No Great Whites But (Almost) No Regrets: Shark Cage Diving in South Africa
It wasn’t even 9am on a Sunday morning yet, but there I was, taking a big gulp of air so I could pull myself underwater again. The visibility in the Atlantic Ocean was low that day, but I knew there was a large female shark somewhere nearby. The crew member on the boat behind us had just yelled “Cage left!” so I knew I needed to be quick. The truth was, I couldn’t believe that I was actually shark cage diving in Gansbaai, South Africa.
There were seven other wetsuit-clad individuals on either side of me, including my husband. We were wide-eyed, clinging to the metal bars protecting us and hoping for a thrill. Over and over again, we watched as chum—a special mixture of fish oils and guts that sharks find attractive—floated down into the water.
Soon after, the sharks followed. According to the marine biologist who accompanied us, we ended up seeing around thirteen copper sharks that day. Not only that, but a huge stingray and a curious cape fur seal from the nearby Dyer Island colony, too.
The one thing missing from this list? Yes, the infamous great white shark. After all, this creature of legend was the primary reason we’d come to Gansbaai, South Africa, and booked this trip in the first place.
Despite not seeing one, I still have almost no regrets about my experience shark cage diving that day. Here are my reasons why.
Shark Cage Diving: Not Your Average Wedding Present
Reason number one: it was one of the coolest wedding presents we received.
Three years ago, when my then-fiancé and I began wedding planning, we provided two types of wedding registries to our guests. One was more traditional and included housewares and everyday items for our home. The other was more—dare I say it?—millennial in nature.
Honeyfund.com is a website that lets guests gift money toward experiences instead of things. While many use it for honeymoon upgrades like champagne breakfasts or spa massages for two, we had other plans. Knowing we eventually wanted take a long term trip, we picked bucket-list experiences around the world.
Soon, our Honeyfund webpage displayed options like “Stay with a Mongolian Herder Family”, “Bungee Jump in New Zealand”, and yes, “Cage Dive With Great White Sharks in South Africa”.
Though we knew not every item on that list would be funded, or even fit in our travel plans, shark diving met both criteria. Earlier this year, my husband and I arranged to meet my parents for an eight-day group tour of South Africa starting December 1st. All we needed to do was arrive a few days early and hope for good weather.
Luckily, the timing worked out. We spent almost 24 hours in transit before arriving in Cape Town from India. Overjoyed is an understatement for how we felt to be in a place that CNN had called ‘one of the world’s most beautiful cities‘. Knowing we received a gift from our friends to go shark cage diving made it even better.
We Had Clear Expectations of Shark Cage Diving
The second reason I wasn’t disappointed with shark diving was that I was actually prepared for this outcome from the beginning. My husband and I went into the experience feeling cautiously optimistic, but knew what our chances were ahead of time. Here’s what we learned:
1. Where to See Sharks Near Cape Town
There are two main locations for shark cage diving in South Africa: False Bay (Simon’s Town) and Gansbaai.
False Bay is closer to Cape Town since it’s only 45 minutes away. Gansbaai, on the other hand, is a two and a half hour drive from Cape Town. Despite the longer drive, we decided book a tour from there.
The main selling point was that Gansbaai has a higher frequency of seeing great whites year-round than False Bay does. In Simon’s Town, great white season is only from May to October due to warmer water temperatures during that time.
Even though we didn’t go to False Bay, that location is still a great choice if your timing is right. It’s popular because visitors often get to see sharks breaching (jumping out of the water) as they hunt seals. The tours also boast smaller group sizes than Gansbaai does.
2. No Guarantees, No Money Back
As we researched tour operators in both locations, we started to notice a recurring theme. Every company had a disclaimer on their website warning visitors that there were no guarantees of seeing great white sharks. In fact, most places only give you a voucher for another day if you don’t see any sharks. This includes sightings from the boat!
After further investigation, we learned that the population of great white sharks has significantly decreased in the past two years. The reasons? They’re still not sure. One possibility is that there’s a longline fishery operating off the coast. By catching smaller species of sharks that great whites typically prey on, it forces them to go elsewhere to feed.
