While planning our trip to Cape Town, South Africa, one adventure activity stood out from the pack: cage diving with great white sharks.
Despite being an avid Shark Week fan and witnessing way too much footage of swimmers becoming shark bait, Sam and I decided it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity we couldn’t pass up. But also a once-in-a-lifetime activity we didn’t need to mention to our mothers, because even though we’re “adventurous,” we’re not downright suicidal.
After doing a lot of research, we chose to dive with Marine Dynamics because of the company’s high safety record, conservation effort, and good reviews. The night before our excursion, we received an email with our pick-up time: 2:35am.
We stumbled out of our hotel at around 2:30 the next morning and found a 15-passenger van waiting for us. Since we were staying on the outskirts of Cape Town, we were the first people to be picked up. For the next hour, we drove around the city picking up other semi-awake adrenaline junkies.
Other than a brief greeting as each person joined our tribe, we rode in blissful silence, since it’s an unspoken law of civilization that people who talk before 4:30am deserve to be shot. Or at least permanently exiled to Antarctica. I dozed in and out of sleep during the 3-hour van ride.
We arrived at the dock in Gansbaai shortly after the sun began to peak above the horizon, and we all piled out of the van and into the Marine Dynamics lodge for breakfast and orientation.
A surfer dude/marine biologist welcomed us and mentioned that even though this area of South Africa is one of the best places in the world to view great white sharks, there hadn’t been many sightings lately because an orca was hunting and killing them for their livers.
As we munched on bread and fruit from the breakfast buffet, we watched a brief video about safety protocols and what to expect. Everyone in the video looked as perky and fresh as if they’d spent the day at an upscale spa.
Then we headed to the boat, which was bigger than I expected with two levels. Sam and I climbed onto the top deck and snagged a seat on the bench.
The water was super choppy, and the wind whipped at our faces as we rode for about 25 minutes out to Dyer Island. Surfer Dude handed out heavy-duty wetsuits.
Once we dropped anchor, the Marine Dynamics staff began to “chum” the water. Essentially, chumming involves throwing a soupy mix of fish heads and blood into the water around the boat to attract nearby sharks. It smells as pleasant as a tuna fish sandwich that was left in an eighth grade boy’s locker for 5 years and then smeared with spam and vomit.
And speaking of vomit (sorry, but it’s something I must mention), it was about this time that seasickness began to kick in hard. The steady rocking of the boat on the rough waters was enough to weaken even a lead stomach.
A couple of Australian honymooners spent the entire day puking off the edge of the boat. Not the most romantic activity, though certainly memorable. We can only hope the rest of their marriage is significantly more pleasant.
Further Reading: The Ultimate South Africa Safari Guide
Surfer Dude soon began sending groups of eight divers into the cage. Each group spent roughly 15-20 minutes in the water. We were in group three.
Surfer Dude gave us each a pair of goggles and a weight belt. We were not given an air supply (apparently none of the operators in South Africa do). Instead, we were instructed to hold onto the inner row of bars and then hold our breath and duck under the water when he shouted “down!”
The frigid water was a shock to my system, even though I was wearing a thick wetsuit. Once in the cage, I grasped onto the bars and took some deep breaths as my body adjusted to the icy temperature.
We waited for a few minutes and then I heard Surfer Dude yell “down!” Along with everyone else, I took a deep breath and plunged to the bottom of the cage. The water was murky, and I couldn’t see more than a few inches in front of me.
Since I have the lung capacity of a malnourished chipmunk, I soon resurfaced to take a breath. I’d missed it.
A few minutes later, Surfer Dude sent us down again. This time I saw a long grey shark swim directly in front of me.
Surfer Dude told us it was a copper shark. Our toothy friend made several more passes as our hearts raced in delight.
Unfortunately, the longer we stayed in the water, the worse I felt. To attract the sharks, the on-board staff threw the chum close by the cage. So we were essentially swimming in a pool of bloody fish guts. That, combined with the fact that the girl beside me was discreetly puking into the water, made me feel like I was trapped in a sewage tank. After accidentally swallowing a few drops of water, I wanted to gargle with strychnine.
I was relieved when Surfer Dude told us to climb out so the next group could have a turn.
Back in the boat, we headed to the bow to lie down. I couldn’t shake the seasickness, and apparently I wasn’t the only one. From where I was laying, I could hear people throwing up all round me. It was like the soundtrack to a horror film.
