You may think that cage diving with Great White sharks is something you would think long and hard about. But my whirlwind trip of South Africa did not give me much time for consideration. Having only a week to explore Cape Town and surrounds meant that virtually everything was done on a whim, driven by Trip Advisor reviews and the distance my little Toyota Etios could carry me.
The Scenic Journey To Gansbaai:
The drive from Cape Town was spectacular. It crossed dizzying passes where I attempted the impossible feat of driving a standard vehicle with my opposite hand, while gawking out the window and simultaneously attempting to get my phone to the camera setting (not recommended). The land then swooped down into rolling landscapes with rocks strewn about as if it had just showered large boulders. Further along, I flanked sharp cliffs that, on approach, looked as if they hung precipitously in the way of my car until the singular line of road made a sharp cut through an unseen pass.
After a three hour journey I arrived in Gansbaai, a small, sleepy fishing village with little tourist infrastructure to speak of and gave me a feeling I had in my 20s when time was on my side and my only purpose in travel was to spend the night where other tourists weren’t.
Cruising Shark Infested Waters:
Nervous tourists sat in a waiting area with a mix of apprehension and excitement. We picked at the provided breakfast until being loaded on a two-floored ship that looked like a diving vessel and began rumbling out into the sea. At what seemed a random patch of ocean, the captain, an Afrikaner with a gruff look, cut the engine. We were now smack in the middle of what he called “the Shark Highway”.
What made me more nervous than the prospect of diving with sharks? The answer is not doing so, coming all this way, paying 150 dollars and having a no show. There are times, we were warned on departure, when the sharks simply don’t approach, or they do not do so with the gusto that paying tourists like myself demand from the wild animals that we have paid good money to see in all of their National Geographic glory.
We bobbed up and down in the rolling sea, and waited while our guides lobbed fish heads into the water to entice action from below. The oil from the bait created a discernible line that slowly travelled down the surface of the water. This was the trail that, apparently, the sharks would follow to find its origin. I was skeptical. For one, I typically have terrible luck with wildlife, and second, it seemed incongruous that, suddenly large animals would simply appear in what seemed a tranquil scene.
First Glimpse of a Great White:
Yes, we would soon drop ourselves into iron cages with sharks buzzing by, but the moment the first shark appeared is permanently etched in my memory as the most lasting. What was once just benign, rolling water became something decidedly different. The animal that reared up from the water was massive. It was not so much scary, as impressive, with the girth and size of small submarine. It moved smoothly, and stealthily through the water. You might even mistake it for a shadow, until it brushed the side of the boat. On that first sighting, there was collective gasp that came from everyone on board.
Lowered into an Iron Cage:
An iron cage is secured to the side of the boat so that it sits with the top two feet above water and the first brave tourists put on their wetsuits and snorkels. The cage itself looks like the type of enclosure in which you might put a large Pitbull, except that it opens from the top. Here is what went through my head as the first batch of recruits lowered themselves into the cage:
- If the cage comes unsecured from the boat, you would be stuck in a closed box and fall to a horrible drowning death with sharks waiting patiently to crack in for an easy meal.
- The bars of the cage seem rather far apart and the sharks have snouts that could seemingly fit inside and tear out a nice morsel of flesh.
- The water looks cold. The sharks are circling close. This whole venture seems very misguided.
Now there are at least three sharks that are circling the boat. The guides drop the fish head directly in front of the cage to tease them into coming to ever closer proximity. One of the sharks lunges. Suddenly, there is water everywhere, splashing up in a frothy whirlpool. The guide yanks hard, and the huge animal crashes hard into the cage. The voyeurs in the cage flinch as it thrashes about with its powerful tail. The whole boat vibrates with the impact and from the cage comes loud gasps, cries and hollers. After an impressive fight, the shark loses its grip and slowly descends back out of sight into the murky depths.
My Brush with Circling Sharks:
After several rounds of watching, it was time to suit up. Lowering into the cage was the hardest part. But, after entering I was surprisingly calm, likely because I had already watched several groups, but also because the others in the cage did not seem phased (perhaps, like me, they were just pretending to act calm).
While the awesome violence of sharks thrashing about in front of my eyes was impressive, what struck me more from the perspective of the cage was the grace of the animals. The way they seemingly appeared from nowhere and then languidly moved through the water with the most minimal of effort. Their stealth in the water reminded me of guided missiles on a predetermined course . The experience was a lot less scary then I had expected and I exited the cage less out of concern for safety and more because I was getting cold.
Summing Up Shark Cage Diving:
Aside from visiting a family of mountain gorillas in Rwanda, shark diving was the best wildlife experience of my life. The proximity to the animals was incredible, as was their sheer power and grace. And as our boat deposited us back at port, we mused how an activity called shark cage diving, while it would surely impress our friends, was far less dangerous or scary than any of us previously thought. All were agreed: like so many things in life, stepping out of our comfort zones lead to one of our most rewarding, and unforgettable experiences.