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Travel Guide: Cage diving with sharks in South Africa

12th Oct 2011 1:53am | By Editor

Bungee jumping beginning to bore you? Skydiving leaving you high and dry? Try swimming with sharks and seals for an adrenaline rush like no other. DALE MORRIS reports.

Bungee jumping beginning to bore you? Skydiving leaving you high and dry? Try swimming with sharks and seals for anĀ  adrenaline rush like no other. DALE MORRIS reports.

It's a bit like a maritime M4 out there at times. Diving with great white sharks in South Africa has become so popular in recent years that the tours are now run rather like a production line. Eleven licensed boats ferry people from Gaansbai, on the Cape, out to the shark-infested waters and back again up to three times a day.

Each excursion starts off on dry land with a briefing, a cup of coffee, and a video presentation showing a demented person free diving with sharks. I sipped nervously at my brew on the morning of my tour and watched a confident-looking gent on the TV casually riding a massive toothsome fish.

He carried a small sharp pokey thing, which I assumed would be employed against the shark should it become peckish. Would that be me in just an hour's time? My lip twitched, and so did my sphincter.

The other guests attempted to look nonchalant, but little beads of sweat and pulsing neck veins gave them away. We were all absolutely crapping ourselves.

Can I have my money back please?" I ventured. Perhaps I should spend it on something less suicidal. Leopard hugging, say.
"Oh, don't you worry," said our happy-go-lucky guide. "You won't be free diving with them. Not unless the cage sinks."

Ho ho ho.

After the safety lecture (do not put limbs, cameras or children through the bars), we were marched down to the dock, put on a boat and sped out to Shark Alley, a narrow stretch of water where giant predators patrol in search of sea lion-flavoured munchies.

Chum (aka fish guts) was tossed into the water, cardboard cutouts of sea lions were trailed behind the boat and a large steel cage was lowered into the sea.

Within minutes three enormous sharks were circling. They breached, they thrashed and they chewed on the bars, and we all took our turns on the roof and in the cage "oohing" and "ahhing" each time Jaws took a bite at the bait. And then we were taken home so the next tour could go out.

Though popular, cage diving is not without its opponents. There are those who claim baiting with chum can condition sharks to associate humans with food - a potentially dangerous situation.

However, scientific studies indicate the sharks around Gaansbai are migratory and do not stay long enough in the area to learn bad habits.

"When a shark attacks a human, people tend to overreact," said Greg. "There are only a few bites each year but literally millions of people in the water." Besides, he assured me, the shark dive industry is heavily regulated. Tour operators carry licenses, which can be revoked should any of the government-enforced rules be broken.

Truly, the great whites were magnificent, but the tours didn't have much of an educational emphasis - I saw a lot of big sharks with gnashing teeth, but I didn't learn very much about them. Nor had I learned much about the other wildlife in the area, so when I saw a poster advertising sea lion dives, I couldn't resist.

Three days later I was back on board a small boat, rocking to and fro like a child's swing in a hurricane. I had a hangover, and so by all accounts I should have been chucking up carrots over the side, but I wasn't. Heightened adrenaline levels had put pay to that.

To the left of the boat sat a mass of sea lions. I assumed there was a rock somewhere underneath that multitude of slippery mammals but not a single square inch of it could be seen. There were literally thousands of them, barking, belching, bickering and defecating all over the place. To the right sat Dyer Island, a low-lying piece of bare earth, Hebridian in appearance were it not for the thousands of penguins assembled at the water's edge.

Russell leaned over to give my dive equipment the once over and asked if I was ready for my first seal dive. I looked into the choppy water. Sneaker-sized seal turds bobbed merrily atop an oily film of penguin shit and dandruff. I was anxious, but not because of the filthy water - after all, I grew up in Britain. I wasn't even worried about getting into a freezing ocean with a maelstrom of sea lions, some of which were two metres long. No, my trepidation stemmed from the fact that we were back in shark alley - this time with no cage in sight.

Russ dealt with my concerns with a cheery slap on the back. "Don't worry Dale. The sharks moved away towards the coast yesterday. Look at the seals - they never swim in the open channel when the big boys are about," he said.

"But what if a shark turns up?" I asked.

"No worries mate. Just stay on the bottom. They only go for silhouettes."

Splash - in we went, and were instantly surrounded by a swathe of energetic sea lions. For the next 45 minutes I explored the ethereal world of the coastal kelp forest with an entourage of these playful creatures. They nipped at my flippers, blew bubbles into my face, and swirled like pinwheels in all directions. They nuzzled me, nudged me, and pooed a lot, which was something I nearly did every time a large silhouette sailed overhead. These weren't sharks, thank Christ, but big male sea lions.

I have since been assured that great whites don't even attack divers (the air tank gives them wind). Nonetheless, just being in the water they frequent was as thrilling as any adrenaline sport. No wonder it's so popular.

Choose well

Dolphin and whale swims, shark dives, manatee hugging and all manner of other fishy tours are becoming extremely popular the world over, but this mass tourism comes with a costly price tag. And, unfortunately, it's the animals and their environment that end up paying the bill.

Marine creatures are sometimes chased, harassed, hurt and even killed by overzealous boat captains and tour guides, so it's always best to research any company you intend booking with beforehand.

Thankfully, governments in most locations (including South Africa) have responded to pressure from environmental groups and implemented strict laws regulating what a tour company is allowed to do and how many people can be on board (or in the water). Boat-based wildlife watching, snorkeling and diving tours, swimming with tame animals in pools or lagoons, or joining a scientific research team as a volunteer are all options available to those who wish to get up close and personal with oceanic animals."