Great White Sharks

While in South Africa, I spent two days on a diving boat off of Gansbaai, along the southern coast about 70 miles east of Cape Town. Offshore are several small islands that are home to thousands of sea lions. The sea lions attract sharks, particular the great white sharks (made famous by the movie "Jaws"). Great whites not only feed on the sea lions, but on other sharks as well. The channel between the islands has come to be known as "Shark Alley."

On my first day out on the boat, the seas were quite rough. Indeed, this was the first day in almost a week that boats could go out (I was there in June, the start of the southern winter and a time of frequent storms). Because of the delays, the boat was crowded with about a dozen anxious tourists. After a fifteen minute ride at high speed from the dock, we arrived in Shark Alley, anchored and Philip (the Captain) and Coenie (the Dive Master) started preparing the bait to attract the sharks. A net bag filled with bloody shark livers was tied to the back of the boat and sent an oily film over the surface of the water that is said to be irresistible to sharks. In addition, a shark's head (not from a great white – they're now a protected species) was chained to the end of a sturdy rope and floated off the stern of the boat. The idea is that the oily shark livers attract the sharks to the area, then they come after the shark's head bait while Philip works the rope to keep the bait from being devoured. After the bait was deployed, we waited, and waited – and the boat lurched among the ocean swells and most of the people aboard got sick. (I highly recommend Dramamine, which worked for me, or other motion sickness medication for anyone who is prone to seasickness.)

Within an hour or so, a great white appeared and began to warily circle the boat. It showed some mild interest in the bait, but was more intent on making sure the area was safe. Then, the shark started coming after the bait. It would swim by, appearing to have no interest, then suddenly double back and come after the bait. We had excellent views from the boat. Because of the rough seas, however, no one was able to go into the cage that day.

The second day out brought calmer seas and a less crowded boat. Although we had to wait several hours for the first shark to appear, once it did we had excellent sightings. The object is to keep the shark interested in the bait, but also relaxed so it will stay around the boat and give everyone a chance to get into the cage. The great white that finally appeared was about four meters (13 feet) long and very accommodating, giving everyone a chance in the cage. (Divers go down two by two in a wet suit, mask and weight belt, but no fins and the scuba tanks are kept aboard the boat.) Needless to say, it is quite exciting being in this small cage knowing that one of nature's top predators is only a few feet away. In fact, when you are in the cage, you are the last to know where the shark is. Everyone on the boat can see where it is, but you have no clue until the Dive Master tells you which direction to look. Visibility under the water was only four to six feet, and the shark seemed to suddenly appear out of nowhere, and disappear just as quickly. (Although I was told the previous day that the best views are from the boat, I didn't believe it until Day 2 when I got into the cage. Sure enough, the best views are from the boat. Nevertheless, being in the cage is well worth it!

After circling the boat for almost an hour and taking only a passing interest in the bait, the shark suddenly – and for no apparent reason – went into a frenzy. It started coming out of the water after the bait. Captain Philip was in a tug-of-war with the creature to keep it from consuming the bait. Finally, the shark came completely out of the water and OVER the top of the shark cage (too quickly and with too much splashing for a photograph). The two divers in the cage said they felt like they were in a washing machine. Then, suddenly, the shark was gone.

The underwater photographs shown above were taken by British photographer, Valda Butterworth, and are used here with her kind permission. To see a large collection of Valda's underwater photos, visit Image Quest 3-D.

Other South Africa pages: South Africa: Introduction, Cape Peninsula & Southern Coast, Cape Town, Djuma Game Reserve and Townships & Robben Island,