Diving with Great White Sharks in Gansbaai, South Africa!

2:31 AM Jessica Montgomery 0 Comments

“Sharks have everything a scientist dreams of. They're beautiful―God, how beautiful they are! They're like an impossibly perfect piece of machinery. They're as graceful as any bird. 
They're as mysterious as any animal on earth...” 

For as long as I can remember I've had the upmost fascination and love for sharks. When I was younger, I was borderline obsessed. I used to draw sharks all over my school folders, my room was covered top to bottom in shark posters, stuffed animals, even a bedspread (!!!), and in my soccer days my nickname came to be "Shark". 
Trust me, I have the embroidered jacket to prove it... 

My friends and family took note (and perhaps a bit of concern, haha), and fostered this appreciation with books and TV specials. (My shark trivia is still pretty up to snuff.) So it's no surprise that I grew up with a longing to see these stunning animals in person. But, like many childhood dreams and aspirations, I thought it would never happen.

But, like any adventure in life, if you don't seek it out, chase it, and take a chance a dream will always be just that: a dream.

A beauty from our boat!
Gansbaai, South Africa. 2016.

Shark cage diving comes with stigma. Many companies out there that offer shark cage dives are purely tourism-based and have little concern for the environment, the sharks, or the people who may be affected by disturbing the sharks behavior. We know very little about sharks, and to disturb their habitat by chumming not only affects the shark's behavior but it also affects swimmers and the surfing community by driving them closer to shore and seeking out an easy meal of chum (fish parts and by-catch).
So, I had quite the ethical dilemma. Should I curb my ethical principles for a selfish look?

No. There had to be another way.

So, I set out on a research bonanza trying to weigh the pros and cons and find a company that held up to my ethical standards. That is why I was beyond head over heals in love with the practices and ethic-standards of Marine Dynamics.

Marine Dynamics does host tourists and provides them with a shark diving experience, but that is not all they do. The team over at Marine Dynamics is greatly composed of researchers and environmental volunteers. The researchers use tagging methods to track the sharks in the area to better understand and support their ecosystem and behaviors.  The acoustic tagging and tracking methods used, in cooperation with boat based observational data, help build a better understanding of great white shark behavior with crucial scientific data being gathered and published. This study also helps in the understanding of the shark's predatory interactions and behaviors, aiming to not only make the ocean safer for sharks but also for us land-dwelling humans. This research is made readily available to the "tourists" on board and at home via their website and through the Dyer Island Trust. At Marine Dynamics, education comes first and the "thrill" comes second.

Big, Beautiful. Curious. Powerful. (Perhaps a Great White Shark is my spirit animal?!)

Our day started out EARLY. My parents and I had an unexpected change of plans when it came to our accommodation near Gansbaai, so we ended up having to leave from Cape Town at around... 3:00am in order to make the briefing. But. I was awake and ready by 10:00pm! HA! No time to sleep when dreams are coming true!
Prior to heading out onto the boat and into the chilly seas of Southern Africa, we were treated to an excellent breakfast (though, I recommend NOT eating beforehand if you are prone to seasickness!) and a short rundown of what to expect on the boat as well as an educational brief about the area and the animals themselves.

Once we got on the boat the adrenaline hit. The boat took off into the open ocean; waves and sea spray battered the boat in a rhythm that was on pace with the excitable beat of my heart. This was happening. This was actually happening.

The boat stopped. We squeezed into our wetsuits. We were the first group to jump into the cage! Eeeek!

My Dad managed to get one good photo while inside the cage! YES!

It wasn't long until we saw our first shark.

Our visibility was estimated at about 1 meter so to watch her emerge from the deep, cyan coloured water was an experience that I will take with me forever. She was stunning, and powerful! With one push of her tail she was gone in an instant. But then another one appeared...and another...and another! I'm not sure how long we were down being tossed around by the waves in the cage, but we had constant activity. Constant, CLOSE, stunning activity.


video

My face after being inside the cage. Happy tears!

Like I mentioned prior, Marine Dynamics puts conservation first. If it is harmful to the animal or the people involved, they do not do it. That rule applies to chumming. Many other shark-diving excursions I've seen pour buckets of blood, fish parts, and by-catch into the surrounding waters to attract sharks. This not only causes the sharks to act unpredictable but it also reinforces the notion that when the sharks see a foreigner-human, there will be blood [food].

In contrast to this practice Marine Dynamics uses a seal dummy (a wooden plank which from below the surface looks like a lone seal), fish oils, and fish heads on a line which are pulled away so the sharks are not "fed". Just another reason in the long list of reasons to choose Marine Dynamics if you happen to find yourself seeking out a shark-cage dive.

A HUGE, curious stingray came up to say, "HI!" as well. She was close to the size of my kitchen table!

'om nom nomm' -a biggin' munching on the seal dummy

Sadly, an astronomical 100 million (increasing over the years from 70 million) sharks are killed each year by humans to meet the demand of the shark fin soup industry and in order to supply faux cancer "cures" (FYI, sharks get cancer. See HERE). This number spans almost every species of shark, including those we know little about.
Shark finning is a barbaric process. Sharks are caught, drug up onto boats, and their fins (dorsal, pectoral, and caudal) are cut off. Still alive, the sharks are then tossed back into the ocean where they either drown or are eaten alive by other fish.

These animals are incredible. Beautiful. And yes, due to overly-hyped gore in popular culture they get a bad wrap. And due to this overly bad wrap, they are now facing extinction.
Shark cage diving has also gotten a bad wrap in recent years. And in recent weeks (I'm sure you've all seen this viral video by now: HERE). But videos such as this are not common and they are a result of poor management and practices. Sharks are wild, unpredictable animals and need to be treated as such.

If you plan on viewing these beauties in the wild, please seek out a research team that has its roots in study and conservation. Not just some guy with a boat. Please, DO YOUR RESEARCH. Choose a team that is the best fit ethically and environmentally. You and your experience will be better for it!

This was an incredible opportunity. I'm not sure where this ranks on my Bucket List, but I'm guessing somewhere around the Top 5. I'm also planning on investigating volunteering myself after I complete graduate school. I'm sure that experience will rank in the Top 2.

Brrrrrr! left to right: Chris, Me, my Mom, and my Dad

Interested in Marine Dynamics shark-cage diving? Click HERE
Interested in shark conservation and how you can help? Step one: Educate. 


Here are a list of resources to help you get started:
  • - The Dyer Island Conservation Trust: http://www.dict.org.za/
  • - Stop Shark Finning: http://www.stopsharkfinning.net/
  • - Louis Psihoyos' (Academy Award winning director of The Cove) latest project: http://racingextinction.com/

Explore on! 



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