After everyone had a turn in the water, the boat began to head back to shore. Surfer Dude told us to change out of our wetsuits and return them. My swimsuit was soaking wet, so I ducked into the restroom to change.
Once inside, however, I realized that entering that bathroom was the worst possible decision I could make. Like, a bad decision on par with shoving my fingers into an electrical outlet or steaming my pants while wearing them.
The stench. The horrible, eye-watering, paint-peeling, mind-numbing stench. To make matters worse, I discovered that the only thing harder than putting on a dry wetsuit is taking off a wet one. The boat rocked, and I wobbled back and forth as I peeled it off inch-by-inch and tried not to breathe.
Once back at the dock, we climbed off the boat—noticeably less peppy than before—and returned to the lodge for a light lunch (no one was hungry) and debriefing.
About an hour later, we were crammed in the van and headed back to Cape Town.
Unexpectedly, one of the highlights of the excursion was our coastal drive back to Cape Town. Our driver excitedly stopped the van at one point and told us all to get out and take our cameras. Then he pointed down to the water where a family of southern right whales was breaching not far from shore. We watched the whales for a long time and snapped a million pictures before piling back into the van and continuing on our way.
Though we were disappointed not to see any great white sharks, the experience was certainly memorable.
The Ethics of Cage Diving with Sharks
We are aware that cage diving with sharks is a controversial activity. Detractors argue that chumming the water teaches sharks to associate people with food. They also claim that cage diving exploits sharks for commercial gain.
On the other hand, proponents argue that the cage diving industry is raising awareness and correcting misconceptions about an often misunderstood species.
Proponents also dispute the claim that chumming negatively conditions the sharks for several reasons: First, there is a difference between chumming and feeding. Because the sharks are not rewarded with a proper meal, it doesn’t actually “condition” them to associate the people/boat with food. Second, the chum only attracts sharks that are already in the area. Finally, sharks are migratory animals, so they are not experiencing the chum regularly enough to become conditioned.
So should you cage dive with sharks in South Africa? That decision is up to you. We understand that it is a complex issue with compelling arguments on both sides. We recommend doing your own research into the subject before determining whether it is an activity you’d like to try.
Choosing a Shark Diving Tour Operator
If you decide to go for it, choosing a good tour operator is key. We dove with Marine Dynamics, and we were happy with our choice. The company is well organized and obviously cares about the animals. It has won several responsible tourism awards and is involved in conservation efforts. You can check out their website here.
Tips for Cage Diving with Sharks in South Africa
- Take anti-nausea medicine. Even if you have a steel stomach and can read a small-print book in the back row of a bus while driving through San Francisco, take stomach medicine. Neither of us normally get seasick, and we were both struggling to keep our breakfast down.
- Consider staying in Gansbaai. Traveling from Cape Town to Gansbaai the morning of our shark diving excursion meant a super long day with lots of hours spent crammed in a van. If possible, we recommend spending the night before your shark diving excursion in Gansbaai.
- Wear your swimsuit. To save yourself the hassle of changing on the boat, we recommend wearing your swimsuit under your clothes. You can also change into your swimsuit at the lodge before getting on the boat if you prefer.
- Keep a few days open in case of bad weather. Boat tours might stop operating if the water gets too choppy. If possible, we recommend leaving a few days in your itinerary open in case you have to delay your excursion. That said, we got lucky and were able to go out on our first attempt.
- Remember that seeing a great white isn’t a guarantee. Though the chances of spotting a great white shark are pretty high, the sharks might not be in the area on the day of your excursion. We were pretty bummed that we didn’t see any.
- Know that you won’t necessarily get your money back if you don’t. Seeing any shark is considered a “successful” excursion. So even though we didn’t see any great white sharks, the fact that we saw copper sharks meant we were ineligible for a partial refund.
- Don’t plan anything else for that day. You will be worn out by the end of your excursion, so keep the rest of the day free to take a nap or rest at your hotel.
Cost of Cage Diving with Sharks
The price varies by company. We paid R2,120 per person (equivalent to 168USD at the time of writing). The cost for a child will likely be less.
Getting from Cape Town to Gansbaai
Most operators will offer round trip transfer from Cape Town to Gansbaai for an additional fee. We paid an extra R550 per person (the equivalent to 45USD at the time of writing) for a shuttle bus to pick us up and drop us off at our hotel in Cape Town.
Would you go diving with sharks in South Africa?
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