One of the unique experiences of our South Africa trip was the chance to swim with Great White sharks. Gansbaai, in the Western Cape is known as the Great White shark capital of the world. This is because it is where the warm southerly current from the Indian Ocean meets the cold northerly current from the Antarctic and the resulting swirl of nutrients helps make this corner of the world one of the richest bio-systems on the planet.
The chances of seeing Great Whites are getting smaller every year primarily due to fishing, trophy hunting and pollution. Shark numbers are dwindling worldwide – an estimated 100 MILLION sharks are killed by humans each year. In striking contrast, considering their fearsome reputation – sharks kill on average 4 humans each year world wide. As an aside, jelly fish are responsible for about 100 deaths per year and this is still far less than dogs, lions, elephant, buffalo, snakes, tsetse flies, mosquitoes and many more. In Gansbaai, although the boats had seen other types of shark – the elusive Great Whites hadn’t been seen in nearly two months.
We chose Marine Dynamics to go with since they seemed like a professional setup and were focused on conservation (some of the other operators seemed more focused on getting visitor thrill which although tempting – isn’t what we felt was the right focus!). We arrived at their reception at the agreed time of 6am where we met Sarah our guide for the day. As other people arrived, (some travelling the 2-3 journey from Cape Town!) we ate a little breakfast and then after a quick briefing – we headed to the boat. It was an overcast day with rain and wind predicted so we prepared for a rough journey.
Out in the bay, the sea swell was about 3 meters and although the boat did well, before long – a number of people were feeling sick myself included. Rach has great sea-legs and was loving the journey! After about 20mins, we reached our destination – near the world famous ‘shark alley’ next to an off-shore seal colony. We anchored up and our chum-man started baiting the sharks with a mix of fish oils and other goodies!
We didn’t have to wait long and it was a Great White! Sarah the guide was as excited as we were since she hadn’t seen any in weeks. She recognised the shark as one they call ‘Sharkira’ – a 3.5 meter female. It came from deep, attacked the decoy and was gone again in an instance.
Over the course of the next couple of hours, two Great Whites appeared frequently – as well as Sharkira, another one they had named Nemo – an aggressive 3 meter male shark. In addition, a 3 meter Copper shark appeared a few times but stayed clear of the Great Whites.
Soon it was time to get in the cage and see these guys up close. Rach and I got in the cage together and dived underwater each time the shark came close. At points, the huge magnificent fish was within touching distance but we kept our arms firmly within the cage. This was easier said than done since the rough sea kept the cage rocking and crashing against the boat making it hard to keep a footing. But the wonderful experience of seeing these top predators up close was worth it.
This photo was taken by our guide from Marine Dynamics from the boat. I’m sure you can imagine how this felt to be at sea level only 1-2 meters away!
Overall, the trip was amazing and highly recommended (even though I felt sea-sick most of the time and threw up several times!).
The sadness is that we may be the last generation to be able to experience these creatures alive due to the impact the human race is having. They are not the monsters portrayed in films such as Jaws or Deep Blue Sea but one of the most ancient, highly evolved species that has ever lived. There is much we don’t understand about their genetics which may even help us but we need to act before it is too late. We can’t all be shark marine biologists or Greenpeace warriors – but we can refuse to eat at restaurants which serve shark products. We can refuse to eat supermarket products labelled common shark or flake which is often Great White shark meat. And we can condemn the killing of sharks for their fins wherever we find it.