of anticipation of what the next day would bring! The next morning (November 24th), we got up bright and early and headed to the cage diving office for breakfast and paper signing and such. Then, about 25 people, including our group of six, piled onto a small boat (I seriously think they packed that boat WAY TOO FULL!) and we jetted out to the sea. Twenty or thirty minutes later, we arrived out to an area in the middle of the ocean known as “shark alley” and the crew members began setting up the cage and chumming the water to entice the sharks. The word “chumming” basically refers to the process of putting out a mixture of minced tuna meat, mashed sardines, and/or fish oil and combining it with seawater around the boat. This potent fish smelling mixture will slowly drift away in the water and eventually sharks will smell it and track it back to the boat. Boy… this process sure worked! Within ONLY TEN MINUTES, we already had one shark circling the boat!!
From the top deck you could clearly see the sharks below in the water, it was incredible and exhilarating to watch them swim around, dorsal fin sometimes peeking above the surface of the water! It was crazy how exciting it was just viewing them from the boat, considering we weren’t even in the water yet!
We waited until a few more groups were suited up and dropped into the cage before we took our turn. Side note: you actually do not use scuba equipment to shark dive. Apparently the noise from the bubbles can scare the sharks away, so instead the best method is to go in the cage wearing just a mask, then hold your breath, and duck your head under water time and time again to see the sharks swim by.
Anyway… so soon, James and I squeezed into 5mm wetsuits, put on our masks, and prepared for the SHOCK we would feel as we were lowered into the FREEZING COLD WATER (it really IS freezing in the Atlantic Ocean in this part of the world)! Inside the cage we went, a crew member lowered the lid of the cage, and there was no turning back now… we were basically dead weight, floating around inside a cage in the freezing ocean, just waiting for a shark to come our way!
Waiting… waiting… waiting… and before long, the boat captain yelled, “Down!” and we thrusted our heads under the icy water quickly to see a dark figure gliding by through the murky ocean water. A few more times later, and I was a bit discouraged as the water was so cloudy that when a shark swam by, you could barely see much of anything except a dark figure in the distance. I commented to James, “Maybe the viewing is
actually better from on TOP the boat,” when just then the captain yelled, “DOWN!,” we ducked under the water again, and A HUGE SHARK CAME RIGHT TOWARDS US AND ACTUALLY BASHED ITS FACE INTO THE CAGE!! ITS NOSE ACTUALLY CAME INSIDE OF THE CAGE THROUGH AN OPENING BETWEEN THE BARS, RIGHT BETWEEN JAMES AND I… WOW! Woooo!! I could have touched it!! Wow… what a rush!!
After that excitement passed, we were in the cage for awhile longer, but that one crazy shark sighting was definitely the BEST experience of the whole day (for all people on the boat, actually) and we were excited and happy that we were the lucky ones who got to get that up close and personal with a shark! A half hour or so later, James and I both went into the cage one more time on separate occasions, which actually took a bit of coaxing for me, as the water was SO FREEZING COLD. It really took a lot of nerve for me to climb back into the water (funny that I was more “scared” of cold water than the sharks themselves!) But I’m GLAD I did go in one more time… a few more passes of these intimidating creatures and I got to see two shark’s faces close up under the water (they sure have beady little eyes!), and on the last pass under water, the one shark opened up its mouth to go for the bait and I saw its teeth and ferocious jaws a foot from my face!! SO COOL!
We were SO thrilled with our shark cage diving adventure, and very pleased at our sightings for the day! And can you believe it only cost us $100 a person for a thrilling morning of swimming with the sharks?
As the boat carried on back to shore, we smiled about our experience and checked off yet another item on our round-the-world bucket list!
Conclusion: SHARK CAGE DIVING IS AWESOME!! HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!!
To see a video digest of our day with the skarks, click here.
To see photos from our shark diving adventure, click here.