Announce “I am going shark cage diving” and I guarantee you will get one of these three reactions.
- You are so brave, I am way too scared to try that
- It is so wrong, I am a conservationist
- Can I join you? A selfie with a Great White would be awesome
I won a Shark Cage Dive with Marine Dynamics and my first reaction was all 3 points above, coupled with a large dose of sheer terror.
So great was my fear that it took me 4 months to claim my prize.
Fortunately, all three initial reactions and my abject terror were way off base and totally unfounded.
As a self- professed coward who likes to pretend to be a ninja, and has bragged about going shark cage diving, it is true confession time.
Shark Cage Diving really is not scary. Not even a little bit.
As someone with an overactive imagination and a dominant drama queen gene, my fears were plentiful, and not confined to being eaten to death, or slightly maimed by a Great White.
I was very concerned about the cage.
Was it strong enough, would I be claustrophobic, what if I hated it and wanted to get out.
What if it came loose from the boat and I was trapped inside it?
Reassuring cage facts.
Although the sharks are not known for attempting to bite the cage, if it came to that the cage would win every time.
Professionally engineered from 25mm stainless steel squared tubing covered with 6mm security mesh, the cage will not rust or break, and as an extra precaution it is checked thoroughly after every dive.
My claustrophobic fears were stilled when I saw that there is a lid on the top of the cage, but it was not locked down, so a push from inside, or a call to the crew who are always right there and it is lifted up in seconds, allowing you to get out. At all times there is a meter of space between the sea water and the top of the cage, so even the biggest heads will fit comfortably, and drowning is not a concern.
The boat “Slashfin” is the only boat in the industry that was designed to accommodate the shark cage, as well as the sea conditions specific to the area. It is also the only boat made entirely from aluminium, so rusting and sinking is not going to happen. Ever.
The cage is winched into the water and firmly secured on both ends to the side of the boat using multiple safety ropes.
The cage sits snugly up against the boat and moves as one with it in the swell as the sharks drift by.
Numerous floats are placed between the boat and the cage to prevent bumping, and in the unlikely event of the cage becoming detached from the boat, it would float. This means that sinking to the bottom of Shark Alley while trapped in a cage is not a valid concern. Good to know.
Renting a wetsuit might not bother some, but I had a bit of an “eeeeuw” reaction to the thought of that. Wetsuits are quite personal, I think. Not quite in the category of underwear, but close.
The first time I rented a wetsuit I was so excited about having a surfing lesson that I never gave it a second thought. The wetsuit was dry, and I was totally focussed on contorting my lumpy body into it, so no further thought process could occur.
The next time I needed to don one of these rubber onesies I was preparing for a shark cage dive.
Probably as a diversionary tactic, my mind started wandering into the territory of the potential “yuk factor” of sharing a wetsuit.
I am sure some people wee in a wetsuit. From fright, physical need or don’t care less attitudes, whatever the reason, someone else’s smelly urine has been in that wetsuit. Other nasty facts popped into my head like Stratum Corneum or skin cells from someone else’s body. Most people shed about 30 – 40 000 of these every hour, and you are in your wetsuit for 2-3 hours. That is a lot of skin cells!
Then there is Micrococcus Sedentarius, a horrid little bacteria that produces volatile sulphur compounds and is the reason for yukky, smelly feet.
The wetsuits include hoods, and that tapped in to my personal number one on the yuk factor scale, Sebum from dirty, oily hair. You know that awful hair smell I am talking about? Aargh, it is just too gross to contemplate.
Fortunately, Marine Dynamics know all about these nasties and have a rigorous wetsuit cleaning process, with a huge dedicated washing and air drying area. They use a specialised wetsuit washing product, and add an extra rinse in the cleaning process. I saw it with my own eyes, and chatted to Bruce Bulelani who manages it and checks each Reef wetsuit after it has been washed. There are over 100 wetsuits in circulation and an extra 25 brand new ones on standby. Every 6 months the wetsuits are replaced. This means you will never have to put on a wetsuit that is not pristinely clean, sweet smelling in a rubbery way, and bone dry.
The actual dive.
