Experience Great White Shark Cage Diving in South Africa
Lamnidae (Mackerel Sharks)
Five species belong to this family: Shortfin mako, Longfin mako, Salmon shark, Porbeagle shark, White shark.
All of them have a conical snout, lateral keels (one or two) on the peduncle and homocercal tails (the tail’s upper and lower lobe are of equal length).
|Length at birth||100 - 200 cm|
|Maximum size||About 700 cm|
|Size at sexual maturity (female)||400 - 470 cm|
|Size at sexual maturity (male)||350 - 600 cm|
Black or dark grey on their top surfaces and white on their underside. The pectoral fins have black tips on the underside and a distinctive black axiliary spot where they join the body.
White sharks are found in most oceans between 50o and 60o latitude in both hemispheres. They prefer cooler waters, close to shore but can also be found in greater depths exceeding 1000 m.
It is assumed that areas with higher densities indicate nursery areas (places where sharks are born), however, no birth has ever been observed.
Sexual maturity, pregnancy:
It takes females between 12 and 14 years to reach sexual maturity, males need 9 to 10 years. The fact that pregnant females are rarely found could indicate that they leave the others before giving birth. White sharks are aplacental viviparous, meaning they bear live young without connection to the mother (aplacental) during the pregnancy. To get enough nutrition while inside the mother, embryos feed on other eggs (oophagism). It is still not know how long an average pregnancy is but it may range between 12 and 14 months. The number of embryos carried during an average pregnancy can vary between 2 to 14.
Not much is known about their migration patterns. Some experiments with satellite tags indicate that the males migrate and the femailes prefer to stay close to one place. Some sharks can stay in the same area year after year.
Although white sharks have often been portrayed as “lonely hunters”, they are social animals and can swim in groups of 10 or more animals.
A few species of shark, including white sharks, are semi-warm-blooded with their blood tempertures stayng about 10 to 15 degrees Celsius above the surrounding water temperature. The prevention of heat loss is due to special arrangements of blood vessels (also known as wonder nets, or rete mirabile) found along their flanks, the eyes, brain and intestines. This higher body temperature allows the muscles to contract faster, hence increasing agility in colder water. So despite their size and weight, white sharks can accelerate quickly and reach high speeds. However, since they are semi-warm-blooded, they lack endurance compared to true warm-blooded marine animals.
Please be advised that Great White “breaching” and Great White cage diving / surface viewing is to a large extent "seasonal", although the sharks are there all year round.
We say seasonal for two reasons.
Firstly the weather.
The part of the world where Great White cage diving takes place, Gansbaai, and Simon’s Town, is known as the "Cape of Storms" for very obvious reasons. The winters are normally wet and miserable whilst the summers, although sunny and hot, are known for the "Cape Doctor" or south Easter, which blows virtually all day, every day. Our statistics are that you are able to get out to "Shark Alley" the narrow strip of water between Dyer Island and Geyser Rock, 12 days out of 30 in the winter months (April through October) and 20 days out of 30 during summer (November through March). The more time you are able to spend in the company of the Great whites, the better your chances are of seeing these magnificent creatures.
Secondly, the seasons.
There are definitely times of the year when the White Sharks are more active and these times are May through October. There are two main reasons for this. Firstly, the water temperatures. Contrary to what you would normally expect, the temperature of the water is actually warmer during the winter months (approx 16° C) than it is during the summer months (approx 9° C). Sharks prefer the warmer waters and are therefore far more active during the winter than during the summer, and unfortunately, that coincides with the time of year when the weather is at its worst. Also, November is the time of year when the Cape Fur Seal pup. The Cape Fur Seal, being the Great Whites main source of food, congregate in their thousands on Geyser Rock, off Gansbaai and on Seal Island in False Bay / Simon’s Town, where up to 60 000 seals can be found on each of the two islands during the pupping and mating season, November/December. With this great abundance of food around, it is extremely difficult to attract the sharks to the dive boat, and if you do, they are just not interested in the bait you have put out to attract their attention, which normally, at other times of the year, is long enough for the divers to get into the cage and view the Great Whites in their natural surroundings.
You should also remember that Gansbaai, this is where we launch the boat for "Shark Alley", and that Simon’s Town where we launch the boat for Seal Island in False Bay, is a two hour, and one hour, road transfer from Cape Town, respectively. We normally launch the boat at between 06h30 and 08h30 depending on the time of year. This means a 04h30 / 07h30 departure from Cape Town depending on where you are doing your Great White Encounter. http://www.divethebig5.com/shark-diving/shark-diving/great-white-shark-facts/gansbaai-simonstown.html Whilst the weather in Cape Town could be fine, both Gansbaai and Simon’s Town which are situated on opposite ends of Cape Town could be blowing a gale, thereby making it impossible, due to safety reasons, to launch the boat.