Another theory is that a pod of killer whales is targeting great whites. In 2017, scientists found several great whites washed ashore. The orcas ripped out their livers, leaving their bodies behind. This also may have caused great white sharks to change their migration patterns.
Our tour operator reiterated all of this information before we got on the boat. Then, they gave us a more recent update. They saw great whites in the early part of November, but not after the 10th of the month. However, they regularly had sightings of copper sharks, which had appeared in the absence of the great white sharks.
Though we felt disappointed upon learning this information, we still wanted to try. After all, we’d waited for three years to do this! Nonetheless, knowing what we did helped us manage our expectations for the day ahead.
The Price Was Right
When I learned that we might not see great whites in South Africa, I panicked. I started researching where else we would have a higher probability of seeing them in case we needed to save our money. I found out that it’s common to see great whites in South Australia, New Zealand, and Mexico. Of those, we only planned to visit Mexico later on during our round-the-world journey.
So, I did some quick Googling… and got total sticker shock. The first company I saw charged more $3000 USD per person for a 5-day live aboard boat trip. Yikes. I could see how it would be an incredible experience to sail far off the coast to view sharks in clear waters. However, this just wasn’t going to happen on our budget.
Back to the original plan. We looked different companies online and ultimately chose to book our cage diving experience with a company called Marine Dynamics. We liked that they have a marine biologist accompany each trip and dedicate themselves to shark research and conservation. They also had high reviews and ratings from guests.
Marine Dynamics charged 2,250 Rand per person, or about $156 USD, for a half-day morning tour. This included a free video if you booked online. We spent an additional 600 Rand each ($40 USD) for the round trip minivan transfer to Gansbaai from Cape Town.
Price-wise, we couldn’t beat South Africa for getting our first tastes of shark cage diving, great whites or not.
It Was Still a Unique and Well-Organized Experience
Another reason I don’t totally regret shark cage diving? It was still an incredibly memorable day—totally smooth and without any hiccups. After five months of travel, I’ve been on my fair share of organised experiences and tours. Not every one of them goes so smoothly, sadly to say. During this one, though, I felt very safe and comfortable the entire trip.
Here’s how everything went:
The Day Before
When we initially scheduled our trip, Marine Dynamics told us the tour was dependent on the weather. This meant they would only take a group out on the boat if it were safe to do so. Even if it seems perfectly sunny in Cape Town, the weather could be completely different on the coast. You don’t want it to be too windy or too dangerous to go.
The first day we booked for cage diving actually did get cancelled due to weather. Luckily, we were able to re-book two days later. The day prior to our scheduled date, the company messaged us our pickup time, which was 3:45am. Not only did we have to drive out to Gansbaai, but the van had to stops at different hotels around Cape Town to pick up guests.
Though a 3 o’clock wake-up call is never fun, our van driver was amazingly cheerful given how early it was. He told us to buckle up and sleep on the way there. Everyone did—the car was silent the whole way over.
The Morning Briefing and Preparing to Go
We arrived at Marine Dynamic’s headquarters, “The Great White House”, around 7am. They checked each of us in while the rest went through the buffet line for breakfast. As we ate, the marine biologist on staff gave us a morning briefing on what to expect. She covered everything from weather conditions, to what we might see, and today’s visibility. Then, we watched a short educational video to prepare us some more.
Then it was time to go to the boat. Each person received a life vest and a yellow waterproof jacket to wear. We walked less than five minutes to the nearby pier. The crew helped all of the passengers board the boat, aptly named Sharkfin. Nearly 30 people attended that day, but the boat had a capacity of up to 40 plus crew.
The boat ride to “the shallows” (where they usually find sharks) was quick—only about ten minutes. The morning was bright and sunny, but also quite windy and cold, especially when the boat was moving.
I’m thankful that the boat was big enough that it wasn’t uncomfortable, even when there were bigger waves. Marine Dynamics recommended taking anti-nausea medicine before bed the night before and then when we arrived. That seemed to do the trick!
Ready or Not
Even though we had two full hours on the water, the time went by in a flash. We had just barely squeezed into our tight black wetsuits before the crew spotted the first copper sharks of the day. The scent trail of the chum had attracted them to the water around the boat.
