The Discovery Channel has been running its annual Shark Week series all week. Ever since Jaws, for me the word “shark” is synonymous with “great white shark”. In 2017, I published a post about cage diving with great white sharks in Gaansbai, South Africa. After watching a few of the current Shark Week, I thought it might be worth republishing that post.
Here is the post from July 2017.
Gansbaai, South Africa is the world’s premier location for spotting great white sharks and is a favorite launching point for some of the spectacular expeditions documented in the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week series. The number one spot in Gansbaai for getting up close and personal with these fearsome predators is Shark Alley.
Shark Alley is where I was headed on the last full day of my eight-day Cape Town stay. Getting in the water with great white sharks is just one of many amazing things one can do in and around Cape Town, South Africa. These reports cover some of the other activities I was able to try:
I booked this cage-diving adventure with The Shark Team and White Shark Projects. The trip began with an 08:00 pick up at my hotel in Cape Town and a two-hour, 90-mile drive east to Gansbaai, South Africa. Gansbaai (pronounced hansbay) is a fishing community two thirds of the way between Cape Town and Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point in Africa.
As discussed below, on July 25, 2018, the Discovery Chanel aired a Shark Week episode “Air Jaws: The Hunted.” I was somewhat shocked when the episode presented certain information that conflicted with the facts I observed.
A continental breakfast awaited upon arrival at the home in Gansbaai that serves as the Shark Team headquarters.
The Shark Team employs a marine biologist who accompanies each cage-diving trip. After breakfast he briefed us on what to do and expect on the boat and in the water and provided some information about great white sharks. He said very little is truly understood about great whites. They cannot be kept in captivity, and contact with individual great whites at sea is sporadic.
I thought the most interesting fact the marine biologist presented was that great white sharks are not the ocean’s top predator. Orcas, or killer whales, are bigger, smarter, and they hunt in groups. Solitary great whites, even fully grown adults, stand little chance against a pod of orcas.
To underscore the point, he displayed pictures of two great whites, including a 4.9-meter, 1,100-kg female, that had washed ashore near Gansbaai a few weeks before this trip. Necropsy revealed that, other than a bite wound under the pectoral fin, the only injury to these sharks was that their livers had been neatly, almost surgically, removed. Only orcas have been observed doing that to great whites.
(Update: On July 25, 2018, the Discovery Chanel aired a Shark Week episode entitled “Air Jaws: The Hunted. This episode covered the attacks on Great Whites that the marine biologist told our tour about. That episode claims that people were puzzled as to the source of the attacks and incorrectly states that there were no more great whites in the area afterwards. Shark experts knew only orcas could be responsible and, in fact, great whites had left Gansbaai for a while but had returned by late June 2017. The episode also incorrectly identifies Cape Point as the meeting point between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Those oceans actually meet at Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point of Africa and the point where the cold Benguela current of the South Atlantic meets the warm Agulhas current of the Indian Ocean.)
After the informative and sobering briefing, we walked two blocks to the harbor and boarded the cage diving boat.
It was a short, approximately 15-minute ride to Shark Alley, the channel between Dyer Island and Geyser Rock. Dyer Island is populated by nearly 50,000 cape fur seals making Shark Alley a prime hunting ground for great whites.
Swells were about one meter or less. The ride was comfortable although this landlubber was still mildly seasick. When waves are over two meters, cage diving boats remain in port. My timing on this trip was fortunate because the marine biologist said a storm with waves as large as nine meters was forecast for the next day.
We anchored near Dyer Island. Several other boats were already present. A mate threw a baited line overboard, and the crew lowered the cage into the water. The absence of visible fins initially made me think sharks weren’t around. Even in Shark Alley spotting great whites is no sure thing.
Shortly after we arrived great whites revealed their presence. In the movies, sharks swim around with their dorsal fin above water. The entire time we were at Shark Alley, I saw a fin above water a only few times and that was only as a shark was preparing to strike the bait.
Once the cage was in the water and we knew that great whites were in the area, the crew issued wet suits and face masks.
The moment of truth had arrived. In my mind I could hear my mother (rest in peace) proclaiming “Heavens to Betsy! Are you really fool enough to get in the water with those things? That boy ain’t got the sense he was born with.”
Even though my mother would have disapproved, I’d come too far to back out now. There were 12 people wanting to dive so we took turns in the cage five at a time. When a great white approached the bait, a crew member pulled the bait to the cage and out of the water. The sharks followed the bait right up to the cage. Then the crew snatched the bait out of the water before the shark could get it. The idea was to bring the sharks in close but not actually feed them.
The sharks were close enough to touch. The guy next to me actually touched a great white on its side. Once I reached for a shark behind the pectoral fin but missed as it thrashed past. I recommend keeping inside the cage all body parts one wants to go home with. Doing otherwise near great whites looking for a meal is risky and might get one kicked out of the cage.
Unfortunately the Shark Team did not sell underwater cameras, and I had only a cell phone. The Shark Team made a video from the deck that it offered for sale but took no photos or video underwater on our trip. I would have paid good money for that.
Below are some photos from other Shark Team and White Shark Projects trips that I found online. These photos provide an idea of what it looked like under water.
(Shark Team and White Shark Projects photos)
In a shark cage with a trained crew on guard I felt safe, or at least much safer than swimming in the ocean around Florida or Hawaii. Dangerous sharks frequent just about every beach in the world. Millions unknowingly swim with them every year with no protection at all.
After about 30 minutes in the cage and numerous close shark encounters, I was ready to give up my spot. Even with a wet suit on, the water was chilling.
Before heading back to port, the marine biologist said he had identified six different great white sharks that came by during the 90 minutes we were anchored in Shark Alley. He said these were immature great white sharks that were “only” 3.5 to 4.5 meters in length.
It seems that adult sharks had learned that going after the bait was a waste of energy. They never showed. Young great whites would swim alone in the vicinity of the boat for a few minutes and then make a run at the bait. After missing, they would leave the immediate area for a bit but return to try several more times.
This years’ Shark Week episodes in Gansbaai, South Africa also played the disappearing great white angle. At least they didn’t pretend that the reason for the scarcity of sharks was a mystery. In fact, one episode even had what was claimed to be the first ever video of orcas attacking a great white in May 2022.
I’d assumed that great white sharks were the most ferocious predator in the sea. Actually, orcas, a mammal not a fish, seem to be the top dog in the ocean. I’m glad orcas don’t et people. Maybe if they did there would be Killer Whale Week instead of, or in addition to, Shark Week.
Shows like Shark Week are made for entertainment value; so I suppose they deserve a little slack on authenticity. Getting in a cage and with great white sharks was definitely one of my most memorable travel experiences and it will always affect how I view Shark Week episodes. If you ever try cage diving, avoid the mistake I made and be sure to bring an underwater camera.
Thanks for reminiscing with me about this old post. Are you a Shark Week fan?