Great white sharks are protected in South Africa. // © 2012 White Shark Diving Co.
White Shark Diving Co.
The excursion costs approximately $160 per person. Commission: 20 percent. Commission for helicopter transfers ranges from 10 to 15 percent.
Any fan of Discovery Channel’s “Shark Week” knows that South Africa’s Shark Alley is one of the best places in the world to view great white sharks in their natural habitat. Infamous Shark Alley — located between Dyer Island and Geyser Rock, and home to some 60,000 Cape fur seals — is precisely where White Shark Diving Co. took our tour group in search of the feared and revered creatures.
The tour began in Gansbaai (pronounced Huns-by), which is about a 2½-hour drive from Cape Town. Gansbaai is referred to as the Great White Shark Capital of the World and is one of the few towns in South Africa where visitors can spot the “Big Two” of the sea, southern right whales and great whites.
While the great white shark is one of the most ferocious fish in the sea, responsible for more human fatalities than any other shark, it is also one of the more vulnerable underwater species, often hated and hunted due to sensationalized films such as “Jaws” and “Open Water.” Low birth rates also put them in danger and, therefore, great whites are a protected species in the waters of South Africa.
Upon arrival at White Shark Diving Co., we were served a spread of muffins, sandwiches and fresh fruit. We sipped on coffee while filling out our paperwork and watching an instructional video. We were also given a short safety briefing and tips for taking photos (shoot blind, holding the camera below the mask). For bragging rights, I highly recommend renting an underwater camera from the adjacent sundry shop for $40, which includes a two gigabyte memory card to keep.
We learned that we would be diving in groups of five per cage, the cage affixed to the side of the boat at all times, and that our heads would be above water until there was something to see. Since great whites are surface feeders, the water level is prime viewing.
Anyone prone to seasickness should be sure to take medication before the bumpy, wet boat ride to Shark Alley. Even when the boat anchors, waves continue to rock the boat severely, and it’s a good idea to bring a change of dry clothes. The choppy waters make it difficult to put on and take off the wet suits and flippers provided, but the challenge adds to the experience and, in my opinion, makes it all the more adventurous and fun.
The hardest task for me was the act of stepping from the boat into the cage. I had seen far too many clips of “Air Jaws” — starring South African great whites that appear to defy the laws of gravity by leaping out of the ocean to snatch their prey — to feel at ease. I was also the first one in my group to get in the water, which was a little frightening.
After we were safely in the cage, the captain baited our main attraction with a bundle of fish heads hooked to a rope. He repeatedly tossed the bait in the water with a loud thud to alert sharks within range. Within minutes, a shark drew nearer, 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 and it felt momentarily as if the creature was within arm’s reach. The shark passed by twice more and even though he appeared to be fairly disinterested in us and the bait, it was an exhilarating experience each time.
After the dive, which lasts about 15-20 minutes, guests can watch the action and take photographs from the top deck or munch on the snacks provided. In total, we spotted three juvenile great whites, the largest of which measured about 10 feet in length. This did not impress our captain, however, who claimed to have seen sharks in the area almost twice that size.
Even though there isn’t much physical exertion involved in this adventure tour, the trip can take its toll. Transportation to and from Cape Town totals five hours in itself, so travelers need to set aside the entire day and prepare for an early-morning pick up. Travel agents can suggest that clients overnight in Gansbaai or book helicopter transfers, which are of particular value from July to December, when southern right whales migrate from Antarctica to the coastlines of South Africa.