Some interesting footage on the news this week; a white shark tried to get in a cage with a diver.
I was especially fascinated as I did a very similar shark dive in Gansbaii a few years ago.
Gansbaii is two hours drive west of Cape Town, swept by winds and foam, and protected by the arms of False Bay.
Dive operators run shark boats out to Dyer Island and what is known as Shark Alley.
It’s a controversial business: it has been suggested that as operators use bait to attract sharks to the boats, the great whites are being trained to associate humans with food.
The operators scoff at this.
Sharks are nomadic they say, so they cannot be trained the same way as you would train a dolphin or a beagle. Every day there are different individuals.
The whites don’t sit around waiting to be fed and doing tricks.
It takes less than an hour to motor out to Shark Alley enough time for several of the divers to get sea sick.
Hansie, the skipper, drops anchor and starts chumming from the stern, using gaffe hooks on a float.
He tells us Great Whites are not the lonely hunters they are often portrayed; they are quite social creatures and swim in packs of ten or more. They have strategies for dealing with new situations as we will see for ourselves shortly; they always circle any object they are curious about, then swim past – or swim straight at it – looking for a reaction.
Within minutes the first white noses in to check our bait, finning from the deeps.
It noses past the bait on its first run, then dives. On its second run it makes straight for it; Hansie snatches it away at the last moment and the shark, a youngster and nervous, gives a flick of its tail and is gone.
We clamber into the shark cage and are lowered into the water.
There are four of us – ‘a four course meal,’ Hansie laughs as we climb in.
The cage is not as sturdy as I had hoped; I had imagined steel bars as you might find in a maximum security prison.
This one is open at the top, and the steel bars are wide spaced and no thicker than my little finger.
Someone asks Hansie if the shark will try and jump into the cage and eat us. Hansie thinks this is very funny.
Who wants to eat a chocolate while it still has the silver wrapper on?
As you have seen in the video, his confidence is slightly misplaced.
Hansie sets the chum again. “Down, down!” he yells as another bigger sharks noses in.
This time he brings the bait alongside the cage. I am eye to eye with my first white pointer, an adult female, looking larger than her three point five metres through the tempered glass of the dive mask.
She is beautiful, sleek and blue-grey, with scars on her back from mating. Her white belly flashes as she rolls from the deeps.
It is like staring at a nuclear submarine: you know she can cause utter devastation but you have to admire the engineering.
She lunges at the bait, then slides away under the hull no more than a metre away.
We all surface at once in a stream of bubbles, laughing and excited.
We catch our breath and Hansie chums again.
This time the bait catches in the mesh of the cage and the next white does not back off. She fins out of the water and clamps her teeth onto the buoy on top of the cage.
And there she is, just three feet away; I have eye contact with a hungry thirteen foot monster with a mouth like a chainsaw.
Suddenly there is not enough space in the cage; three of us try to climb into the wetsuit of the guy at the far end.
Our ordeal lasts only a few seconds.
The cage lurches and shakes as the shark clamps down on her prize and tries to wrest it free, like a dog tearing at a bone.
I don’t have a very clear view of it; there is a lot of yelling and someone tears my mask off with a flailing hand. I swallow some water in the affray.
If this was Jaws, she would have eaten the bait, the cage, the boat and Hansie as well. But she has no interest in the cage, or in us.
Luckily, she hasn’t read Peter Benchley’s script.
She breaks away, bumping the cage with her massive body.
All in all we see over two dozen whites. The day dispels for me the myth of the white as a remorseless hunter of human flesh.
The shark does what it does, it is not Jack the Ripper, and the truth is we don’t know why they sometimes attack humans and sometimes they don’t.
If sharks were truly perverse they could have tried to muscle into the cage and eat us; the fact that none of them did is, in my humble and unbiased opinion, to their everlasting credit.
But they are not always as accommodating; check this out …
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