Written by Andrew Hofmeyer for African Budget Safaris
It is a peculiar situation. I am in a submerged cage, tied to the side of a boat. There are sharks on the other side of the cage and I find myself looking at the shoreline trying to remember if there is a song about sardines in a can. I am not quite sure how I feel about being here. Someone shouts from above “Left!” Me and eight others duck beneath the surface, looking to the left as a 3 meter juvenile great white shark cruises by the cage.
Perhaps you have seen the video currently trending on Youtube where a great white shark ends up inside the cage. In the video seconds tick by painfully slowly as the shark thrashes about before exiting through the top of the cage. The diver emerges unharmed. Everyone is relieved but suitably horrified (alarmed) by what happened.
Now, just to clarify a few things about the video. It was shot in Mexico, off Guadalupe Island, made famous by the 20ft female Great White Shark, Deep Blue.
1. This shark was in no way aggressive towards the cage or divers but was chasing after a bait ball which you can see attached to a yellow rope.
2. These trips are run for certified divers who go there specifically to film great white sharks (it takes 20hours by boat just to get there).
3. The holes in the cage are larger than the cages here in South Africa.
4. This is to facilitate the movement of photographic equipment like underwater cameras.
5. No one was hurt.
Watching the video, I decided to see for myself what shark cage diving in South Africa was all about.
Gansbaai is home to the ecotourism outfit Marine Dynamics. I went with this operator for a few reasons. Firstly, they came highly recommended. Secondly, they have a fantastic environmental focus: owner Wilfred Chivell, founded the Dyer Island Conservation Trust (DICT), runs Dyer Island Cruises and recently opened APSS (the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary). Thirdly, they guaranteed a marine biologist on board for the trip.
The two camps
Shark cage diving is a contentious subject. The tour operators and supporters maintain that the activity is safe and in no way impacts on the shark’s behaviour negatively. Detractors on the other hand believe that chumming (putting a mix of fish oils and dead fish into the water to attract the sharks) causes them to linger closer to shore for food and raises their levels of aggression. This they maintain raises the risk of attacks on people who are using the ocean for recreation.
It is a tough debate and I have never been too sure about which side of the fence I am on. I hoped that speaking with resident caps Alison Towner would answer some of these difficult questions.
Arriving in Kleinbaai Harbour
The first thing that struck me on arrival in Kleinbaai was just how many cage diving operators there were. At 8:30 in the morning the harbour was already bustling with shark boats going out and returning. The cage diving industry brings in over 80 000 tourists per year. Marine Dynamics alone has a boat that can carry up to 40 passengers and they run three trips a day, 7 days a week. That is a lot of traffic.
Surely, I thought, this must have an impact on the sharks?
White sharks: fear and fascination
My conversation with Alison started off with JAWS. It was the movie that changed attitudes about sharks forever. It really gets to the heart of the matter, because sharks inspire most people to feel both fear and fascination. “They’re iconic” says Alison, “people come here to explore these animals based on these two emotions. JAWS was fundamental in creating those negative stereotypes and now it’s our job to break them”.
The double edged sword of fear and fascination. Is this intrinsic to the product that you are selling then? That is, in a way, you need the sharks to be sensationalised in order for people to come and see them? Yes and no. People are fascinated and it is our job to help them to fill in the blank spots. Alison says that her own journey to marine biology, inspired by her late father, was driven by the lack of information about these marine animals. “There just weren’t any answers to the questions that I was asking”.
As a tourist, when I arrived I had the perception of great white sharks being these mindless predators, black eyes rolling back into their heads. An emotionless and lethal absence of gaze “Did you know their eyes are actually blue!” Alison exclaimed when I told her this. I did not. “This is the thing about them,” she continued “we’ve got it all wrong and there is still so much about them that we don’t know. They have never been recorded mating. We don’t know where they give birth. We don’t know for certain how many there are. Most of the time we don’t know where they are or what they are doing”.
An international animal
“It’s one of the biggest problems” said Alison, “the white sharks are international animals”. They are migratory you see. One female was tracked swimming from South Africa to Australia while another crossed the Atlantic from Florida to the waters around the UK. While white sharks are protected in South African waters, once they move into international spaces, there is nothing we can do. It’s the tragedy of the commons that the sharks are at the mercy of threats within international waters like fishing fleets.
