Swimming with the Sharks

Wild vs. Mild: Swimming With Sharks By: Skye Mayring
Shark cage diving with great whites is not for the easily rattled. // © 2013 White Shark Diving Company
Shark cage diving with great whites is not for the easily rattled. // © 2013 White Shark Diving Company

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 Blacktip reef sharks are generally docile and disinterested in humans. // © 2013 Skye Mayring

Blacktip reef sharks are generally docile and disinterested in humans. // © 2013 Skye Mayring

Shark Cage Diving. The Discovery Channel’s Shark Week programming might be over, but that doesn’t mean that you have to hold out until next year to see great whites hunting in their natural habitat. Available year-round, shark cage diving tours are the main attraction in Gansbaai, South Africa, which is also home to the Marine Big Five (whales, dolphins, penguins, seals and, of course, great whites).

Thrill-seekers staying in Cape Town can arrange day trips to Gansbaai — although it will be a long day of driving and boating — through local tour operators including White Shark Diving Co. and Great White Shark Tours. Packages typically include roundtrip transfers, a continental breakfast, lunch, a safety briefing, equipment and 15-20 minutes in the cage.

On my shark cage diving excursion, we got into the waters of Shark Alley in groups of five per cage. The cage was affixed to the side of the boat at all times, and our heads were kept above water until there was something to see. Since great whites are surface feeders, the water level is ideal for viewing.

After we were safely in the cage, the captain baited the sharks with fish heads hooked to a rope. He tossed the bait in the water with a thud to alert sharks within range. Within minutes, a shark drew near, and the captain shouted for us to put our heads under water. Suddenly, a nine-foot shark glided right past our cage. I could hear the squeals and shouts from the rest of group as the creature seemed to pass within arm’s reach. Thankfully, everyone kept their limbs within the cage, and we all lived to brag about our underwater experience with one of the most ferocious fish in the sea. www.sharkcagediving.co.za, www.sharkcagediving.net

Reef Shark Feeding. Okay, so you love sharks … but maybe not the man-eating kind. Blacktip reef sharks are commonly found in the shallow lagoons of French Polynesia and are generally docile and disinterested in humans. They feed on lagoon fish and tend to be on the smaller side — most that I encountered in the lagoon of Bora Bora were between two and four feet in length. That said, they are still predators with a prominent black-tipped dorsal fin and a craving for raw tuna.

I had the opportunity of swimming up-close with numerous blacktip reef sharks on a recent excursion organized by Lagoon Service Bora Bora. My family decided to book a full-day tour, which includes a traditional Polynesian lunch of fresh-caught seafood, Tahitian coconut bread and Tahiti’s signature dish, poisson cru, for approximately $150 per person. In addition to a reef shark feeding, the tour featured coral reef snorkeling, a sting ray experience and time to relax on a private motu (small island).

Our guide caught the attention of the sharks by throwing pieces of tuna into the water, and they responded by the dozens. In the water, we lined up on one side of a rope, which served as our dividing line. That way, we wouldn’t get too close to the sharks while they fought over lunch. Be sure to bring your underwater camera to catch them swimming and feeding in Bora Bora’s crystal-clear waters — it’s just the right amount of thrill to be had in a destination as undisputedly gorgeous as French Polynesia. www.lagoonservice.com

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