Diving with great white sharks in Gansbaai

As a kid when people ask what you're most fearful of, diving with great white sharks always seems to get included on the list. I guess we have the movie Jaws to thank for this. I have always been fascinated with this powerful creature, and when I found out I can go cage diving with great white sharks in South Africa, I signed up without much thought. Talking to locals when I arrived and getting the reaction of “ohhh so you're going shark diving are you???” along with pursed lips and a look of uncertainty made me realise the controversies and divided opinions about this activity.

The tour was postponed a couple of days due to strong winds and rough seas. On the third day, when it was finally confirmed that it would go ahead, I have to admit I was more scared of the boat capsizing and me becoming shark bait, than I was getting into the "relative" safety of the dive cage to be face to face with the man-eater.

We drove 2 hours from Capetown to Kleinbaai Harbour in Gansbaai, a sleepy fishing town on the Southern coast. We were served a light breakfast while shown a DVD about safety procedures as well as some education about the great white sharks and conservation efforts to protect their numbers. Then we boarded the boat and sailed 20 minutes out to sea to "Shark Alley" which has the world's highest concentration of great white sharks. A mixture of blood and fish oil, or "chum", was poured into the ocean to attract the sharks.

We donned our wetsuits but did not have to wait long. Soon came the hushed excitement as the first then second and third sharks were sighted, each one larger than the last. Estimated to be 3-4 metres long, they circled the boat in investigation. It was time to get into the cage. The crew reminded us once again to keep all parts of our bodies inside the cage at all times. 8 people were allowed in the cage at a time; we climbed gingerly into the cage as the top grill was lowered on top of our heads.

The water in September was very very cold, even with a wetsuit. Just as I was adjusting to the temperature came the captain's voice, "down, down, down!" We all took a breath and dived under water. From the murky depths came the ever growing silhouette that finally brushed past the cage. Surprisingly, being up close and personal with this powerful creature brought a sense of calm and wonder. They certainly were majestic, the way they glided silently and gracefully through the water. Before long we climbed back onto the boat to allow the next group into the cage.

It was a unique opportunity and an amazing experience, but I'm still undecided whether I will be readily recommending it. Firstly I did not enjoy seeing the captain lure the sharks towards the cage and out of the water with a giant tuna head. Even though they did not actually feed the sharks, the use of chum and the lure was a tease. I read that a company in South Australia uses acoustic attraction instead (apparently their favourite is AC/DC!) which I think perhaps is a better alternative. 

Some people argue that cage diving has led to increased shark attacks. I do not believe this is necessarily true. Shark attacks have increased around the world even in areas that do not offer shark diving eg East Coast of Australia. Other theories have been put forward to explain this including increased human population and warmer coastal waters etc. Nevertheless, I do believe cage diving may lead to changes in shark behaviour; instead of shying away from boats and human activities this may encourage them towards us.

On the other hand, such experiences lead to increased exposure and education about this much feared but often misunderstood predator. It helps to dispel myths that sharks are barbaric or that they will attack and kill without mercy. These are the myths that may lead to the recent catch-and-kill policy in Western Australia which has fortunately now been abandoned. The shark fin trade is probably the biggest threat to the shark population. Shark fin soup is an Asian delicacy served at important events like weddings and business banquets. Promoting understanding and respect of sharks is an integral part of the conservation efforts.

I remain undecided after much research into the subject. Will I go again? Probably not. But I am grateful for the experience. And no more shark fin soup for me!


  1. we're still undecided as to whether to go cage diving when we head off to South Africa in January. A little less scared after reading your article but still terrified nevertheless!!

    1. It's a unique experience that's for sure! To tell the truth I was more scared of the boat capsizing (the waves were pretty big) than being in the cage. Hope you enjoy South Africa - it's an amazing country!