During the four months of October, November, December and January, we do not run any Great White Encounters out of Simon’s Town.
We however do run Great White Encounters out of Gansbaai, but we do not recommend them, nor do we guarantee “sightings”. We value our reputation.
Our Great White Encounter cancellation policy is:-
Full refund in the event of the dive being cancelled due to bad weather.
Should the weather forecast be favourable and on arrival at the dive site the dive is cancelled by the skipper of the dive boat due to weather conditions, a full refund on the dive but no refund on the transfer fees, if applicable.
Should we launch the dive boat for the dive, and during the course of the dive the skipper decides to return to shore due to unfavourable sea and weather conditions, there will be no refund.
The skipper’s decision is final and is based purely on diver safety and comfort.”
A typical day shark cage diving in Gansbaai:
After a leisurely breakfast we all assemble at the slip at Kleinbaai Harbour which is a small fishing harbour just outside the small fishing town of Gansbaai. Before our arrival the skipper and crew of the "White Shark" have already put her in the water and she is tied up at the quay waiting for us to board. The “White Shark” is a luxurious and powerful 30ft (10m) Dive Cat deep-sea cabin cruiser with two 200 hp Mariner outboard motors. The result is an enjoyable and fast ride out to the islands. The boat can carry twenty passenters. To enhance the overall experience for guests, only ten passengers per trip are accepted, thus reservations are absolutely essential.
The latest navigation aids and systems are installed in the spacious bridge. There is a fully equipped head (toilet) and for passengers who succumb to sea-sickness, there are beds upon which to rest and recover from the rigours of sea-travel. After stowing our camera equipment and dive gear on board the deck hand casts off and the skipper slowly negotiates the diveboat through the shallow harbour entrance to the open sea. After a 20 minute ride (could take longer depending on the sea and wind conditions) the skipper rounds Dyer Island and approaches "Shark Alley" from the seaward side so as to avoid the large breakers that often protect "Shark Alley" from the landward entrance. "Shark Alley" is the narrow channel of water that separates Dyer Island from Geyser Rock. Its about 350 meters/1150 feet long, 250 meters/820 feet wide and about 6 to 10 meters/ 18 feet to 30 feet deep.
Dyer Island is approximately 5.2 nautical miles off the coast. It originally got its name from Samson Dyer, an American Negro who is reputed to have come to the Cape in 1806 and collected guano from the island. In 1809 the government decided to take over the off shore islands for their guano deposits and offered Dyer 4 morgen of ground for his guano rights on the Island. The island measures 200 meters/656 feet in width and 1 kilometre/0.62 miles in length.
It falls under the protection of the Dept. of Nature Conservation and its only "human" resident is Tony, the island keeper. Tony is custodian to the large population of sea birds that nest on the island and part of his duties is to keep the Cape Fur Seals off the island as these mammals destroy the nests and sometimes kill the chicks. Dyer Island has been declared a Nature Reserve as well as a 500 meter/1650 feet radius surrounding the island. Boats may only access this area with a permit issued by Nature Conservation with the number of boats being limited at any one time so as to prevent overcrowding in the channel. The Dept. of Nature Conservation is shortly going to open the island to birdwatchers to enable them to observe the birds at close quarters as there are a number of endangered species such as the African Black Oystercatcher and the African Penguin breeding on the island along side the other residents such as the Swift Tern, and the 4 species of Cormorant namely the White Breasted, Crowned, Cape and Reed Cormorants.
Geyser Rock, so called because the action of the waves breaking on the rock sends water high into the sky, much like a natural geyser would, is much smaller than Dyer Island and is home to between 30 000 and 60 000 Cape Fur Seals. The natural chum coming off this island attracts many Great Whites into "Shark Alley" to predate on the seals.
On arrival in Shark Alley the skipper lets the boat drift for a while, whilst he assesses the wind and currents before dropping anchor. As soon as the anchor is dropped and the skipper is satisfied that the anchor is secure and is holding the “White Shark”into the current the deck hand begins "chumming". Chum can be likened to a "cocktail" of mashed sardines and fish oil and is used to attract the Great Whites to the boat. The Great Whites senses are so acute that they can detect one particle of blood in a million particles of water. Not long after the chumming has begun the skipper attaches the chunk of "bait" to a buoy which keeps the bait floating on the surface of the water, and this is, in turn, attached to a natural fibre rope, about 5 meters/16 feet in length, and this is secured to the boat and is left to float in the chum slick.
