I have adored sharks since I was little and dreamt of becoming a Marine Biologist. Before I even knew what a bucket list was, I wanted to swim in the ocean with sharks, and my favorite has always been Carcharodon Carcharias, the Great White Shark. I watched every Shark Week to see sharks up close and fantasized about the day when I could be the one in the murky water next to that sleek, perfect predator.
Many years later, my father agreed to a family trip to South Africa, and gave me full rein on the planning. My brother in law shares my passion for sharks, so it was a top priority in our planning. Historically the best place to see Great Whites up close was Hermanus, a short drive from Cape Town, known for its whale watching. As I researched, it was as if Shark Week had come to life. The Great Whites have largely disappeared from Hermanus due to predation from a pair of orca whales. While we would likely see other types of sharks there, I had to go back to the drawing board to find where the Great Whites had gone.
I found that there were successful cage diving trips further west, out of Mossel Bay. To sweeten the deal even further, this cage diving was in the shadow of Seal Island, another location often featured in Shark Week. It is in this bay, and no where else in the world, that Great White Sharks hurl their two ton weight out of the ocean, breeching as they attack unsuspecting seals from below. We booked space on a boat with White Shark Africa and looked forward to getting into the cage soon after our arrival in South Africa.
We arrived at White Shark Africa’s offices in downtown Mossel Bay for a light breakfast and a briefing on what to expect. The boat would only need to travel about ten minutes away, through calm waters. Once they found a good spot, they chummed the waters as we watched the seals packed tightly on seal island, darkly hoping to witness a natural predation. As soon as the first fin was spotted, the rectangular cage was dropped into the water and the first divers donned masks and climbed in. Now in this case the word “diver” is a misnomer. For the majority of the time spent in the cage, divers had their heads out of the water. When a shark approached the cage, staff would shout out “down, and a direction” so those in the cage knew to take a breath, duck below the water line, and look to the direction shouted to spot the shark emerging from the murky grey.
We were shocked by how cold the water was. Even with thick wetsuits covering everything but our hands, feet, and faces, the water was bracingly frigid. The thrill of seeing huge sharks close enough to touch was not enough to keep some people in the cage. We saw several juvenile great whites, both from in the cage and the viewing platform of the ship. It was thrilling to see that telltale fin rise above the water and the legendary mouth open to bite down on the bait. We appreciated the clarity of the water, but the staff informed us that we likely would have seen more sharks had the water been more cloudy. Hunting is tough when your prey can see you coming. We all agreed that the experience felt safe for both humans and sharks, and even those that rode along with no intention of getting into the cage thought it was worth the cost. This day was truly a dream come true.