When we woke the next day we found it was overcast and spitting rain. So we took our time and enjoyed a leisurely morning, which included a bath for me in the fabulous tub in our room. We’ve really enjoyed the tubs we’ve encountered because they are usually longer and deeper than standard American bathtubs. In this case the room also provided some nice soaking salts. At breakfast we met a nice Scottish/German family. Robin, the Scottish father, was also going on our Shark excursion and we agreed to give him a ride to the departure point so his family could do other things. Since he had been there the day before for a whale watching tour, he could show us the way.
Gansbaai is a small fishing village next door to De Kelders where we were staying. On the other side of that is Kleinbaai, where you find The Great White House. This is the home base of Marine Dynamics and Dyer Island Cruises, sister companies that do shark cage diving excursions and whale watching respectively. The company is also heavily involved in marine conservation in the area. The drive was only 10 minutes or so and quite easy. We were greeted by the staff at Marine Dynamics and brought to a room where they provided some drinks and snacks while we waited to be checked in. Then they gave a welcome talk, described what we’d be doing, and showed us a video with all the details. After we signed a liability release, we were all led down to the water where the boat is kept and issued life jackets and slickers.
The basic setup is that you go in their specially designed boat out to the area where the great white sharks hang out, they lay a scent trail for the sharks to follow, and go and anchor. Then you wait for sharks to show up. When they do, up to 8 people at a time climb into a cage which is tied to the side of the boat and floats just under water. Standing on the bottom of the cage, your head is above water. When the sharks swim by, you lower yourself under water and look through a mask while holding your breath. On a bright sunny day with lots of sharks I can see this might be kind of cool.
Our day had cleared up a lot from the morning, but it was quite windy with the possibility of some swells. Most of the time they go out to “Shark Alley” which is between Dyer Island and Geyser Rock. People who are fans of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week on tv will recognize the name. There is a huge colony of cape fur seals on the rock–perhaps 60,000 strong– which is why the sharks hang out there. On our day, the captain decided the swells were probably too big to comfortably anchor in Shark Alley, so we went to the shallows. The shallows is where the sharks are often found at this time of year anyway, so there was still a good chance we’d see them.
The trip out didn’t take that long and once we reached the area and had laid the scent trail, we anchored. On board they gave out wetsuits, hoods and booties, and most people donned them right away. I accepted one, but decided to wait and see whether I wanted to get in the water before putting it on. I had heard there weren’t as many sharks around as usual, so I wasn’t sure we’d even see anything. The biggest problem people have on this trip is sea sickness. Once they anchor the boat you are susceptible to whatever swell comes through, and those waters are not known for calmness. Sure enough, it started almost immediately. People began getting sick and the crew went about handing out sick bags, moving people to the front of the boat, and fetching water and juice or a snack to help. It was understandable since the boat was definitely rocking. I usually have no trouble on boats, but I’ll admit I sometimes found myself concentrating on the horizon. Fortunately the sick bags and the breeze meant there was virtually no smell and everyone was incredibly discreet, so the proximity casualties were minimized. In any event we sat and waited. And waited. And waited.
We’d been told it can sometimes take a couple of hours for the sharks to show up. A couple of hours went by and still no sharks had appeared. We waited some more. I guess they don’t like to give up. Their policy is to refund half your money if you don’t see any sharks, so that’s another incentive to stay out. After at least 3 hours, all of a sudden they said “Here we go!” and there was a flurry of activity. I was sitting up top by this point enjoying the sun and watching the seagulls. We all rushed to the side to look over and saw a great white shark swim by. A crewman had some fish heads on a line with a float to entice the shark to come to the surface. After a couple of passes Michael ran below to get in the cage.
When the shark came by he stole the bait in one big bite, float and all. I don’t think this is supposed to happen. It’s supposed to be bait, not dinner.
Here is the shark taking his bite of free dinner.
A few minutes later, the float resurfaced with a frayed piece of line attached. They put out some new bait and we waited again.
It was a while before another great white shark came by. The water was pretty cold even with a 7mm wetsuit. Michael said it was colder than Jeffrey’s Bay, probably in the low 50’s Fahrenheit. Some of the people got out of the cage and others took their place. Many were still just feeling queasy. Michael stayed in the longest of anyone!
We saw one or two more passes of a shark, but no more serious tries at the bait.
After an hour and a half they pulled the plug and we headed back to shore. It had turned into a beautiful sunny evening, but there were still a lot of sick people on board.
Culturally, the great white shark has been demonized by movies and sensational media coverage. In reality, they are just another beautiful sea creature. I didn’t find our encounter with them to be scary. Granted, I was on a boat, but even in the water, it was clear they were not interested in eating the people. It would have been nice to see more of them and more clearly, but at least we saw them. That completed the Big Seven for us. You may have heard of the Big Five which refers to the Lion, Leopard, Rhino, Buffalo, and Elephant. The term originated when going on safari referred primarily to hunting the animals instead of photographing them. The Big Five are the five most dangerous animals to hunt on foot. South Africa touts the Big Seven which adds in the Great White Shark and Southern Right Whale (or other whales).
Back on shore we drove with Robin back to Whalesong Lodge. All in all, what was supposed to have been a four hour trip had turned into five and a half, so we were ready for a gin and tonic on the deck. We enjoyed chatting with Robin and his family while we admired more whales and the setting sun. Later we walked to dinner nearby and had some good food and a particularly entertaining waiter.