The great South African bite!

The Weekend Australian

After a morning spent getting up close and almost too personal with great white sharks we return to dry land to hear the dramatic news of two shark attacks back home. Not knowing Australia was gripped by fear we’d willingly dived into the chilly Atlantic waters off South Africa specifically to get as close as possible to the world’s largest predatory fish.

Being face-to-face with Jaws is the big thrill of cage driving at Gansbaai, a fishing village two hour’s drive from Cape Town. To get within kissing distance of the most fearsome mouth in the known universe surely ranks as crazy, maybe even suicidal. But the chance of seeing such fearsome creatures in their natural environment lures hundreds of adventurous travellers each year to the “great white shark capital of the world”.

A great white typically weighs between 700kg and a ton with a length of four to five metres. Gansbaai’s claim to fame is the regular presence and close proximity of these ultimate marine predators. Weather permitting, local cage dive operators practically guarantee sightings, often confirmed within minutes of leaving the slipway.

Nowhere else are these awesome sharks found so close to the shore. Great whites can be seen in False Bay, much closer to Cape Town, but there you have cover longer distances by boat with a lesser chance of a successful sighting.

The continuous presence of sharks off Gansbaai is based on rich feeding grounds around Dyer Island, a major penguin breeding ground six kilometres offshore. The adjacent Geyser Rock is home to about 60,000 Cape fur seals. Between them runs a five-metre deep channel christened Shark Alley.

A territorial business

Our dive day starts early at The Great White House above the Gansbaai slipway, where we are kitted with red waterproof coats and orange life jackets and attend an audio-visual briefing on sharks, the local ecology and what the day might bring. We then troop down the road to board the Shark Fever, a 20-passenger purpose-built catamaran.

Within 20 minutes of leaving the harbour we have dropped anchor in the bay. We are close to a couple of other dive boats and I overhear our skipper swearing vehemently in Afrikaans. It appears that cage diving is an extremely territorial business.

The day is, however, not without humour. We spend risible minutes struggling into wet suits, our pained efforts both hilarious and exhausting as we stagger about a heaving deck half-dressed in rubber while bouncing off total strangers. Finally we are all zipped up with our facemasks secure and ready to descend into the wire cage lashed to the side of the boat.

Meanwhile a crew member has been mashing up chum, an evil looking, foul smelling mixture of fish guts, blood and tuna oil which, sprinkled into the sea, will attract the sharks to the boat. When a great white shows up a massive hunk of fish, also tied to a rope, is used to lure the shark close to the cage. The sharks are never intentionally fed although, occasionally, one manages to steal the bait.

We gasp in shock on entering the cold Atlantic. Water temperatures can be as low as 7C. Our first moments in the cage are spent being thrown about by the swell while inadvertently gulping mouthfuls seawater and panicking over where we should place our hands and feet. Eventually we relax and grasp an inside rail to steady ourselves.

Marine biologist Alison Towner yells instructions. “On my command, take a deep breath and duck underwater”. My fellow diver Tamara shouts back, “How the hell do I hold my breath when I’m already holding it?”

A shadow sweeps past

Then we hear Alison’s command, “Down! Dive!”, so push ourselves beneath the surface. Visibility is poor, a world of dark, gloomy green out of which a black shape instantly materialises, a shadow that sweeps past in a flash and is gone. Within moments the shark reappears from an entirely different direction, sending a shiver down my spine. It makes another silent pass just outside the cage with one baleful eye regarding me malevolently, or so I think.

We break the surface gasping for air and gushing with excitement, while frantically checking that our hands and legs haven’t accidently slipped through the squares of the wire cage! Almost immediately there’s another shout from above so we push ourselves down again and this time see a different shark, a much larger one, bearing down on us. Its tail lashes the cage as it sweeps by. Our underwater exclamations of shock rise to the surface in a profusion of bubbles.

The great white heads back towards us and swims past so close that I can see every minute detail down to tiny gashes in its mottled grey skin. If it had opened its gigantic mouth at that time I’m sure all four of us in the cage would instantly have succumbed to a mutual heart attack.

We spend about 15 minutes in the cage, during which time several sharks swim close and eye us languidly. It’s not until we start climbing out of the cage that things become hectic.

As Rob hauls himself up the ladder a great white suddenly snags the tethered bait and instantly surges toward the boat, its fearsome mouth agape exposing rows of razor-sharp serrated teeth. It’s Jaws alive!

Rob executes the fastest cage exit yet recorded at Gansbaai. The commotion is over in an instant yet the vivid memory of that moment will surely last a lifetime for each of us.

I visited Gaansbaai as a guest of South African Tourism

Travel Facts:

Marine Dynamics specialises in shark cage diving year round at Gansbaai.
Phone +27 28 384 1005, e-mail:

Prospective divers should note there are more great whites in Gansbaai during the winter months (May to September). Few are seen around Dyer Island during summer.

For information about travel in South Africa contact South African Tourism, Level 1, 117 York Street, Sydney, phone 1800 238 643, email:

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