Looking like a stunted penguin, but happy in my nice clean wetsuit, booties, gloves, weight belt and mask, I climbed into the cage. My emotions were all over the place, ranging from apprehension to excitement, and everything else in between. My first thought was registering the coldness of the water, but that was rectified in under a minute as the wetsuit did its job. The next task was finding the foot bar and grab rail for when we got the shout to “go down, look left” from the spotting crew above us. Being a shorty, this involved a bit of a stretch, but worked just fine.
This done I settled down, enjoying the absence of sea sickness in the cage, and did a few practice runs submerging and looking around.
It struck me for the first time that I was out in the open sea, a visitor in the territory of a might predator. Strangely this did not make me fearful. The first shark that came along was about 2 meters away, she swam past us twice, looking slightly bored. Then another one came by, and another, it was like watching a graceful dance. One shark did come face first towards the cage, but it was not with any jaw snapping sense of menace, but more an inquisitiveness to see what this was. Somehow, this was so different to seeing these ocean kings in an aquarium. You realise how large and powerful they are and how much space they need to in order to move uninhibited.
I had expected sharks being lured towards the cage, teeth flashing, bumping the cage while we screamed in delight and terror. What I experienced was so much better than that. There is a collective gasp when a shark swims close to the cage, but for the rest of the time you are silent, lost in awe of these beauties. They are graceful, they appear intelligent, they are so much bigger than you imagine. Some seem to be more playful and breach out of the water, others drift lazily past and a few swim fast, darting about as though in a hurry.
I expected a cheap thrill but instead I fell in love.
Getting out of the cage the reaction was unanimous.
Bright eyed, grinning, shivering saying
“That was awesome, but nothing like what I expected.”
If you do a shark dive and still want a selfie with a menacing looking shark, you have missed the point somewhere.
Seeing the Great White Shark where it is supposed to be is a privilege, and a very humbling experience. I made me rethink every thought I have ever had about sharks, recognise their vulnerability and respect them for their instinct to survive.
The ethical issue. I am no expert, but I do have a brain and I have done some homework.
There are many companies offering close encounters with wild animals and claim to do it in the name of rehabilitation or research, when in fact it is primarily a profit making enterprise that pays lip service to conservation. I believe companies like this should not exist as they promote misconceptions.
Wildlife is wild and should never be viewed as a plaything for humans.
That said, I do not believe Marine Dynamics is one of these companies. If your concern is that Shark Cage Diving taps into this, do some homework and then make an educated decision.
The motto of Marine Dynamics is Discover and Protect. These are not just words. Speak to any of the staff and they positively glow with pride when they tell you about the sharks and the latest developments in the research being conducted by the Dyer Island Conservation Trust.
The Trust was started by Wilfred Chivell who is the owner of Marine Dynamics and Dyer Island Cruises. These 2 companies fund the trust, which contributes in a meaningful way to global research on Great White Sharks. The trust publishes scientific papers and Partners of the trust include Department of Environmental Affairs;CapeNature; SANCCOB (Southern African Foundation for the Care of Coastal Birds); Animal Demography Unit – University of Cape Town; Mammal Research Institute – University of Pretoria; WWF (World Wildlife Fund); Overstrand Municipality; Birdlife Overberg; WESSA (Wildlife Environment of South Africa); the Two Oceans Aquarium Cape Town.
Marine Dynamics welcomes all shark lover, especially green and responsible travellers, with an educational tour that will knock your socks off and leave you as a true Great White Shark ambassador
- Seasickness is the only downside to the dive. Take tablets for motion sickness and listen to the advice from the crew. If you do throw up,don’t be embarrassed, the crew are used to it and will sort you out. I believe that a certain effort is required for the luxury of viewing any wild creature in its natural environment. Being sea sick is worth it for the joy of being so close to the sharks.
- Wear a swimming costume underneath your clothes. Getting into a wetsuit and maintaining your modesty do not go well together.
- Take a few photos if you must, then spend time just watching. The memories will always be greater than any picture.
- Do a little research as the Marine Biologists on board are happy to talk Great Whites and answer any and all questions.
- Keep an eye out for the guy at the back of the boat making the chum mix. The birds love it and hundreds of them fly in for a feast
- Spend some time on the top deck for great views of the sharks.
- Make a weekend of the adventure, explore the caves, have dinner at the Great White House, take a walk along the cliffs and visit the nearby village of Stanford.
The surrounding area is beautiful as you will see from the pictures below.
The beach at Klipgat Cave
The view from Klipgat Cave
One of the cottages at The Great White House