Diving with Sharks
In the tiny fishing village of Kalkbaai, just south of Cape Town, I wandered along the harbour and saw fur seals diving for by-catch in the harbour and children playing around the lighthouse. One stallholder noticed my interest in the seal and offered to sell me a fish to feed it.
In Hermanus we watched big winter swells from the southern ocean crash against the rocks for hours. In the more sheltered coves nearby we saw the remains of a whaling station with mounds of bones stacked up behind rusted bars. Once again Grant got us out of bed in the wee hours to watch the sunrise and, later on, we explored the headland and tried to tried to coax little rock rodents called ‘dassies’ out of their holes. A few strawberry tops helped establish some trust but if we moved any faster than a sloth they scarpered.
In Gaansbai we took a charter boat out to the Dyer Island seal colony to see if we could get a look at some sharks. The small cluster of rocky islands just off the coast is home to a wide range of sea birds and marine life but it’s the permanent population of about 60,000 cape fur seals that make the area a natural hunting ground for great white sharks. On the journey out we were investigated by a few curious seabirds. One rather bulky looking shearwater came in and swooped low again and again and then matched speed with the boat. One of the crew gave me a handful of bread and soon I had the bird feeding from my hand while it was still flying. The boat took us to the seal colony on Dyer Island And kept its distance but we could still clearly hear the sound of thousands of barking seals over the wind and the engine noise. The reefs in the area are notorious. It was on this stretch of coast that the HMS Birkenhead sunk in 1845. The discipline maintained by the crew and soldiers during the evacuation gave rise to the concept of ‘women and children first’.
From Dyer Island we went a little further out into a stretch of water known as ‘shark alley’. The crew began throwing out nets and hauling in bait fish which they poured into big plastic buckets and pulped with a flat shovel. Having made short work of their catch they began chumming the water and throwing out foam lures on ropes to draw in the sharks. The captain of the boat- a grizzled looking Afrikaner – perched himself on a boom over the water like a paunchy version of Quint from Jaws and began shark spotting. Before too long there was a shark, several meters long, circling the boat looking for the source of all the gore.
In order to keep their costs down most tour operators don’t provide SCUBA equipment. Instead each person is given a wetsuit and a diving mask and divided into groups of about four or five. Each group gets a turn in a narrow cage that is semi-submerged alongside the boat. The spotters wear polarised sunglasses that help cut down the glare off the water. When they see a shark approaching they call out the direction and all the ‘divers’ duck under the water to take a look. The water was a murky green with maybe five or six meters visibility- hampered somewhat by the blood and tiny shreds of bait. The chum doesn’t attract just sharks of course, and schools of little fish swam around the cage and provided a sort of early-warning system for their larger brethren.
Before long a great white made a pass in front of the cage. Each time a shark got within range the crew would throw out a severed tuna head on a line and try to lure the shark in closer. At the last moment they’d haul in the fish and the shark would surge past the cage, all teeth and fury, and then peel off back into the green. The sudden movement of the water made it easy to lose purchase on the horizontal foot bar and I found myself having to pull my legs back within the confines of the cage on a few occasions. Up close the sharks look weathered and scarred. Great whites live for up to 70 years and don’t reach maturity until their late 20s so they have plenty of time for run ins with other sharks and prey species. Nobody is quite sure how many of these creatures are left but even the most optimistic estimates put them squarely in the ‘threatened species’ category.
Like a lot of tourism in South Afrika the ethics of cage diving is murky. Proponents say that this sort of eco-tourism has a positive knock-on effect for conservation efforts because it turns tourists into advocates for the species that they personally encounter. A recent editorial in Australian Surf Magazine Liquify sums up the theory as follows:
…If we give people more access to the great white sharks, let them see their grace and power up close, first hand and from all angles, we create a world of informed, sensible and conservation minded people. By eliminating the hysteria and replacing it with real contact and experience, the world becomes more knowledgeable, and ultimately more respectful every single day towards the magnificent predators we have such as the white sharks
But in South Africa the resistance to cage diving is keeping pace with the growth of the industry. Fisherman and surfers have attributed increased contact with great whites to the increase in activity by dive companies. Likewise a number of marine biologists have suggested that routine chumming may disrupt the feeding patterns of the sharks and using seal decoys near cages conditions the animals to associate humans with prey. Andre Evans, writing for national Geographic, takes the industry to task on a point-by-point basis (read it here). He closes out the article by challenging the basic assumption that underpins this type of eco-tourism:
Despite claims that such close encounters with great whites help “raise awareness”, the motivating factor and resulting reality of the entire shark cage diving industry is the thrill of recreating a “Jaws” moment for paying customers.
From what I’ve seen, tourists return home, not with a change of hearts towards great white sharks and a commitment towards saving them, but rather with their proud underwater photo or video next to the ocean’s apex predator—a phony symbol of bravado and fearlessness, not unlike the hunting trophies of the Victorian era’s great white hunters.
Advertising and selling testosterone-fueled “adventure” as a checkmark of courage or masculinity does not encourage a culture of tender feelings and awareness towards great white sharks, no matter how much rhetoric you cage it in.
Like the seals following the trawlers and dassies in the rocks and the shearwater that I fed there’s no doubt that sharks are learning from their interactions with humans. Food, even the smell of it or the promise of it, is a powerful motivating force for all species. The changes to shark behavior that will inevitably result from continued human contact are unlikely to improve their chances of survival. But it is hard to resist the temptation to interact with wild creatures and to touch them or feed them or get close to them in some way.
There seems to be something very primal about wanting to communicate with animals on some level. When we see something in the wild we seem to always want to say ‘I’m here at the edge of your world. What do you make of me?’ It’s an instinct that’s served us well in the past because domesticating animals has helped human societies thrive for as far back as the archaeological record extends. All those dogs, horses, camels and draught animals we relied on throughout history were all flighty wild creatures at some stage. Now that we don’t need them and their natural habitats have been squeezed to breaking point we still can’t seem to shake the need to interfere. It takes a combination of personal restraint and social education to dampen that instinct but if we’re too successful in discouraging people from visiting wild places we run the risk of making people indifferent to the creatures that live in them. Arguably that indifference poses an even greater threat to the long-term survival of many threatened species.
If you’re looking for more lighthearted things to do on the eastern cape Kimmie Conner has an exhaustive guide to Cape town and its surrounds on her blog. When we were there we climbed at Silvermine in the Table Mountain National Park and it was by far the most scenic crag I’ve been to.