I gripped the railings of the boat as it bounced about in the messy swell. Light filtered across the water from the sun just creeping above the horizon.
While this picturesque area is popular with locals and holidaymakers, there is another reason that hundreds of tourists visit here every month; something that would have most people afraid to enter the water – the great white shark.
At the southern tip of South Africa, two hours’ drive from Cape Town, is the village of Gansbaai. This is the gateway to Dyer Island. Just eight kilometres offshore, nearby Geyser Rock supports a colony of 40,000 cape fur seals, and this is the reason the Great Whites are here.
Shark Alley is the channel between the two islands and is protected from the worst of the southern Atlantic’s weather. This was where the boats motors ceased. This was the prime dive spot.
As the boat sat bobbing on the waves, the skipper gave a safety briefing. “Do not put your hands outside the cage and try touching the sharks.” I found myself questioning why anyone would even want to try.
The deckhand began to chum the water. The mixture of fish offal, blood and oil worked as within moments, the sharks arrived.
A shadow emerging from the depth morphed into the silhouette of a great white shark. At least six meters in length, it glided past the boat and back down into the murky depths.
Looking at the small cage I was about to enter, it is hard to imagine why anyone would want to do such an activity, let alone pay for it. Scenes from Jaws played out in my head.
Not wanting to appear afraid, I took one last scan over the glassy ocean surface before stepping into the icy waters.
Once over the initial shock of the cold, I regained composure and relaxed to the sound of water sloshing around the cage. My breathing slowed and my heart stopped pounding as if it was in my head.
This was a temporary calm, as the shadowy figure became clearer the closer it came to the cage. This was it, my first shark encounter.
The Jaws music had returned in my head and I became overpowered by the sound of my heart beating. I held my breath and gripped the bars in the cage anticipating the brutal attack I had seen so often in movies.
It never came, and I began to feel foolish that I had had such thoughts. I was not afraid, but in awe of these creatures. I began to develop a better understanding of them, and their environment.
Perceived as ruthless killing machines, these apex predators are calm and subdued as they glide gracefully through the water. Even as one approached the cage and clamped its jaws full of sharp serrated teeth around the metal bars of the cage, it did so cautiously.
After 30 minutes in the cage and numerous shark sightings, it was hard not to come out of the water with a new-found respect for these massive creatures. It was exactly what the operators of the shark cage diving tours hope to achieve.
“A lot of the locals are against what we do here,” Mark Sullivan, the South African day captain said.
“Any time there is a shark attack in the area, they blame it on the cage diving industry, saying we entice the sharks closer to the shorelines. The fact is, they are already there, always have been, and if anything we are educating people about the importance of protecting such a beautiful creature, and preserving its natural habitat.”
Cage diving with these predators is an experience that should definitely rate in your top 10. From that first moment when you catch a glimpse of a fin, to the time you climb into that cage, it is a surreal experience that will stay with you forever.