Shark Cage Diving - False Bay, South Africa
Close Encounters of the Shark Kind
*Written for the consideration of World Nomads* June 2016
This one summer, I decided to start breathing under water, jumping out of airplane doors, and climbing steep rock faces. It was the next logical step after becoming bored, single and twenty something. I mean, even my love affair with alcohol was growing arid. It was this haunting plight that I decided to battle with sheer fear and irresponsible adventure. Fast forward a few years and fostered irresponsible adventurer had birthed an experienced explorer. I was solo backpacking through Africa, summiting some of the highest peaks on earth and exiting hot air balloons in desert sunsets. It’s safe to say I found a passion; find the coolest things to do on the planet, learn how to do them and then do them. It was such spirit and inspiration that found me in a cold, wet morning in one of the most adventure filled places on the planet. It’s where an encounter with a great white shark would level me and change the way I thought about adventure, travel & tourism.
Cape Town, South Africa is a place that made me nervous to visit. Not for any of the regular reasons one gets nervous. It’s that nervous feeling when you’re about to see a place that you admire, but have only heard about. You’ve seen the pictures, you’ve read the words, but there’s still that veil. I was nervous at Victoria Falls in Zambia. I knew what I was about to see and I could hear the roar of the water, I could see the rainbows in the mists above me, but I just hadn’t rounded that final corner on the path yet. It’s that feeling of excitement. Cape Town is a city that is consistently awarded top accolades for best and most beautiful places to visit and it’s no surprise. There’s a rich history to learn, epic landscape to navigate and things to do to keep you busy for months, no matter what your walk. In my first 12 hours in Cape Town, I hiked the peak of the new 7th wonder of nature, went paragliding off said wonder and took a guided tour of the city. Whoa! What’s next, shark cage diving or something? Yes. Yes it is.
Sharks, especially the great white, have been striking awe, excitement and fear into the hearts and minds of people since before Jesus. Seriously! A vase unearthed near Naples shows a man seized by a fish reminiscent of a shark, and has been dated c. 725 BC. So since then or maybe since Spielberg started making movies, sharks have stricken awe and fear, all up in our hearts. South Africa is one of the world’s most prominent and vital habitats for the great whites. If you’ve watched shark week on Discovery or Nat Geo TV and seen video of a white shark breaching the ocean waters, flying through the air with a fake seal clamped in its jaws, then you’ve seen the ocean just off the coast of Cape Town in a place called False Bay.
It was an early morning expedition and at 4am, Southern Africa’s winter is brisk. It was dark and misty out when a car came to pick me up at my hostel. The temps hit me cold and I knew the ocean I was about to be caged in would be 10x as cold. I was dropped off at African Eco Charters in False Bay. I had done my homework and Eco had a great reputation for their shark expeditions. Rob Lawrence, who I had met and spoke with, hosted the crew that had produced Discovery Channel’s shark week expedition. It was those episodes that had captured that amazing breaching footage that flashed on TV screens around the world in 2011. Rob and his crew at Eco are really great at what they do. They’re organized, friendly and have a wealth of knowledge about sharks and the False Bay area. Their crew consists of Captain Rob with about 30 years of experience and thousands of shark encounters, a marine biologist, who explains the nature of sharks, migration and their predation habits and 2 crew members, both of whom have been at sea their entire lives. I seemed to have cooked up a recipe for a mythical day. I’m in the best city on earth, doing one of the most badass things one can do, hosted by legends in the field. What could go wrong?
We pushed from shore. The cage was submerged. The bait was set. My seal like wet suit was on and now, we wait. Out of nowhere a large fin sliced through the dark blue water. “Geh en the watah!!”, yelled a thick South African voice. Ok, yeah, I guess! Here we go..
The experience of seeing this great predator in its habitat was a real emotional experience. Being underwater and watching the shark gliding towards me, out of the darkness with curious, but purposeful movements was unreal. I was star struck. The best predator on earth was 3 feet from my face and even took a swipe at the clumsy guy beside me who had slipped in the cage (He wasn’t used to breathing underwater with a regulator). It was kind of cool to see what a slight mistake in the presence of a 20' expert killer might look like. I had my 5 minutes, my $100 worth and then the cage lid opened up, signalling me to retreat back into the boat. I wanted to hug everyone and cry a little when I stood back up on the deck. It was like seeing a dinosaur or an alien. A creature that you had only imagined, but exceeded all the 2 dimensional experiences you had had thus far. As my adrenaline dissipated, as my shivers calmed, as my mind came to terms with the experience, something changed. I came down from the high and an ocean of sympathy and shame rushed through my bones. My 5 senses and adrenaline glands were surely pleased, but it was another sense that uncovered a sentiment that would stew and reveal an inconvenient and ugly realization.
