It has been one of my bucket list items for some time to get to Gansbaai in the Western Cape for the famous white shark cage diving that in recent years has become such an iconic venture travel activity in South Africa. Gansbaai is located at the southern end of Walkers Bay in the Western Cape, an hour or so drive from Cape Town, and at the opposite end to Hermanus, arguably one of the loveliest of the little towns that dot the coast of the Western Cape.
Just by way of background, Gansbaai is the closest launch point to Dyer Island and Geyser Island, both hard offshore, and each part of a carefully managed nature preserve wherein a number of species, but most particularly some 60,000 Cape fur seals, breed. This attracts large numbers of great white sharks, lending the channel between the two islands the epithet Shark Alley. The region is also famous for the annual breeding runs of the Southern Right Whale, celebrated at the end of September every year in the Hermanus Whale Festival.
Both whale watching and shark cave diving are huge tourism draws into the area, the latter competing with Kruger National Park as the single biggest tourist draw into South Africa for a single activity. Both are handled by a number of commercial operators, and in fact the whole enterprise has a very commercial flavor – somewhat akin to the river rafting and bungi jumping that takes place in Victoria Falls – so it can be a bit of a production line. However, once again, my mantra is that the more commercial eco tourisim is, the more assured the survival of whatever resource is being showcased, in this case Great White Sharks, which had been until quite recently hunted down to a critically vulnerable level.
The routine is fairly simple. Bookings are usually made through your hospitality provider, although of course a number of preplanned itineraries will include White Shark Cage Diving as a standard activity. It pays to be a little bit selective about who you go with. Not naming any names, but some outfitters are very backpacker orientated and so cater for large numbers on as lean a budget as possible. The net result of this is a slightly over crowded boat, basic facilities and a quick and high turnover. Others, however, more pricy of course, offer a slower, more comprehensive service with better boats, better kit and less of a crowd.
Either way its ok. The star of the show is the Great White. The routine is straight forward. Boats launch out into Shark Alley, or thereabouts, seeding the waters with chum, and throwing out a large chunk of bait which is agitated in the water to gain the attention of cruising sharks that alternate their attentions between the various boats. It does not take long for sharks to begin to appear alongside the boat.
Sightings of really big sharks – five meters plus – are quite rare, the average being three meters, but even so as a dark shadow plies the water beneath the boat, it is an impressive sight.
The cage is then lowered over the side and maneuvered into position alongside the boat. Entry is with a wet suit and mask only. Scuba bubbles appear to unnerve the fish, so divers are warned of an approach and plunge down into the cage, holding their breath to observe the momentary pass as the huge fish cruises by. Occasionally the shark breaks the surface, offering excellent photo ops, but for the most part it circles the craft for a short while, attracted by the chum, moving on soon afterwards to be replaced in due course by another.
I would not say that the experience was adrenalin fueled, as I had expected, but compelling nonetheless. During the course of several hours a number of sharks were in attendance, and everybody on board had ample opportunity to see and photograph the experience.
As is always the case, the experience is embellished by good guiding, and in my case, again not naming names, the high-turnover factor was evident, but again, as is always the case in South Africa, the staff were slick, knowledgeable and attentive. All questions were authoritatively answered, a lot of knowledge was exchanged, and I believe everyone stepped off the boat more than a little educated and entertained. An altogether outstanding and worthwhile experience.