Face to face with a Great White

Posted under Marine Life Blog by Grootbos on 26th January 2012

Being face to face with a 3 M Great White Shark looking you straight in the eye may sound like a scene from a horror movie, but BOY, you are bound to get addicted to that "horror" once you've tried it! There's no doubt that a shark cage diving experience in Gansbaai will forever change your mind and perception of these mysterious and most misunderstood Apex predators of the ocean. Trust me, the movie JAWS is rather dull and bleak in comparison with the Real McCoy!

Who are YOU?

Here, in the Number One Shark Cage Diving hotspot of the world, these majestic hunters of the ocean even have names (or rather nicknames) according to their distinctive characteristics and personalities! Some are shy and sceptical and keep a safe distance from the boats, while others are curious and boisterous and seem to bask in the adoration of the caged bipeds! The crew members and researchers in the thriving shark cage diving industry in Gansbaai have, in collaboration with various international institutions, tagged, named and acquainted hundreds of these majestic animals over the past few years in order to study and understand them better. If you are lucky, you may just meet the gigantic Big Nemo, or Sarita, who was named after the person who tagged her, or even Notch, Scratch or Flag, all nicknamed after the unique and distinctive features of their dorsal fins. Some of the sharks are regular visitors to the Gansbaai area, while new ones are encountered almost every day. From the safety of a cage you are able to distinguish between male and female sharks and to watch in awe how superbly their streamlined, counter-shaded bodies are designed for speed, breaching, predation and adaptation to different water temperatures which enables them to freely roam the Seven Seas!

Why Gansbaai?

This former rural fishing village with its extraordinary abundance of rare and remarkable plant, bird and animal species boasts one of the biggest concentrations of Great White Sharks in the world! The area around the protected Dyer Island Bird Sanctuary (that houses, amongst others, the endangered African Penguin) and Geyser Rock (where a colony of 60 000 Cape Fur Seals feed and breed), is a natural feeding ground for the Great Whites - and aptly dubbed Shark Alley. A trip on any of the eight shark cage diving boats operating in Gansbaai will take you to this famous hangout for a personal and close-up encounter with some members of the world-renowned Jaws family. Of the estimated less than 5 000 Great White Sharks left in the world, up to 2 000 are to be found in South African waters - especially around Gansbaai, False Bay and Mossel Bay - which emphasises just how special our eco-system is. Small wonder that international TV producers, movie stars such as Brad Pitt, Nicholas Cage, etc. and film makers flock to Gansbaai to experience and document these magnificent animals in the acclaimed Great White Capital of the world.

Ready and Roaring to Go?

An excursion with any of the eight Shark Cage Diving operators in Gansbaai is always preceded by a breakfast or lunch (depending on the time of day) and an introductory talk about the route and what to look out for. Now is the time to ask all the questions about these top hunters and to prepare yourself (mentally and physically!) for the most exciting and extreme eco-adventure of a lifetime! Passengers are fitted with comfortable inflatable life-jackets before they walk to the nearby Kleinbaai slipway. The boat trip to the anchoring spot takes about 20 to 25 minutes and is in itself a captivating thrill as one never knows what marine species may be encountered along the way! Spotting a stray whale, dolphin or shark en route is always an extra bonus. In the Winter (April - October) the boats usually anchor at Dyer Island and in the summer months (November - March) at the Joubertsdam reef near Franskraal beach. Once the skipper has chosen the most likely spot for the action, the anchor is lowered, a scent trail is made and when the first sharks appear, the cage, carrying between 4 to 7 people, goes into the water.

From the boat

Viewing these magnificent creatures from the vantage point of the boat is exceptional - especially when the water visibility is good. The chum (fish based products such as tuna and fish oil) creates a slick trail which drifts with the current towards reefs and areas where the sharks are known to swim. Sharks can smell 1 part of blood in 1 million parts of water, but the sharks must obviously pass through the chum slick to smell the scent. Often a shark or two will curiously circle the boat and pass underneath within an arm's length. The bait and decoy handlers expertly lure the sharks closer by casting the bait (tuna heads) and a seal decoy precisely into the water and deftly pulling it back before those impressive jaws can close around it. To watch a 3 m shark breach right out of the water in an attempt to get to the bait is a mesmerizing sight and the stuff that movies are made of! All the boats have professional videographers on board to capture these moments on film as a keepsake to their guests. The bait is not fed to the sharks - it is merely used to lure them as close as possible to the boat so that passengers and divers can get a real eyeball-to-eyeball encounter with our ambassador marine species! In high season (between June and November) guests are often lucky enough to also witness a life predation, where a shark skillfully pursuits and ambushes a seal. To watch a typical hunting scenario - where a Great White prepares for and successfully launches a surprise attack on a seal - is without doubt one of the most amazing marine experiences one can imagine. The shark usually lurks at a depth, watching the surface for the seal, and with a few kicks of the tail, within a couple of seconds, propel itself out of the water - often with the seal in its mouth! These real McCoy experiences are a common phenomena in the Gansbaai waters thanks to the abundance of sharks and seals that naturally congregate here.

Into the Cage

By now, prospective divers and adrenaline junkies are buzzing with anticipation to literally take the plunge into the deep end. Kitted out with wetsuits, goggles, hoodies, booties and weight belts, divers lower themselves into the sturdy steel cage that is securely attached to the boat. No diving experience is required, and all equipment is provided on board. The water temperature can be anywhere between 12º C and 20º C and visibility is usually 6 - 8 m, but it can go up to 12 – 15 m on a good day and down to 2-3 m on a bad day. Buoys keep the top of the cage afloat above the water surface and divers are never more than a metre under the surface. Sturdy hand and foot rails provide ample grip to push yourself under or pull yourself up at any time. The bait and decoy handlers warn the divers when a shark is approaching, giving you ample time to duck underwater for that ultimate real life close encounter of a third kind . . .


Goosebumps and Chills Galore

Once you are underwater, you have entered another world . . . and watch out - here they come! Few things, if any, can compare to the incredible thrill and adrenaline rush one gets from watching a giant Great White swimming right up to you and actually making eye contact before it gracefully glides away. If you look closely, you might see their eyes are not those cold, cruel, black buttons that you imagined - they are actually a brilliant blue! Whatever misconceptions, fantasies or fears you harboured about these majestic animals are bound to change drastically after spending some time underwater with them in their natural environment. Within touching range, one can easily identify the difference between male and female sharks and spot their distinctive characteristics according to size, behaviour, colour, dorsal fins and scars. Although they are all counter-shaded, featuring a dark grey to black upper body and white belly, some are distinctively darker hued than others. Their formidable size, weighing up to 2 000 kg, and torpedo-shaped bodies, built for speed, endurance and acceleration, are awe-inspiring and testimony to their reputation as one of the oldest known species left on earth. The oldest shark fossils date from more than 300 million years ago, before the age of the dinosaurs. Divers need not worry - the sharks do not attack the cage or try to bite the strange bipeds inside, although a few opportunistic ones may curiously test-bite the cage to find out what it is. Now is the time to test that underwater camera and click away! If the moment is too big and/or your hands are too shaky to capture the most exhilarating experience of your life, you can always rely on the professional footage of the onboard videographer as proof and a lifelong keepsake of your close encounter with one of the most fascinating creatures on Planet Earth!


PS: Do not be surprised if you want to come back for more . . . again and again!

Grootbos works with its partner company Marine Dynamics to offer our guests an unforgettable shark cage diving experience in Gansbaai!

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