As human beings, we do love and appreciate wild animals and we want to have great first hand experiences seeing them and even interacting with them. Although in our daily lives we may seem disconnected with nature, we are inspired to reconnect when we’re in their presence, usually on vacation or travelling to places that offer such rare opportunities. That’s what I was seeking when I climbed into the icey waters with a great white shark in the early morning hours of July. In the end, after much reflection, it turns out it just felt unauthentic and harmful. It was truly an amazing experience as it happened, but with an obtuse conscience and lack of education, the feelings expired. Little by little that day I had been accumulating data and admittedly had a few questions / problems with the manner in which sharks were being attracted to the boat and wondered what the long term effects and developing behaviours could be. The moral hangover led to research, which led me to a decision that I would never go shark cage diving again.
In brief, here are some of the issues surrounding shark cage diving.
* Shark numbers are rapidly declining. A reported 50% decline since 1950.
* Chumming the waters. Chum (fish blood & guts) and tuna heads on lines are used to attract the great whites to the boat. When the sharks thrust towards the tuna heads, they are pulled away as not to actually feed the sharks, though sometimes they do manage to catch it. Chumming is obviously used to attract the sharks to the boats, for our amusement. Sharks can sense this potential food source, especially bloody, seemingly injured food, from long distances. It interrupts their natural predation and interferes with their efficiencies that save energy and time that they rely on for survival. Food may seem to be plentiful for such a predator, but it is argued that expending energy and distracting sharks from their natural predation habits can be harmful. Baiting predators seems to also break a standard ethical law amongst wildlife. Once predators in the wild, like bears, associate food with human beings, they will always be attracted to us.
* The human association. It’s argued that great whites are associating the sounds of boats and the presence of humans, to being fed. The surfing community in the False Bay area are deeply concerned with this activity and believe there is a direct correlation with the rise in shark attacks near the beaches of False Bay and Gansbaai. Naturally, sharks are timid animals and are afraid of human beings, but beach communities are concerned that shark behaviour is changing and they are becoming more curious and less afraid of humans.
* Tourism dollars & sustainability. The massive amounts of money generated from this tourist activity may be influencing decisions that are being made when deciding whether or to continue this service. With 12 operators doing 2-3 trips a day, most likely with 6-12 people, it is estimated that 25-35 million dollars is being generated every year. This schedule and frequency is argued to be detrimental to the health and well being of sharks.
* Nothing positive. It was difficult to find anything positive coming from shark cage diving, other than tourists (like me) getting cool photos and videos. Though most companies have a word like ‘eco’ in their names, it was challenging to find corroborated information that any of the companies were actually doing anything to have an impact on the rising decline of the health or population numbers of sharks. Perhaps shark cage diving is not the leading case for declining numbers, but the tour operators that are claiming to be helping in the conservation of sharks, don’t seem to be involved in ending the Asian shark fin soup market, over fishing or particularly involved with any real conservation efforts whatsoever.
Writing as a traveler, not a journalist, I’m not looking for a headline or a controversy, I just want to explore the world. But the more experienced I become and the more I see, the more I’m able to recognize things that aren’t ok. As dumb and obvious as it seems, it never dawned on me that one would have to spend a lot of time in nature, experiencing cultures and being able to see the world with a different kind of eyes, to even begin to respect it. My time travelling in the mountains, hanging off rocks, sitting under canopies high in the sky, backpacking through empty countries and meeting all the people along the way has called everything into question, rocked my world and completely changed me for the better. I look forward to what’s to come. It sounds soft, but the bigger the outward journey, the bigger the journey within and there’s still so much to learn.
I do plan on diving with sharks again, but I’d like to experience a real dive, cageless, with a company that encourages natural interactions. There is no shortage of them in South Africa or Australia. Diving in the underwater world has always yielded amazing encounters for me and I’m convinced to keep pushing further, seeing more and allowing myself to be thrilled and inspired with better experiences. The food chain changes dramatically at the shoreline, but I’m up for the adventure and the risk would be worth it. Sharks are breathtaking animals and I would love to visit them again, but in an organic way. Diving with sharks is not for everyone, but neither is visiting aquariums..
Empty your bank account, fill your heart up and get way, way out there.