Stranded at sea
The boat sways perilously, rocked by yet another swell, and our skipper attempts once again to navigate the narrow channel into Kleinbaii harbour. A roar of the engines, a sharp turn of the wheel, and we are severely listing as we fail to breach the momentous waves. Thankfully, we narrowly bypass submerged rocks, and head back out to sea to safety. Our one engine is no match for the huge waves rolling into the South African coastline in Van Dyks Bay. It is a dramatic ending to our morning of cage diving with sharks.
The skipper calls for assistance as our boat bobs gently in the bay, just a few hundred metres offshore. Heinrich, our guide, calmly starts handing out life jackets, and before long the deck is a sea of orange. Sixteen women, men and children calmly await rescue from another boat. Well, all apart from our group of four. We are rather raucous, during this dramatic end to our trip to see the great white sharks.
Cage diving with sharks in South Africa
When our day started, we expected the biggest danger to be that of the great white sharks we were hoping to encounter during our cage dive. Little were we expecting mother nature’s impressive waves to be the biggest threat to our safety. Two storey waves crashing angrily onto the shore, rampaging over rocks in their way, are the barrier to our safe return.
As dawn broke, we blasted out of the same narrow gully, with two engines at full throttle. We marvelled at how easily the feisty ‘Barracuda’ breached the huge swells, and how the sea gave us the roller coaster ride of our lives. Once through those swells, from our perch on the top deck, we sat back to enjoy views of the stunning South African coastline. Dramatic mountains appeared to rise mystically from the sea, covered in shimmering haze, and fringed by savage waters battering the rocks below.
Anchoring in Van Dyks Bay
Before long, we anchored close to a few other boats and Heinrich started our briefing. A weathered South African, with a very British sense of humour, he put any fears to rest with jokes about shark bait. I think he was talking about us!
There’s no joking however when it came to safety. The instructions for safe use of the cage were repeated twice, which I’m grateful for considering I have the attention span of a gnat.
Attracting the sharks
Before long, staff lower the cage into the water and ease it into place on the side of the boat. They tether it tightly to the side and Heinrich gives orders to the staff. The crew, in oilskins, chum the water to attract the sharks. This combination of fish parts, bone and blood is designed to replicate the smell of food without actually feeding the sharks. Feeding is strictly prohibited in South Africa to protect the natural behaviour of the sharks. It creates a pungent slick on the water which the sharks can smell from miles away.
It doesn’t take long to attract their curiosity as an excited cry signals their arrival. A whopping shark cruises gracefully into sight and tries to chew the rope. John captures the perfect shot of this majestic creature rising from the depths, jaws wide open like a scene from a movie. Wow, our first shark is one of the biggest I’ve ever seen.
Into the blue
Heinrich urges the first group of divers into the cage to enjoy the display of shark behaviour in its full ferile glory. Michala did such a great job of being our group photographer for the day that I’m going to let her photos do the talking. It’s hard to describe how breathtaking is the beauty and grace of this huge creature.
We are also fortunate enough to see a huge stingray glide by the cage. Also a member of the shark family, these creatures are as graceful as any ballerina and I’m mesmerised.
Into the cage
Before long, it’s our turn to jump into the cage. It has seven compartments, one for each diver and padding along the top and back. We lean back in the cage and only put hands, knees or feet on the yellow safety rail. Whenever a shark is spotted, the deck hands urgently shout ‘down, down’ and we drop hurriedly into the chilly waters. We peer myopically through the holes trying to glimpse these huge predators. Be warned, sharks wait for no one and if you take too long to manoeuvre into place, you will be disappointed. Jason and I repeatedly popped up shaking our heads whilst others chattered excitedly about what they had seen.
Eventually, I descend to see a huge hulk of shark swirling past, flicking its fin in melodic movement. The belly of this beauty is mammoth, and seems to stretch the length of the cage. I linger in the chilly waters for almost an hour, and enjoy occasional sightings of the sharks.
The anticipation is immense, a frisson of excitement at every call, a sharp intake of breath as I descend into the murky waters scanning for sightings. On one occasion, the shark arrives and slams its tail fin into the cage, as it turns fervently. The cage shudders and jerks and a cauldron of bubbling waters surrounds us, but even then I feel no fear. Its truly exhilarating, but over all too soon with the call to return to shore.
Not long after heading for home, we hear a small pop and feel the boat lose power. I don’t really think too much about it as the boat has two engines and there are plenty of other boats around. It’s not as though this is a jaws movie set where the shark will try to eat the boat!
Entering the strait
The crew restart the boat, and we limp towards shore, a little less powerfully than on our outward journey. I’m not even alarmed when Heinrich asks us to come down and sit in a specific place below deck to redistribute the weight. Alas however, from our seat in the cockpit, it quickly becomes evident that one engine is no match for these Herculean waves. Despite valiant attempts to hurtle through them, the skipper has to repeatedly skilfully manoeuvre the boat in a frenzied dance through the waves. I can hear him chattering on the radio for assistance, and it becomes apparent we need help as we battle back out to the relative calm of the bay.
Rescued by the Whale Whisperer
Heinrich jokes as he hands out life jackets, recounting much bigger tales of woes to set our minds at ease. He explains that another vessel is coming to our rescue and so we will need to transfer people and belongings to that craft in an orderly fashion. The whole transfer takes place with military precision, and absolutely no panic. I’m incredibly impressed by the organisation and people management skills. In these situations it is so easy for blind panic to take over, and all hell break loose, but our little gang are very well behaved.
In fact, the Whale Whisperer turns out to be anything but a whisperer. A powerful rib, or rubber duck as locals fondly call it, growls as the skipper lets loose on the throttle and bounces across the waves. We ease into the harbour in no time. Michala and I squeal with excitement at the unexpected power boating experience. Then, before long, a tractor tows our boat from the water and we are all safely back on land. What an adventure!
As you can see, we were far from traumatised by our experience!
Cost of dive trips with great white sharks
The cost per person is 1,700 Rand (less than £60) regardless of whether you jump in the cage or not. Note that Michala, in our group chose not to dive and if anything, got much better views of the sharks and their behaviour from the top of the boat. As thrilling as it is being in close proximity to these magnificent creatures, it can also be frustrating. You have to react at the speed of light to spot them, as they whip past creating a furious whirlpool of bubbles. If visibility is poor, as it was in April when we travelled, you may just catch glimpses of shadows in the water.
Things to know when booking your great white shark cage diving experience
The best visibility is between March and September, however I would happily do this trip again and watch from the boat to get fabulous views of these mighty creatures,
What to wear
It can get cold on the boat in the early morning so bring plenty of layers and a change of clothes if you plan to dive.
Towels are provided onboard, so you do not need to bring your own.
Water and soft drinks are also provided onboard.
You will enjoy a generous breakfast and lunch at the dive shop. This is included in the price of the trip. The mushroom quiches are to die for!
Value for money
Fantastic! John, Jason, Michala and I absolutely loved this trip. Sighting great whites was incredible but equally fun for us was the banter with Heinrich during our ‘stranding’ in the bay. I cannot recommend this company enough for the way in which they dealt with the mishap. I felt that safety was their utmost concern at all times, and Heinrich’s insight into sharks and their behaviour was fascinating