24 May 2012

Swimming with great white sharks

Posted by Callan Bentley

This is Dyer Island, off Gansbaai, southern South Africa, a little west of Cape Agulhas:

Those are seals, a huge, crazy crowded colony of Cape fur seals. They are loud. They create a God-awful stink with all their fishy excrement. It was like being in a BBC nature program to see this firsthand. I could hear David Attenborough’s voice in my head, raspy and accented: “Dyer Island, South Africa. Home to 60,000 Cape fur seals. Every year, yadda yadda yadda, great sacrifices, yadda yadda. And lurking in the water just off shore, the world’s largest predatory fish, the great white shark…”

That was what we had come to see – the great white in its natural habitat. Not only that, we were going to go swimming with them. Well, maybe “swimming” is too strong a word – “cage diving” is the local term for it. The sharks are drawn in with chummed fish and blood, and then a rubber & plywood penguin silhouette is pulled through the water, and the sharks follow it — right up to the boat where all the people are.

That is a very big fish. The biggest one we saw (photo below) was about 16 feet long by my estimate, and as big around as a barrel… These are not small animals. They eat seals, remember.

A cage was put in the water. The cage was big enough for 8 people, “standing up” in the water side by side. Note the size of the floats – they are about 2 feet wide apiece. That fact will help you maintain a sense of perspective for the final image…

You can see they come very close, and also that the water visibility is not super great. So it’s a good thing they come close, if the tourists are expected to get a decent look at the sharks.

I spent about 45 minutes in the water that day, but the best view I got was about 5 minutes in. The ‘penguin’ got pulled, the shark moved in, and I could happily see from the cage that it had oriented itself 90° to the cage’s long axis. As it approached, the shark saw the cage, then swerved to its left, right in front of me. The view could not have been better. For a moment, I was about 1.5 or 2 feet away from the open jaws of a great white shark.

It was seriously cool. Though the whole tourist infrastructure will turn off any serious traveler, and the ethics of interacting with wild animals in this way (wasting their energy, habituating them to people) are seriously sketchy, the experience of seeing a great white in the water from such a close distance is something I’ll remember for the rest of my life.