Once the chum-slick has been started and the bait is out the divemaster, assisted by the deckhand then, gently lower the cage into the water and the waiting game begins. Sometimes, due to the sea and swell, it is not safe to drop the cage into the water as any diver in the cage would be battered to pieces against the sides of the cage due to the heavy motion of the chop and swell. In such conditions the divers must unfortunately be content to watch the proceedings from the deck without getting into the cage. The decision of whether it is safe to lower the cage or not rests purely with the skipper and divemaster. As soon as the first shark is spotted the skipper gives the order for the first two divers to kit-up and depending on the behaviour of the shark, the divers drop into the cage. The skipper has learned to "read" shark behaviour and sometimes the shark is only investigating the bait and is not going to hang around for any length of time. In such instances it is not advisable to get the divers into the cage as they will only get cold and see nothing. Only when the skipper is sure that the shark is interested in the bait and is going to hang around for a while is the order given for the divers to enter the cage. After a while the shark eventually homes in to the bait and the skipper with the rope in hand pulls the bait towards the cage giving the divers in the cage the adrenaline rush of a life time. In the mean time another two divers on board the boat are busy kitting up and waiting their chance to enter the cage.
A shark can hang around the boat anything from 2 minutes , up to 10 minutes - depending on the shark, how interested he is in the bait and how hungry he is. The behaviour of the divers also influences the length of time a shark can hang around the cage. The action of divers entering and exiting the cage, the opening and closing of the lid on top of the cage, the flashing of underwater strobes all have an effect on the behaviour of the shark and could frighten them off. Whilst the divers are in the cage the people "topside" are constantly looking towards the bait floating in the chum-slick for signs of shark, or are watching the antiques of the hundreds of seals playing in the surf off Geyser Rock or are trying their luck at a bit of fishing. The crew are always keen to assist the novice by putting the bait onto the hook and if you are lucky taking the fish off the hook once you've landed him. As soon as a shark is spotted all activity ceases and the cameras are pointed at the bait waiting for that one in a million shot of the shark, open mouthed, taking the bait. The skipper tries to bring the shark past the cage, with the divers inside, up to the side of the boat by pulling the rope to which the bait is attached right up to the side of the boat. The activity topside is sometimes as exciting to watch as the activity from within the cage. A light lunch is supplied on board and there is a constant supply of hot coffee, fresh water and cooldrinks during the entire day. The amount of time a diver spends in the cage depends on the shark activity, the divers resistance to hypothermia and the impatience of his fellow divers, all of whom want to get into the cage. Depending on the shark activity the dive boat stays in the channel, or could move to a location outside the channel off the island, until about 15:30 when it returns to Kleinbaai harbour.
Please note: The shark activity takes place on or just below sea level. Full scuba gear is not required for shark cage diving, as the cage is attached to the side of the boat and no diving certification or experience is necessary. Your head and shoulders are above sea level until the dive master gives the call to let you know that a Great White is approaching. You then submerge your head and shoulders below sea level for the close sightings of the Great White, as it swims towards and past the cage. Snorkel equipment and breath holding are the most popular options selected as the noise of the exhaust bubbles from the scuba gear’s regulator has been found to be distracting to the extremely sound sensitive Great Whites. When you are not in the 5-6 man cage, refreshments are enjoyed while viewing the Great Whites and other sea life from the viewing deck.
Simonstown Advantages over Gansbaai:
Less travelling time from Cape Town central. 40 minutes vs. 2 hours, one way.
You are on the water earlier and that's when the Great Whites are more active. In the early mornings.
Seal Island in False Bay is more protected that Dyer Island / Geyser Rock, so less chance of cancellations due to weather.
Smaller boat, only accommodates a maximum of 10 people vs. boats carrying up to 30 people out of Gansbaai.
More personal attention.
More cage time.
Simons Town offers a better chance of witnessing Great White "breaching" than off Gansbaai.
Simons Town offers a better opportunity to witness natural predations than Gansbaai, because there are no kelp forests for the seals to conceal themselves in off Seal Island in False Bay than off Dyer Island / Geyser Rock in Gansbaai.
You get more "sea time" at Simon's Town, 4 / 5 hours at sea vs. 3 hours at Gansbaai.
Less operators operate out of Simons Town, only 3 vs. 8 operators operating out of Gansbaai. Far less crowded resulting that there are less boats trying to attract a given number of sharks.
