Scientists estimate that only 3 500 Great White Sharks remain in our oceans today – that’s fewer than the number of tigers living in the wild! Largely due to human myth, fear and commercial demand, more than 100 million sharks are slaughtered per annum. Fact is, you’re more likely to get struck by lightning (or a falling coconut!) than being attacked by a shark. So who is the actual monster roaming our waters? Sharks or Humans? Leisure Boating’s journalist, Anton Pretorius, travels to Gansbaai along South Africa’s Southern Cape coast to get a better understanding of the ocean’s greatest (and most misunderstood) predators.
It’s mid-morning, the sun is blazing and the temperature is already hovering around 25°C, while our big commercially-operated catamaran plunges across the lucent waters of Kleinbaai — a charming little harbour village situated near the Southern Cape fishing town of Gansbaai. These waters host the world’s densest population of Great White Sharks, hence being dubbed the “Great White Capital of the World”.
With our planned activity in mind, I couldn’t refrain from conjuring up a common nightmare, one shared by anyone who has ever looked at the sea and imagined the monsters it contains. It goes something like this:
You’re swimming in the ocean, just after dusk, salty black water surrounding you as far as you can see. Weary from swimming, you rest for a moment, letting your feet drift lazily down.
And then you feel it: a gentle swell lifting you from below, a movement of water that indicates that you are not alone in this patch of sea and that something…something big…is very nearby.
Just as the thought registers, you turn in time to see a fin edging its way through the water towards you. As it closes in, you see a giant conical snout rising, its mouth yawning open and razor-sharp teeth approaching. You wake up in a cold sweat, but quickly realise that it’s only a dream. Thanks a lot Steven Spielberg!
The preceding sentence represent a primal fear that each and every human possesses deep in their subconscious, a fear of being attacked and eaten alive. There are only an elite group of predators on Earth capable of such a thing, but none quite as terrifying as the Great White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias).
Heart-thumping fear spread throughout the world in 1975 when Steven Spielberg directed the movie, which went on to earn $100 million at the box office, and propagated the image of Great Whites as mindless man-eaters prowling dark, coastal waters for hapless swimmers or an animal whipped to a frenzy by the scent of human blood — tarnishing their reputation for more than 30 years.
But is this nightmare accurate? Are sharks monstrous man-eaters or is there another side to this magnificent, graceful creature that isn’t easily portrayed in popular cult movies or sensation-seeking publications?
“This is one of several misconceptions that humans have created about Great Whites,” said Matt Nicholson, marine biologist and tour operator at Marine Dynamics, a Shark Cage Diving and eco-marine tourism company based in Kleinbaai. “Perceived as mindless man-eaters, the shark population remains threatened as humans kill millions of sharks out of fear, and a lack of understanding.”
While Marine Dynamics operate as a business, generating their income from travelling tourists looking for an adrenaline-fuelled thrill (R1 350), they’re also an eco-responsible company, focused on the well-being of Great Whites and their environment. They’re made up of a team of shark enthusiasts who strive to place shark conservation and education foremost, conduct research and maintain structured marine education and development projects.
The Great White Shark dates as far back as 40 million years, yet most of its life is shrouded in mystery. How they move from ocean to ocean? How and where do they breed? At what age do they reach maturity? What’s their life expectancy? These and many other critically important research questions remain unanswered.
“And you thought Jaws was big”
We couldn’t have timed the trip better. At 11 am, the wind dropped to a calm 13 km/h W, and we had a clear, cloudless day overhead, a warm water temperature of 21° C and 10 m visibility. Although sightings are not guaranteed, Matt was confident that we’ll come across several Great Whites on a day like today.
With about 1 000 HP thrusting aft, the 46-ft catamaran, named “Slash Fin” made light work of the flat surface and small chop. With a comfortable cabin and all our needs catered for (snacks, drinks, wetsuits, towels, etc), we headed towards Shark Alley, an open stretch of water near Dyer Island, a 50 000-strong Cape Fur seal colony situated about 8 km from the mainland.
Matt jokingly refers to the island as “McDonalds”, as Cape Fur seals are a firm favourite on the Great White set menu. And with 50 000 “happy meals” in and around the island, Shark Alley is somewhat of a drive-through service for Great Whites. Seals who venture into this area, away from the island’s protection, do so at their own risk.
Safety is a top priority for human beings, meanwhile! A large steel cage (that can comfortably accommodate up to six divers) is mounted on the side of the cat. No diving experience or expensive scuba gear needed – only a wetsuit and diving mask (provided by the operators), and you’re ready to go!
