Shark Bait

Swimming with sharks was never so cool

By: By Cindy-Lou Dale


Great White Shark Tours 
A morning or afternoon trip costs roughly $140 for adults and $72 for children ages 8-11. The price includes a continental breakfast, a light lunch, boat transport, onboard snacks, sunblock and all dive equipment. Transfers to and from Cape Town are an extra $32 per person. Peak shark cage diving season is May through October (during winter in South Africa), so you should book any interested clients well in advance during that time. An onboard cameraman captures your adventure on DVD and copies are available to purchase for approximately $38.

Commission: 20 percent

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Click here to see video of our writer's shark cage diving experience

When "Jaws" was released in 1975, it had such an impact worldwide that people stopped going to the beach. In the past few years, however, that sentiment has changed as shark tourism has become big business.

In the village of Kleinbaai, South Africa’s shark cage diving mecca, Brian McFarlane was one of the first in the area to offer shark tours.

The crew and guests prepare for a cage dive. // (c) Lukas Fourie, Fast Trax Media
The crew and guests prepare for a cage dive. 

"Due to the high volume of shark traffic in our immediate vicinity and the tremendous exposure shark cage diving enjoys on television documentary channels, like National Geographic and the Discovery Channel, Kleinbaai has become the great white Shark capital of the world," said McFarlane, owner of Great White Shark Tours, who has navigated the shark-infested waters near Cape Town all his life.

The village of Kleinbaai and neighboring Gansbaai are a two-hour drive from Cape Town. The road leading to the harbor is home to some eight dive-boat operators, all of which run daily — sometimes twice-daily — trips to Shark Alley.

Just before heading out on my first shark-cage dive, we received a general safety briefing from Rozier Steensma, who spoke about shark behavior and reminded us that the great white’s reputation as a man-eater is ill-founded.

"Collectively, we have more than 48 years’ worth of shark cage diving experience," Steensma proudly announced. Then, with a slow, manly sniff, he added, "And in that time we’ve not lost one yet. Shark cage diving is absolutely safe."

We pushed off from Kleinbaai harbor at around 10 a.m. and skimmed across the bay on a sleek, fast, high-tech and custom-built 43-foot catamaran. Twenty minutes later, we dropped anchor at the marine reserve of Dyer Island, the only place in the world where shark viewing takes place year-round.

Soon, it was crunch time. Anyone who wanted to go in the cage, now or later, had to don a wet suit and get ready.

Six of us, weighed down by 22-pound weight belts inside a 10-foot-long galvanized steel mesh cage, dangled off the side of a catamaran in 60-degree, shark-infested waters, waiting to meet the most feared predator of all. The good thing about the diving cage, however, is that you don’t need to know how to scuba dive. You simply hold your breath and sink to the bottom or use a snorkel, as I did.

"Shark left! Down! Down! Down!" a crew member hollered when he spotted a huge, dark shadow approach from below the surface.

Once I heard that, I let go of the bars and my weight belt did the rest of the work. With my feet wedged at the bottom of the cage, I pressed my mask against a face-wide aperture between the bars.

The underwater visibility was superb. I stared into the depths of the ocean, which was the color of antique glass, interspersed with swatches of turquoise. A huge great white slowly glided by the front of the cage. I felt no fear, nor the need to escape. Instead, I was awestruck by its grace and beauty — and its deep blue eyes.

"Down! Down! Shark right! Shark right!"

On cue, I let go of the bars and dropped to the bottom of the cage again. This time, a great white’s body brushed up against my hands which were holding onto the cage bars. It was as soft as velvet.

Three more shark views later, I hoisted myself out of the cage, electing to observe the proceedings from the relative comfort of the boat deck.

Another shark alert sent the other caged divers beneath the surface. I scanned the water and saw a massive gray missile’s curved dorsal fin knifing its way through the mirrorlike ocean toward the boat. Twelve of us rushed to starboard and watched another great white swim toward the chum slick — a trail of vile-smelling slop thrown overboard to attract sharks.

(The cage-diving industry in South Africa is, by law, forbidden to feed sharks. The bait used by diving operators is made up of pieces of fish attached to a float and rope which are pulled away when the shark nears. The bait is used solely as a lure, but the sharks sometimes get to chomp on it, establishing the sort of positive reinforcement needed to maintain the industry.)

The great white lurched out of the ocean, its mouth agape — a 13-foot-long mass of muscle and teeth. It twisted left, then right, in furious pursuit of a bloody chunk of bait that had quickly whipped out of its reach. The water frothed around the shark as it lunged for the bait. Cold spray washed over all of us.

Later, we started our return to shore. On this six-hour, adrenaline-charged adventure, I had seen five great whites in one dive. Those few, thrilling moments in which I observed these beautiful brutes were the highlight of my South Africa trip and a must-do for any adventure-seeking client.