We included shark cage diving on our wanderlist after reading that it was a popular tourist activity when visiting Cape Town. We saw a few videos online that gave us the impression that, a few seemingly rare sensational moments notwithstanding, we would be snorkeling in a spacious and secure cage, the sharks would merely circle the cage, and if we got lucky we might see a shark bare it's teeth.
Although we saw almost 10 sharks, we were sadly disappointed. Our experience with shark cage diving left us ashamed that we had given any money to the "industry".
Our day started with a scenic ride from Cape Town to the town of Gansbaai, the self-styled "great white shark capital of the world". During the ride we watched an intriguing documentary that revealed a non-aggressive side of great white sharks. It showed them to be curious and playful creatures and described how they are listed as a "vulnerable" species by conservation groups. At this point, we expected our dive to consist of seeing these creatures glide past the cage, and for the dive to be a chance to see them in their natural habitat (albeit with the intrusion of the boat).
At the dive shop, a crew member quickly gave us an idea of our itinerary. Due to the weather we needed to rush out to the dive site. They had left the cage in the water earlier in the morning, allegedly in an attempt to acclimate the sharks to our presence. We were assured we'd get all the safety details when we arrived at the dive location.
We boarded the boat and set off on a bumpy ride to the cage. As we neared the cage the crew excited shouted up to us that there were sharks in the water. Without any safety training they rushed everyone into the cabin of the boat and gave us wetsuits to put on. As soon as I got my wetsuit on I was pushed towards the cage and told to quickly get in. Seeing a huge shark swimming right nearby, and fearing that it might take a nip at me, I jumped in and had the cage closed on me. I anxiously tried to figure out where to put my hands and struggled to kick my feet without having them slip out of the cage (there was less than 6 feet of cage below water). No snorkel was provided either (without explanation), so I cooled off with a mouthful of icy, salty, ocean water.
After having a shark crash into the cage next to me, I decided to get out of the cage to warm up and to ask about where to put my feet and arms. Mina got into the cage, but not before having to ask the crew all the safety details. Their response to her questions was to yell at her: "ask the guy next to you in the cage". I found out later that, while I was in the water, one of the crew had started yelling at Mina that she was taking too long to get her wetsuit on and took the opportunity to rub up against her while claiming to "help her". The same crew member was later heard making racist, and sexually crude jokes, which were neither funny nor appropriate for the situation.
Prior to diving, we had read that shark cage diving was regulated in South Africa. We read from a variety of sources (including all the tour operators) that the sharks are not fed and that every effort is made not to disturb the natural behaviour of the animals (hence our expectation of merely seeing the sharks swim by). In practice, the crew on our boat were baiting the sharks with a dead fish head. When the sharks went to bite the bait, the crew pulled the rope and tried to force the shark against the cage. This usually resulted in the shark being smashed against the cage and giving up on the bait. Other times the line would break and the shark would swim away with the bait. The crew didn't seem to care that they were feeding the sharks or that they were continually smashing them against the side of the cage. I'm not an animal activist, and I am aware that great whites are predators, but it just seemed really cruel to be baiting an animal and then violently bashing them against a metal cage for amusement.
The whole experience left us both feeling disgusted with ourselves for not researching it more thoroughly and for trusting all the talk about regulations. It's clear that the regulations were merely put in place to protect the existing dive operators (the regulations limit the number of boats licensed to operate) and that they are not being enforced to any useful degree. Shark cage diving has been banned in some parts of the world, and several groups in South Africa and around the world are concerned about the effect that shark cage diving has on the sharks, humans that use the water, and on the ecosystem. On our dive we noticed sharks with hooks caught in their mouths (pictured above). I don't know if those came from commercial fishers, or from shark cage diving boats. I do know that when the bait line broke on our dive, and the sharks swam away, they took the whole bait and hook with them. If you watch the video below, you can see the shark get away with the entire bait on more than one occasion.
(If you listen carefully at the end of the video you can hear one crew member say that they're out of bait, and another one jokes that he's going to report his colleague for feeding the sharks.)
We really hoped, based on reviews written by other tourists, that the experience would be like something out of the BBC's Planet Earth series, but it felt more like we had just attended an illegal dog fight. Luckily, we were able to experience this for free, but most tourists pay upwards of $400 US to partake in this horrendous activity.
If, despite all this, you still want to try shark cage diving in South Africa, please email us first so we can warn you about the tour company we used. Needless to say, they were pretty shady .