Chum makes sharks just curious enough to swim around, but the crew does not feed them; it is, in fact, illegal to do so. Many shark cage diving companies are dedicated to marine conservation, so they are very conscientious of the fact that feeding sharks would disrupt their natural eating and migration patterns. Marine Dynamics uses their daily trips with tourists as a way to observe and count sharks for research.
Seeing the sharks swim so close was exciting but a little intimidating at first. I actually felt too nervous to get into the water with the first group of volunteers. By the time they finished, though, I felt more prepared from watching them. Everyone got a sanitised set of goggles plus a weighted belt. After climbing down into the water, it was time to wait for the crew to shout out “Down right!” or “Cage left!”. This is what let you know where to look. All you had to do was pull yourself down and hold your breath.
Cage Diving With Sharks
So that’s how I ended up clinging to the bars of the cage, bobbing up and down. The cold water initially shocked my system, and I had a hard time staying under. But by the end of first few minutes, I finally got into a rhythm.
Now I could watch sharks slowly swim by the cage with something that resembled admiration more than trepidation. Due to the water’s cloudiness, it often felt like a shark appeared out of nowhere, eerily close to the cage. Other times, I’d hear the crew yell which way to look and was prepared to see a shark flash by quickly.
When the time came to exit the cage, the crew immediately offered us hot chocolate and dry towels. Although I was tempted to change out of my wetsuit then and there, I didn’t. The staff said we might have a second chance to go into the water after everyone else was finished.
And guess what? We got to go in again. I jumped at the chance. It had been much more fascinating than I expected!
When we finished the last round of cage diving, the crew helped us change out of our wetsuits. The boat sped back to shore, and they served us warm soup and bread back at the Great White House. After the morning we’d had, the food tasted nothing short of amazing.
While we chowed down, staff marine biologist recapped what we saw during the trip. Though we didn’t see a solitary great white, we’d still seen multiple bronze whalers. After being in the water with them, I now considered them surprisingly beautiful.
Ecotourism Supports Conservation Efforts, But…
The last reason that I have very few shark diving regrets is because I learned so much along the way. But, there is one thing still on my mind.
The main message that I took away from the experience was the importance of conservation efforts for sharks and the entire ocean ecosystem. The cage diving trip convinced me that sharks truly aren’t as scary as the media makes them. In fact, I now recognise that humans are even more dangerous to them.
Since sharks can’t be studied in captivity, there’s a lot that’s still unknown about them. Ecotourism efforts like the shark cage diving tours are innovative ways to help educate the public, collect data, and ideally protect these important apex predators.
And while I do truly believe that many shark cage diving operators, like Marine Dynamics, are in this line of work to protect sharks, I also now know that this kind of tour operation is not without controversy. The author of this article, for example, argues that shark cage diving is ultimately an artificial animal encounter that is unsustainable and not ethical, similar to tiger zoos in Thailand. One reason is because he believes that the practice of chumming alters the sharks’ behaviour toward humans. Another is that the author doesn’t believe that the benefits of the conservation outweigh the impacts of the practice.
I’d assumed, perhaps naively, that the activity was not going to be harmful because we were the ones in the cage, not vice versa. Marine Dynamics, for their part, is clear that they believe that chumming does not affect shark behaviour because “in order to train animals, consistent positive reinforcement is needed”, according to their FAQs. Since sharks in the area are migratory and never fed consistently by tour operators, they aren’t encouraging any kind of Pavlovian feeding response or increasing their aggression toward humans.
So which is it?
As you might be able to tell by now, I had a great experience with shark cage diving overall, but the thing that’s gnawing at me is not the thing that I expected. It’s not that that I didn’t see the shark that I’d hoped to see, but that I wonder if shark cage diving made me more part of the problem than the solution.
This week, I learned that the friends who gifted this experience to us for our wedding had actually picked it specifically because they had done cage diving with sharks in Hawaii and come out of it with a newfound appreciation for protecting the ocean. And, I actually originally wrote this entire article intending to say I had no regrets at all, but the additional research I did while writing this piece made me think about the whole topic some more.
I certainly don’t have the answers, and I know I need to think seriously about whether I’d do it again in the future. For now, all I can do is learn from it and share—and isn’t that what travel is about after all?
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