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Travel Guide: Swimming with sharks in South Africa

2nd Nov 2011 1:53am | By Editor

GEREURD ROBERTS finds the great white sharks off South Africa's coast don't live up to their reputations as killing machines.

Wetsuited and seated on the edge of our 40ft boat, the Predator 2, as it rocked dramatically up and then over the crests of the Indian Ocean's waves, I had the sickening feeling that somehow I was human bait.

Of course, that wasn't the case. After anchoring earlier, the crew had laid the real lure for the ocean-going hunter we were here to see: a burley made of a mixture of shark livers, tuna heads and various other seafood offal. This fishy, bloody and oily combination - the noxious smell of which made my stomach churn - was what would attract great white sharks, we were told, not our apparently unappetising bodies.

But still I couldn't escape the sense that, perched on the edge of the bobbing boat and awaiting the call to enter the ocean, I was an easy offering to the animal ranked as the underwater world's second largest predator, behind only the killer whale. Fuelled by the fear instilled by sensationalist reporting of attacks the world over, countless documentaries describing this shark as an almost perfect killing machine and a certain Hollywood movie, I held the impression that anything inside the great white's domain was considered fair game.

The idea was certainly understandable, said our crew's captain, Peter. His company holds one of only eight permits allowing operators to take people out off South Africa's coast to view and dive with, from the confines of a secure cage, the great white shark, and he believes the animal has been unfairly cast.

The only time most people see a great white shark is either in the movies or in the news after there's been an attack," says Peter. "But the sharks they portray in movies are so unlike real sharks it's almost funny. If the only press you're seeing about sharks is after an attack, then it's no wonder people get a bad impression of them.

"But sharks, especially the great white, aren't just the mindless killing machines. The truth is these sharks are extremely intelligent, and that's why they have survived. They won't endanger themselves by attacking just anything. They're extremely cautious and have a method which they follow when hunting prey: they circle and approach for a long time, in order to work out what it is they're hunting, before attacking or biting."

But this media-fuelled fear of sharks has a much more serious consequence than merely a misconception about their true nature: they've been hunted to near extinction and this irrational fear of them means most people are unmoved by the mass slaughter of great whites. This has led South Africa, South Australia, Tasmania and California - which all have coastlines frequented by great whites - to pass laws protecting the creatures.

"The great white shark is already what we call genetically extinct," Peter says. "That means the number of great whites left in the world will never increase, it can only decrease. That means that if they're hunted, their numbers will only ever go down, which is why it's so important they're protected and why a huge part of our expeditions are about education and not just getting in the water to view the sharks."

We were currently anchored in the middle of the world's most populous area for great whites, at the end of the renowned Shark Alley, a 600m-long stretch of sea running alongside Dyer Island. As well as being home to a host of marine life - gulls, cormorants and other birds and almost 20,000 protected Jack ass penguins - it also has a resident population of about 60,000 Cape fur seals. "That's 60,000 reasons why the great whites really like this area," Peter says.

It was also peak shark-viewing season, July but, despite the apparently tempting burley bucketed over the side of the boat, there were no sharks thrashing Hollywood-style in the water in front of us. That did not mean, however, that we hadn't attracted any interest. Peter said there was an inquisitive great white circling us and the ominous appearance only moments later of a large grey dorsel fin, breaking the water a mere 20m from where I was seated on the edge of the Predator 2, was a chilling confirmation.

I strapped on my mask and entered the six-man cage roped to the side of the boat and waited for Peter's call. We were free diving - incredibly, the ocean's most efficient predator is scared of the bubbles which emanate from a scuba regulator - and so had to hold our breath for as long as we could, or dared, while facing the great white.

The first call came, "down and to the left", and with my lungs full of air and my stomach full of nerves I grabbed the edge of the cage and submerged myself. The first of the great whites drifted beautifully across the front of our cage, cruised cautiously past the tuna head tied to the end of one of our lines and only showed passing interest by rising its head slightly to sniff the pungent bait. And then, with a simple flick of its tail, it disappeared into the deep blue unknown.

My first sighting lasted only seconds, but it left an impression. While that particular great white - a 5m female, we were later told - would return repeatedly, and we would see another five different great whites, one measuring about five-and-a-half metres, what I saw in that first instance was certainly not what I'd expected, or what movies and the media trained me to believe I'd see.

The shark I saw was graceful yet powerful and, viewed in its own environment, somehow peaceful and placid. It was covered in grazes from endless underwater battles and, as well as providing the incredible opportunity to see the great white shark in its natural habitat, my shark diving expedition had, just as importantly, re-educated me and highlighted the need to conserve the incredible species. A 15-second first impression had - not just for me but for everyone on the entire boat, it seemed - provided not only the experience of a lifetime but changed a lifetime of prejudice.

Feeding frenzy

While cage diving with great white sharks serves not only to satisfy eager, extreme travellers, the practise isn't without its critics. Some claim that boat crews throwing burley overboard to attract sharks teaches them that humans are a source of food and that putting people in the water with them may even teach the great whites that humans are food. These arguments have little merit, says Peter. "For starters, we don't feed the sharks," he says. "We never allow the sharks to get hold of any of the bait, so we aren't teaching them that where there's a boat, or humans, there's also food. The other thing is that if these sharks thought we were a source of food, they would keep coming back to our boats. But the research we conduct as part of our expeditions shows we have different sharks here every year - the same sharks are not coming back time after time looking for food.""


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