ULTIMATE GUIDE TO SHARK CAGE DIVING IN SOUTH AFRICA
The great white shark (Carcharodoncarcharias) is on the bucket list for many and where better to see this legendary species than in South Africa. With only a few places in the world one can view white sharks, South Africa has the most accessible population of white sharks and is the most affordable. Other sites are Guadalupe (USA) and the Neptune Islands (Australia), both renowned for their visibility and large sharks. However, both require considerably more distance to be covered and are a lot more expensive than South Africa. In South Africa, there are three key sites: False Bay, Mossel Bay, and Gansbaai. False Bay has a limited season of the winter months due to its proximity to Cape Townbut Gansbaai and Mossel Bay are year round accessible sites for white shark viewing.
Gansbaai operators work around the Dyer Island ecosystem. The natural scent from the almost 60 000 Cape fur seals on Geyser Rock naturally attracts white sharks as they move through the area. White sharks are migratory often travelling large distances before they are seen again at coastal sites. During the winter months they hunt around the island system as young Cape Fur Seal pups take to the water for the first time. In the summer months the sharks are found in the inshore areas where the boats will follow in order to get an encounter. Often when encountering naturevarious factors may affectspecies sightings. Weather also plays a part and the Western Cape of SA experiences winter storms so always plan a few extra days in the schedule if this activity is really on your bucket list.
In understanding shark cage diving in South Africa, one first has to understand the great white shark. The white shark has been demonised for many years when once the thought was that the only good shark was a dead shark. Thankfully, South Africa was progressive in protecting this critical apex predator and did so from 1991, although looking at the low estimate of numbers in Gansbaai, South Africa (possibly around 800 to 1000) and the slow maturing of the species, their recovery is alarmingly slow. World estimates are debated due to the difficulty of modelling populations of white sharks but it is generally agreed that their numbers are considered low throughout their global range.
White shark cage diving has been recognised as a vital conservation tool, critically important for the species’ conservation in Southern Africa where it is a highly threatened species. Without shark cage diving, white sharks would not be monitored and policed daily in South Africa. This would then open up the very real threat of illegal fishing
for them once again. One analogy to consider would be the Mountain Gorillas that have trackers monitoring them daily – this is only possible through the funding generated by gorilla eco-tourism itself. Without this form of tourism it is not likely the gorillas would have survived poaching. There are also positive spin offs for the community which is the same with shark cage diving.
The white shark population in Gansbaai is open, thus sharks do not live in the bay year round. They are transient, and usually spend a few weeks to a maximum of a few months per visit and there seems to be a high degree of site fidelity where individuals return back to the site intermittently between migrations. Preliminary satellite tracking data shows that white sharks undertake extensive longshore migrations and will often remain away from Gansbaai for as long as a year or two. The majority of the Gansbaai white shark population migrates east, temporarily residing in other coastal areas along the South Western Cape to Mozambique. Certain individuals, particularly large females, make large forays into the Indian Ocean, the furthest journey on record being a return visit to the west coast of Australia and back, a distance of 22,000km. They also migrate to unprotected waters such as those off Mozambique where they are targeted by local fishermen and sadly their fins are sent off to the Far East. Even along the South African coastline, they face dangers such as the bather protection shark nets in Kwazulu Natal. Research of the great white shark is key to their survival and daily monitoring by biologists working in the shark cage diving industry has been essential in understanding the pressure on the population. If we understand the pressures on this species we can help drive conservation decisions at a government level. Another positive spin off is the change in perceptions and after observing the species in its natural environment, people from all over the world are becoming great white shark ambassadors.
We are also privileged to see another shark species around the boat – the bronze whaler shark (Carcharinusbrachyurus) otherwise known as the copper shark because of its distinctive golden colouration. This species is found in temperate waters and usually seen in groups. Bronze whalers can grow up to 3.3m in length during its 25 to 30 year lifespan. Nowhere else in the world can one dive with this shark so close to shore.
Should you be anoverall nature lover, there are whale watching / eco tours available. In a bid to view the Marine Big 5 – sharks, seals, dolphins, whales and the endangered African Penguin plus many seabird species. We encourage tourists and tour operators to choose an operator that is actively supporting conservation efforts. Marine Dynamics believed that “YOUR CHOICE MAKES A DIFFERENCE.” Marine Dynamics with their ten year established Dyer Island Conservation Trust has initiated many conservation projects. Besides invaluable shark research on population, wound healing, movement patterns and predator movement ecology and pressure, there are major penguin conservation strides being made from the nest project addressing fledgling success to the establishment of the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary. Visitors to the area can also visit the African Penguin and Seabird Sanctuary. Open every day, entrance is free and there is a public feeding time at 3pm. www.dict.org.za