In this respect Gansbaai is pretty unique. The animals spend extended periods of time here feeding before heading off into the Indian Ocean. This makes it one of the best places to view white sharks in the world. “And what about all the boats?” I ask. Well the data is really interesting. The boats collect data every day – size, sex and behaviour. “This data is gold” says Alison who is currently working on her PhD on the movement of white sharks in Gansbaai and South African waters, particularly concerning their relationship to cage diving activities. Over time observations become patterns and it is by recognising and analysing these patterns in relationship to the environment and the human interventions that we begin to improve our understanding.
Research and Great White Sharks
There is a website called OCEARCH which tracks white sharks. Every time a tagged shark gets close enough to the surface, it sends a ‘ping’ to a satellite. This allows you to track the movements of sharks in real time. Looking at the data on the satellite maps it is obvious that sharks spend a lot of time around the South African coast, especially False Bay and Gansbaai. Then they head off into the Indian Ocean where often the signal is lost. There is no way of knowing what happens to these creatures.
Estimates of how many sharks remain in South African waters vary widely. Some scientists claim that they are nearing extinction in our waters while others say that the population is stable but vulnerable. I wondered about the evocative language on the website, “eye-ball to eye-ball” with white sharks and Alison’s comments about fear and fascination. In a cruel twist of fate the language has been reversed. The scientists watch the animals, fascinated to learn all they can in an effort to protect them. But there is a constant fear that it is too little too late. There is fear and uncertainty about their future survival.
Chumming versus feeding
Chumming to attract the sharks is often seen as potentially negative stimulus that will alter the shark’s normal behaviour. The sharks that are attracted to the boats are mostly juveniles or sub-adults. A 9ft shark (about 3 meters) is roughly ten years old. “People often misunderstand ‘chumming’ to mean ‘feeding’”. What they don’t realise is how strict the regulations are that govern the industry.
Feeding white sharks is strictly prohibited by the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT). While the sharks are attracted by the chumming there is no food reward for their efforts. It seems that being young and inexperienced, juvenile sharks are highly curious and come to investigate the boats. However, because there is no concrete reward (food) it does not reinforce the behaviour.
White sharks are specialised feeders. What they feed on depends on their age. Baby sharks feed mostly on fish while juveniles and sub-adults will feed more on seals. Adults will take on larger prey like mature seals and other marine mammals including scavenging off carcasses. Alison explains that it is all about reward. A big fish needs a lot of energy to function so the reward of the meal has to be worth the effort. Humans, for example, are mostly skin and bone and so don’t represent a favourable meal. A whale carcass on the other hand is rich in fat, making it an excellent meal.
Alison said that large adult sharks have been detected near the boats but that they seldom show themselves or investigate the bait ball. What Alison was telling me seemed to suggest that these “mindless” and “blood-thirsty” predators were actually capable of learning behaviour. When I thought back to my experience of cage diving, the sharks never seemed frenzied or erratic. They approached the boat slowly and cruised past as if just taking a look. When they did try to bite, it was to get a taste of the bait ball (a collection of fish heads), which was quickly pulled away by the operator. Cool, calm and collected.
Sharks and shark cage diving
The ecotourism trips run by Marine Dynamics generate revenue for the company and local community. From this, money is put into conservation efforts like the DICT and into sponsoring marine biologists like Alison Towner. It is part of a network that includes partners like SANCOB, the DEAT, CapeNature, UCT and others. The trips produce hard data in the form of observations about environmental conditions and photographs. This data contributes directly to the scientific database that will in the future be used for the preservation and protection of these animals.
The truth of the matter is that we have long since entered the Anthropocene era, where humans are the dominant force shaping the environment. In the case of the Great White Sharks, it is a world that still remains in the shadows and beneath the surface. Projects like OCEARCH and ecotourism ventures like Marine Dynamics are part of a small international community of people and organisations working for the good of the shark. These collaborations are fundamental to the future of conservation and each – tourism, business and science – has a valuable part to play.