Active travel means different things to different people. For some, hiking around the world is enough to get the old ticker pumping. But, for intrepid travelers like Carol and Mike Ivey from Curious Gypsies, only extreme heart-stopping activities will do. Hold on to your hats because the brave duo are taking us diving with Great White Sharks in South Africa.
When my husband Mike, asked what special trip I wanted for my 50th birthday, I had a ready response — dive with Great White Sharks. Not really the answer he wanted to hear, but he’s always up for an adventure. South Africa offers some of the best shark diving in the world. We made plans to travel in November, said to be one of the better months to actually encounter sharks.
Shark Diving in South Africa begins at Gansbaai
Our tour with White Shark Diving Company was based out of Gansbaai, and began on a crisp November morning. We boarded the 36-foot power catamaran boat with 13 others ready for an experience of a lifetime! I think we are all were very excited but maybe also a bit nervous. There wasn’t a lot of small talk among the passengers during the short boat ride to the dive site.
Southern Wright Whales
Spotting whales on the way out brought out some conversation in a few of us. We were fortunate enough to encounter a rather rare sight — a Southern Wright whale mom and her white baby that were floating on the surface warming themselves in the glorious sunshine. Only about 5% of these whales are born white and they turn black in their first year. After a slow pass for pictures, we continued on to the dive site.
At this time of year, you don’t have to go far offshore as the sharks migrate in to hunt the plentiful seals. The dive site is off of Dyer Island, about a 15-minute boat ride from shore. The island is home to a colony of over 60,000 Cape Fur Seals — the white shark’s favorite food and primary source of nutrition. Between Dyer Island and adjacent Geyser Rock is a channel of the ocean so frequented by great white sharks that it has been nicknamed ‘Shark Alley’.
After anchoring, the crew drops the eight-person cage and begins handing out our gear which consists of a wetsuit (needed since the water temperate is around 60 degrees at this time of year) and a mask. No scuba gear is used because these great sea predators do not like the bubbles and it can scare them away — imagine that!
Inspired to explore more of South Africa, including a shark swim of your own? Start your search for hotels in South Africa with us. Donna and Alan stayed at Birkenhead House in Hermanus when they ventured out on a great white shark viewing adventure.
On the boat ride out the crew had already assigned us into 3 groups of 5 each. The plan was that each group would rotate into the cage for about 10 minutes at a time observing the sharks as they enjoyed the bait. Since great whites are surface feeders, most of the activity takes place very close to the surface.
Bring on the Sharks
The crew began dumping a concoction they brought with them of smelly fish guts and blood overboard. Within 10 minutes we had our first great white shark circling the boat, a female about 9 feet long. A minute or two later and another 6-footer joined her. Then another much larger 11-footer showed up after that. You can feel the excitement aboard as we are all snapping pictures and guessing their sizes as each new shark showed up. Five sharks were now circling the boat and the cage. The moment of truth was upon us.
Time to Get in the Cage
I wanted to be first in the cage but we had been assigned to the second group. As anxious as I was to get in, it did give us a chance to watch from the top deck and marvel at the size of these beautiful creatures and take lots of pictures. The first group of five got into the cage. The crew pulled the bait — a large decapitated tuna fish head tied to a rope, toward the cage. South Africa is very protective of these beautiful creatures. Regulations ensure that no hooks are used and only the types of fish these sharks naturally feed on can be used as bait.
When the crew sees a shark coming toward the cage they yell down, down, down! This is when you submerge below the surface and watch the shark pass by, grab the bait and chomp down or in some cases, bump the cage as if testing to see what’s inside.
Get in the Water
After 10 minutes or so of action, the first group comes out of the cage and it’s our turn. I am so excited I am ready to jump right in! As soon as we get into the cage, the exhilarating action starts. The sharks are passing so close outside the cage that we could reach out and touch them.
Again, and again, we hear the Captain call out “Down, Down, Down” and we sink down snapping pictures as quickly as we can. We are struck by how beautiful and sleek they are. Their black eyes are deep and watchful and convey a sense of intelligence that we can appreciate in the safety of the cage. This would probably be the last thing I would think of if I encountered a great white in open water while not safely protected behind the bars of the cage!
Our turn in the cage felt like it went by way too fast. We had time for each group to have a second turn in the cage and our next turn was just as exhilarating as the first. The sharks enjoyed the bait but also seemed as interested in watching us as we were them. They passed by the cage so closely we could look right into their eyes. Almost before we knew it our dive time was up and we reluctantly headed back to shore.
Seeing the Marine Big Five
The Gansbaai coastline, especially the area around Dyer Island, is one of the best places in the world to see (and dive with) Great White Sharks in their natural habitat. It is also well known for its abundant marine life and rare pelagic bird species. The term Marine Big Five originated here thanks to the huge number of sharks, seals, dolphins, penguins, and whales that flourish in these waters. We were very fortunate on this trip to see all five! The best time of year for spotting all five is between May and December.
Interested in diving with Great White Sharks or simply watching the action? You’ll find many shark diving excursions leaving from Gansbaii or Cape Town.
Want to track great white sharks across the globe? Check out the OCEARCH tracker!
Are you brave enough to swim with sharks in South Africa? Come join the conversation at the My Itchy Travel Feet page on Facebook. Or send us an email with your thoughts.