Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Great White Shark Cage Diving, Cape Town

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When I decided to take this trip I knew that I would be facing (and hopefully conquering) many fears. I was prepared to face head on my fear of spiders, my neuroses about living with other people, my pickiness over what food I eat, my need for semi-decent living accommodations, but I also knew that there would be some unforeseen adventures and new experiences and I made a promise to myself that I would face them head on. Now I draw the line at bungee jumping and I just don’t think I will ever do that, but when I chose to go to Cape Town, one of the first things that flashed through my mind was Great White Sharks. I figured I would go out on a boat and try to see them, but cage diving with them, me? No Way! However, when I got to Cape Town and was faced with a pile of brochures to plan out my next week, I couldn’t help but keep drifting back to the shark diving experience. I decided just to book it before I could chicken out and I’m so glad I did. After the fact I can say it was an amazing experience, and I’m so glad I did, but I was so scared during and I can say for sure that I do not recommend the company I went with.

You hear a lot of negative press around shark diving so I wanted to make sure I went with a very reputable company that handled the well being of the sharks with the upmost importance. After doing a little research I heard that White Shark Ecoventures was one of the most eco-friendly. With that information and nothing else I decided to sign up. I should have kept reading the reviews because I would have read about how the boats are completely over crammed and the wetsuits are old, ripped, and smelly and despite their being eco-friendly they do not bring a marine biologist along. The boat was jam packed with 24 people and we could hardly move around the boat. People were pushing each other and scrambling to get out of each other’s way. There were not enough wetsuits or masks to go around and they let off a horrible stench. The overcrowding and horrid smell mixed with the rockiness of the boat to make for a wholly unpleasant experience, which left me vomiting over the side of the boat for a good two hours instead of taking pictures. When I began to get sick I couldn’t even get to the side of the boat because no one would move out of the way, so I ran to the bathroom and then got yelled at by the crew for getting sick in there. My response was to say it was the bathroom or on the backs of the people in front of me and I would be sure to vomit all over everyone next time…they were not amused.

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The trip is a lot of travel and waiting time for about 5 minutes in the water. Kleinbaai, where the boat departs from, is about a 2-hour drive from Cape Town so the dive is an all day activity, usually departing at 5am and returning around 3 or 4pm. The company said in the brochure we would be visiting shark alley and Dyer Island weather permitting, the weather was perfect, but we still parked ourselves in one spot with the sharks for 2.5 hours then turned around and went straight back giving us no chance to also see fur seals, whales or penguins. The dive itself isn’t really a dive as the cage sits on top of the water. I do not scuba, so it was very nice for me as you really just float at the top of the water and then when a shark comes by they yell to you and you duck down with your mask on and have a look around. The water was so bitterly cold that it was hard to stay down for too long, but it was such an amazing (and frightening) experience being down there while a Great White Shark rams your cage. I just bought a cheap disposable camera to snap a few underwater pictures as proof that I actually did it, but I have since heard you can rent digital underwater cameras in Gansbaii right by the departure point for the boat and have your photos put on a cd afterwards. If you are serious about getting some good underwater images I would highly suggest doing so.

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Despite my less than stellar experience I would definitely go diving again- but with a different company. I went whale watching a few days later with the Dyer Island Conservancy and I wish I could have gone shark diving with them. Their boats take out a maximum of 12 people and they are run by the Dyer Island Conservation Foundation and provide marine biologists and do solid work in the conservation community. I will talk more about my wonderful experience with them in a few days.

The Great White Shark is highly endangered due to over hunting of them and any tourism around them must be treated with the upmost care and respect. Many companies will chum the waters (an illegal act in most of the world) to attract the shark to the boat, this makes the sharks associate boats with food, which in turn makes them more likely to attack humans or be hunted by humans as they come right up to the boats. The cages themselves can also injure the sharks and it is important for companies to buy safe cages. To read more about the sharks and learn how you can help check out here.

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