Matt also emphasizes the company’s golden rule: NO TOUCHING – especially to those who feel the need to give the lonely-looking shark a light, loveable pat on the head. “Unless you don’t value your limbs, keep your hands inside the cage at all times,” said Matt.
At first, I couldn’t believe that a stainless steel cage with half-inch bars was the only thing between myself and the most feared predator in the world. But on closer inspection, the construction of the galvanized steel cage looked really tough, and it put my mind at ease.
Soon enough, six of us were sitting pretty inside the cage, with only black, skin-tight wetsuits, waterproof cameras and our wits about us! After a while, it occurred to me that we closely resembled a small group of trapped seals, and cold, dark eyeballs from down below was looking more and more intimidating by the second!
But kidding aside, these thrilling excursions are at the heart of a controversy flaring along the South African coast that pits the decade-old cage-diving industry against surfers and environmental activists. The critics argue that cage diving contributes to an increase in shark attacks and fatalities because of the bait tour operators use – fish oils, blood, and tuna heads – is conditioning the Great Whites to associate humans with easy meals.
Because Marine Dynamics are operators, as well as biologists and environmentalists, they understand the effect food association has on Great Whites. Which is why they enforce a strict policy of no feeding or harassing of Great Whites, but do use a specially formulated chum (made up of blood, fish oils and Tuna heads) to lure them to the boat. The chum is also a good way of showing off the shark’s strong sense of smell.
While there is no conclusive evidence to suggest that chumming leads to an increase in shark attacks, many of the operators believe that sharks aren’t necessarily out to get people! Alison Kock, a renowned marine biologist in South Africa has been working intensively with Great Whites for many years, and claims that sharks have been defamed. “Its reputation as a ruthless, mindless, man-eater is underserved,” she said.
During the past decade, Alison and other shark experts have come to realise that sharks rarely hunt humans – and that they’re sociable and curious. “Unlike most fish, Great Whites are intelligent, highly inquisitive creatures,” said Alison.
R. Aiden Martin, director of Reef Quest, a shark research facility in Canada, said that “a shark’s behaviour while hunting a seal differs noticeably from its demeanour as it approaches people – suggesting that the animal does not confuse surfers for seals”.
Submerged chest-deep in the cage, six of us clad in wetsuits, seemingly helpless, bob in the Atlantic Ocean’s relentless swell, hoping to catch a glimpse of a shark. A crewmember tossed a seal decoy to coax the “stars of the show.” Within five minutes, we hear the shark coaxer yell “Divers down right”.
We submerge into the murky waters to see a four-metre male Great White lurch towards the cage as it pursued the bait, its jaws wide open, revealing rows upon rows of razor-sharp teeth, and thrashed against the cage, causing my heart to skip what seemed like a couple of beats – one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life!
To come that close to Great White shark and seeing it in its natural environment really made me appreciate this magnificent creature. My awe was induced not by terror, but rather by curiosity. While the Great White shark might be considered an apex predator, it still has one natural predator…humans. We account for the slaughtering of a 100 million sharks each year, killed for their jaws, teeth and fins.
Since 1991, the Great White shark has been listed as “endangered” and is a protected species in South Africa. However, all over the world, sharks are succumbing to the cruel practice of “finning” – where fishermen hack off the shark’s fins and throws its still live body back into the sea. The sharks either starve to death or drown. Shark fins are “harvested” in ever greater numbers (nearly 73 million per year) to feed the growing demand for shark fin soup – an Asian delicacy.
Media sensationalism and wide- spread ignorance has given Great Whites a bad reputation. Its role as a menace is exaggerated. Sharks are not the human-eating, killing machines that films and the media make them out to be.
They’re sleek, elegant predators, highly-evolved and at the apex of the marine food chain. Great Whites don’t target people deliberately. They kill to survive – just like we do.
Saviours of the Sea
Marine Dynamics is calling on all to help protect the Great White and its environment. After my trip, I made a contribution to the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, a unique conservation and research programme that strives to protect the largest surviving colonies of the endangered African Penguin, breeding and calving grounds of the Southern Right Whale and the world’s densest populations of the vulnerable Great White Shark.
The Trust allows you to purchase a research block of sea for R150, giving you investor status and receiving a certificate and regular news updates. My donation made me feel like I made a contribution towards something worthwhile – the conservation of one of the oldest, and most fierce and magnificent creatures ever to roam the sea. And hopefully, it will for evermore. For more information on the trust visit www.dict.org.za
For bookings, reservations and more information, contact Marine Dynamics on 082 380 3405, or email firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.sharkwatchsa.com