South Africa offers some of the very best scuba diving in the world, and in my opinion, any passionate diver should make it a priority to travel here and explore the extraordinary underwater landscapes on offer.
For example, diving the Aliwal Shoal is incomparable—nowhere else in the world will you encounter the massive schools of fish and the huge number of huge sharks that come to feed. It’s definitely worth doing.
Alas, the great white underbelly of South Africa’s amazing undersea wildlife is the growing phenomenon of shark cage diving—where tourists (mostly unlicensed divers) pay between $110-$150 to swim in a submerged steel cage right next to great white sharks who have been lured next to these boats with chum (dead fish, offal, and blood).
Given that just yesterday I was in Gansbaai, (the self-professed “Great White Shark Capital of the World”), several of you encouraged that I give shark cage diving a try.
At National Geographic Travel, we take great pride in our dedication to authentic, sustainable tourism that leaves a positive footprint on a destination. In my opinion, shark cage diving fails to meet that standard on every front. So for those readers who asked, allow me to explain why I will never go shark cage diving:
Sharks are, by nature, timid animals. Any diver who’s spent any significant time in the water with sharks (without a cage), knows that that they are inquisitive, but cautious creatures who will disappear at the sight of humans. Some larger sharks will approach for a better look, but in my experience, sharks very rarely stick around. They are busy predators hunting their next meal and need to get on with it.
As an avid diver, I have been underwater with many, many sharks—in the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. I have had sharks that are larger than me brush up against me, and I have stared face to face into their glowing green eyes. These were exciting moments for me, but also beautiful, spiritual, and most importantly, authentic. Nothing beats watching nature up close, acting naturally in its natural habitat.
But sharks acting naturally does not fit our schedules and itineraries, thus shark cage diving operators must resort to the only thing that will get sharks to overcome their apprehension and swim extremely close to boats and humans: blood.
As sophisticated predators, sharks can follow the scent of blood and fish oils in the water, or simply pick up the vibration of a struggling fish. When chum is dumped into the water, humans are triggering a response from all the sharks in the area, without delivering the payload that sharks would expect in the wild.
Not only is the very premise of these types of great white sharks’ encounters completely inauthentic, it’s repeating an unnatural situation for the sharks, over and over again.
In Gansbaai alone, there are 8 different shark cage diving operations, each averaging 3 trips a day. Depending on the most conservative numbers provided to me by locals, that equals 5,000 visitors per week. This adds up to over 250,000 human encounters with sharks per year, which equals an inordinate amount of blood and chum being dumped along the South African shoreline every day.
It also equals $30 million in annual business, and there lies the rub. A business is in the business of making more profit, which means there will always be the pressure for more boats, more outings, and more tourists. Though the shark cage diving operations are, for the most part, well-regulated—big money is often louder than reason.
Five years ago, a Gansbaai shark cage boat capsized, and two American and one Norwegian tourist drowned. Though formal reports blame the accident on a “freak wave”, several other shark boats chose to stay in that day due to the visibly rough weather. The pressure to make money with nature will always push the limits of nature.
Commodifying predators is problematic in any form.
Among wildlife professionals, there is a clear ethical standard that you should never bait a predator. In Banff National Park, feeding a bear will earn you a hefty fine or even land you in prison, and anyone entering areas that have been closed due to bear activity risks a fine of up to $25,000. A “fed bear is a dead bear” goes the saying, because once bears have associated humans with food, they will have a hard time keeping away.
Whether you can compare grizzlies to great whites is another argument, however nobody can dispute the fact that shark cage diving involves the active baiting of predators on a daily basis. In my opinion, luring great white sharks inshore, sometimes within a mile of some of the most popular beaches in South Africa, is sheer stupidity. Scientific organizations have shown that chumming does in fact, change great white shark behavior.
In its current form, shark cage diving is not sustainable, and I only see it leading to more accidents and tragedies, for people and for sharks.
