As we wound our way along the curving coast from Cape Town to Kleinbaai I almost forgot what I was getting myself into. With the bright blue sea crashing dramatically against the rocks on my left and lush countryside and quaint villages on my right, I was happy to be entertained by the stunning South African views during our scenic drive.
I would have been happier if a guy in the back of the mini bus who was sweating nervously despite the icy cold air-con could have been quiet.
“So what happens if the shark bites the cage?” he asked the driver for the fourth time. The driver simply chuckled with a hearty belly laugh and assured the poor guy that everything would be OK.
It wasn’t until the fifth or sixth time he asked another nervous question that I began to panic. What would happen if the shark bit the cage? What happens if I fall out of the cage? What happens if the shark is just having a bad day and decides to do a Jaws on us and gobble us up for his afternoon snack!?
Nervous Guy had managed to induce mass hysteria on our mini bus as these questions went around in circles and we started to wonder what we’d got ourselves into.
We arrived at the shark cage diving centre for a quick breakfast (or a strong coffee for anyone feeling too nervous to eat) and were given waterproofs and lifejackets before boarding the boat.
It was a 15 minute trip to the dive site and before we knew it the crew were asking for the first set of volunteers to enter the cage. The cage holds five people and I was among the first round, faking a confident enthusiasm as I squeezed into a wetsuit and climbed into the cage.
The water was chilly but the prospect of a Great White Shark being close by is pretty distracting so the cold water was the last thing on my mind. The crew on the boat began throwing swill into the water to attract the sharks that were lurking nearby.
It’s now illegal to throw bait into the sea because it could teach the sharks to reply on tourist boats and build an unhealthy association between humans and food. The crew are allowed to throw in a fish head tied to a rope in order to lure the shark closer to the cage and within minutes we were being circled.
We didn’t use scuba or snorkel equipment, just a mask and some weights. When the shark was close you would take a deep breath allow the weights to pull you down into the cage. There is a red bar to rest your chin against as you hold your breath and wait for the shark show to begin.
While I was in the cage we saw three different sharks but it was difficult to tell the difference when you’re under the water. It was more splashes of water, a glimpse of a fin, a set of gills that feels far too close and a powerful tail sliding past. Some would glide past in a smooth, serene way like the graceful predator that they are. Others would thrash past, splashing and flapping as they lunged for the bait. Each time they came close, hundreds of tiny fish would dart towards us to escape the open mouth of the shark.
I realise that this may sound pretty terrifying but, in all honesty, it really wasn’t so scary. It’s something about the soundless bubble of being underwater that makes everything peaceful and slow. You feel perfectly safe within the cage and the sharks have a kind of graceful beauty that you can’t help but admire when you’re under the water.
And in that moment, with your veins racing with adrenaline, you’re lungs bursting from holding your breath, your eyes straining through the fish to get a glimpse of the shark, the question of ‘what if the shark bites the cage’ is the last thing on your mind. You just want to see it!
We emerged from the cage whooping and cheering after around half an hour diving below the surface to see the sharks. It was a mixture of excitement, awe and relief. We did it! We survived to tell the tale and entered the sea with Great White Sharks.
The skipper of the boat later explained that a huge part of his job is educating people about Great White Sharks. He’s on a mission to show that they really aren’t the dangerous killers that they are portrayed in the media. They are inquisitive and beautiful creatures that will naturally approach an unknown animal in the water but will rarely attach. There are around five people killed each year by Great Whites which is a tragic figure but there are around 3,000 people killed each year by hippos.
Diving with Great White Sharks is an incredible and unforgettable experience that I would encourage anyone and everyone to try. Just don’t listen to the nervous guy in the back of the mini bus who will make everyone feel nervous.
Tips for shark cage diving
- The boat will be stationary for a few hours while members of your party take turns to enter the cage. This means you’ll be bobbing on the surface for a long time so remember to cover up and take plenty of sun cream.
- If you suffer from seasickness I would definitely recommend taking some medication before you board the boat. I also find that lollipops and hard boiled sweets help if you feel nauseas.
- Don’t try to make underwater videos or photos. It’s incredibly difficult to get a good shot so leave it to the professionals and enjoy the experience. You can usually buy a professionally made video after your trip.
- You get the best photos from the surface so find a good spot on the boat and get your camera ready!
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