A Close Encounter with Jaws
If you’ve ever been fascinated by great white sharks, but shudder at the thought of actually coming into contact with them in nature, it’s time to face your fears. Over the past several years, cage diving with real-life Jaws has become one of South Africa’s most popular wildlife adventures.
To experience your own meet-and-greet with these mighty predators, get up early and head to Gansbaai, a quaint fishing village just 2 hours by car from Cape Town. Most dive boats depart from here and explore the waters around Dyer Island, a breeding ground for penguins, and Geyser Rock, home to more than 50,000 seals. The channel between these two islands is known as “shark alley,” and it’s arguably the world’s best viewing spot for great white sharks. Thousands of the migratory creatures move through this area during the South African winter. For more information about protecting sharks and their marine environment, check out the South African Shark Conservancy (www.sharkconservancy.org).
After a quick breakfast and an informative overview about what you’ll soon see, it’s time to set off into the Indian Ocean, where you’ll be on the water for approximately 4 hours. (Tip: If you tend to get seasick, take precautions; the seas can get extremely rough.)
As you start out enjoying the views from your relatively safe perch on the boat’s deck, your crew will search for a place to anchor. Once settled, they’ll begin spooning fish-based chum—a smelly mixture of mashed up sardines, sardine oil, and tuna—into the water to begin attracting the stars of the show. Soon, it’s time to overcome your trembling knees and dive in for a closer look.
Dressed like a seal in a black hooded wetsuit, with big goggles and a mask on your face, you and four other passengers will get into a metal cage that’s tethered to your boat in the water, and wait. From overhead, the crew will quickly hang ropes with live bait—probably tuna—trying to lure the sharks even closer to you. When the dive master yells “shark, on the bait,” you’ll drop into the cold cloudy water, with goggle-covered eyes wide open. You’ll spend about 20 minutes in the cage below the surface.
If you’re lucky, an open-jawed great white will swim right past you, dive for the bait as the crew swiftly takes it away, maybe knock your cage, and continue on its way. The waters can be murky, making visibility low, but even a young shark grows to almost 4m (12 ft.) and weighs nearly half a ton, so it’s pretty hard to miss. Once you’ve got a dorsal fin in your line of sight, hold steady and, if you dare, try to catch a glimpse of its deep blue eyes before it whooshes past you.
Cape Town Tourism Information Center, Shop 107 Clocktower, V&A Waterfront ( 27/21-405-4500; www.tourismcapetown.co.za).
Tour: Marine Dynamics Tour, Gansbaai ( 27/028-384-1005; www.sharkwatchsa.com).
When to Go: July–Sept.
Cape Town Airport.
$$ The Cape Cadogan, 5 Upper Union St., Cape Town ( 27/21-480-8080; www.capecadogan.com).