It Perpetuates Myths
Despite claims that such close encounters with great whites help “raise awareness”, the motivating factor and resulting reality of the entire shark cage diving industry is the thrill of recreating a “Jaws” moment for paying customers.
From what I’ve seen, tourists return home, not with a change of hearts towards great white sharks and a commitment towards saving them, but rather with their proud underwater photo or video next to the ocean’s apex predator—a phony symbol of bravado and fearlessness, not unlike the hunting trophies of the Victorian era’s great white hunters.
Advertising and selling testosterone-fueled “adventure” as a checkmark of courage or masculinity does not encourage a culture of tender feelings and awareness towards great white sharks, no matter how much rhetoric you cage it in.
It’s Not Good Conservation
Nearly every shark cage diving operation claims to be involved in some form of wildlife conservation, yet deeper investigation yields little results from these claims. Other than operators taking photos of the sharks and picking up trash from the ocean, I see very little evidence of the shark cage diving industry giving back to the oceans.
Furthermore, shark cage diving does little to stop the biggest threats against sharks today. Shark cage diving has not ended the Asian market for shark fin soup, or countered overfishing, or preserved ocean habitats, or passed legislation to ban the killing of specific species of sharks. Nor have I ever met a reputable marine biologist who condones the commercial business of shark cage diving.
In my opinion, shark cage diving makes a mockery of real conservation efforts to preserve an animal that is in rapid decline (so far, we have lost 90% of the world’s shark population since 1950). I encourage anyone interested in actual shark conservation to get involved with projects led by National Geographic’s Explorers such as Sylvia Earle and Enric Sala. Support the Shark Sanctuary in Palau, or go diving with reputable South African dive companies who encourage natural and positive interactions with local sharks—and there are plenty.
On The Other Hand . . .
Now that I’ve told you quite blatantly why I cannot support shark cage diving, I would still encourage travelers to visit Gansbaai. It’s a great little seaside town and a marvelous place to experience the beautiful coastline of the Western Cape. The whale watching (Southern Right Whales) is some of the best in the world, and you can watch the animals right from shore. At the end of the day, tourists making wise decisions can alter the market towards a more sustainable situation.
Should you choose to totally disregard my opinion and still go cage diving with great whites, please consider the following:
- Most operators sell their cage diving package tours from Cape Town, although the shark boats actually leave from Kleinbaai, near Gansbaai (2 hours away). That means your day of shark diving breaks down to 4 hours round trip in a car, plus at least 2 hours by boat (getting to and from “Shark Alley”) and if you’re lucky, less than 30 minutes actually spent in the water.
- Choose wisely. Some shark cage diving operations are better than others—including better safety records, better practices, and better cages. Before you pick a boat, ask lots of questions, for example, “How long will I actually get to be in the water with the sharks?”. Rarely does the price correlate with the quality of the experience.
- Pick a large boat—the larger the boat the less chance you have of becoming seasick, which is the number one complaint that passengers make on shark boats (these can be very choppy waters). In many cases, people getting sick forces boats to cut a trip short and head back to shore. Consider taking seasick tablets.
- Dress warmly. Although this is Africa, on a warm day, the water ranges from 50° to 60° F and the strong winds will make you wish you’d bundled up.
- Check the weather—when you’re diving, visibility is everything. Shark boat operators are keen to merely fill up their trips, but for the best experience, you will most likely want to go out on a day when you can actually see or photograph the sharks clearly.
- For the record, it is quite possible to see great white sharks for free in South Africa. Look across False Bay on a sunny day or cruise by a seal colony or chat with any surfer. Having a vested interest in avoiding shark encounters, they tend to keep tracks of the sharks better than most.
- As of last year, shark cage diving was outlawed in Western Australia after scientific studies along that coastline showed that chumming caused significant change in great white shark behavior.
- The debate around shark cage diving is a highly controversial subject in South Africa with avid supporters on both sides. Be aware that whether you choose to dive or choose not to, you are picking sides in a battle that is just beginning to heat up.