However, Simonstown is more expensive than Gansbaai.
Gansbaai was named after Mountain Geese that made their home in the area. (The Afrikaans name for Goose is Gans - hence the name).
The harbour at Gansbaai is in a sheltered bay with Gansbaai itself nestling at the foot of Duyenefontein Mountains. Gansbaai boasts a beautiful coastline with magnificent “Fynbos” vegetation of which there are 164 species.
Divers stay at the nearby Grootbos Nature Reserve.
In spring and winter, Southern Right Whales come into Walker Bay to calve and can be seen from the shore in Gansbaai.
Dyer Island lies approximately 5.2 nautical miles off the coast.
There is a narrow channel in the sea between Geyser Rock and Dyer Island which is home to up to 60 000 Cape Fur Seals. This is also the natural feeding ground to the Great White Shark.
Since the area around Dyer Island has been declared a nature reserve, boats may only enter this area with a permit given by the Department of Nature Conservation.
A warder, stationed on Dyer Island, protects the birds breeding there. A number of these are endemic species, such as the Oyster Catcher and the Swift Tern.
The bay is home to some of the most spectacular long beaches in the Western Cape with a few small villages. Muizenberg is most popular under surfers and swimmers, while the small fishing village, Kalk Bay, is most famous for it's vibrant day and night life.
Simonstown is an historical naval village located just 40km outside of Cape town city and en route to the Cape point nature reserve. The village is home to the South African navy and is filled with naval history. Also a very unique attraction to Simonstown would be the African penguins at Boulders beach or the wild baboons that inhabit the peninsula. In winter months Southern right whales frequent the bay and can be seen lying close to the coast.
Seal Island is a small land mass located 5.7 km off the northern beaches of False Bay, Cape town. The island is so named because of the great number of Cape fur Seals that occupy it (+-70000). There are a few sea birds as well. The island is long and narrow- 800 metres by 50 metres and lies 14km from Simonstown harbor. The Bay is protected by the infamous Cape point, the most South Western tip of Africa. Most days the ocean is as flat as a pancake.
On arrival at the dive center in Kleinbaai you will have a light breakfast, sign the necessary indemnity forms and walk the short distance to the Kleinbaai Harbour where you will board the dive boat. After the safety briefing you will depart Kleinbaai Harbour for the Dyer Island / Geyser Rock vicinity. The skipper will choose a location where to drop anchor - this is dependent on shark activity the previous day, sea, swell, currents and wind direction.
After dropping anchor, the crew will start preparing the chum and dispensing the chum into the water in order to attract the White Shark's to the boat. There could be anything up to 8 boats in the same vicinity. At the same time the bait, which is attached to a buoy, will be thrown down current. The idea of the chum is to attract the Great White to the boat, and the idea of the "bait" is to hold the Great White's attention whilst the bait is pulled back towards the cage with the divers in it. Whilst all this is going on, the Dive Master will give you a dive briefing on the do's and don'ts of cage diving with the Great White's and allocate the first 3 divers to the 3 man cage, which by this time has been lowered into the water. As soon as the first Great White's appears, the divers enter the cage and the bait is pulled towards the cage with the divers in it, with the Great White following the bait. The idea is not to let the Great White get to the bait, but to keep it "at nose length", just out of the reach of the Great White.
Once the first lot of divers have witnessed the sight from within the cage, the next 3 divers enter the cage, and so on until every diver has had "cage time". There after, it is up to the individual diver who wants a second and third chance in the cage. Most of the cage diving is done on snorkel. After about 3 hours at sea the dive boat then returns to Kleinbaai Harbour and you return to the Dive center for hot tea / coffee and the de-briefing and to view the video of the days encounter. This video is also on sale to those interested in buying it.
At about 12h00 you will again board the shuttle bus for the return road transfer to The Two Oceans Aquarium, arriving there at about 15h00.
At a time to be advised the previous evening you will be collected from your hotel / B&B by a representative of Dive The Big 5 (at about 06h00) for the 45 minute scenic drive to Simon's Town to arrive at the harbour by 07h00.
From the harbour to Seal Island is about a 20 minute boat ride in calm conditions. If the sea is rough you can double that time. The best time to witness the Great White's interaction / predation with the seals is early in the morning, just after sunrise. If you are fortunate enough to witness a predation, it can result in the Great White exploding out of the water with intense sheer force in pursuit of its prey. That the memory will live with you forever!
We then spend an hour, depending on the interest shown by the Great Whites, towing a fake cut-out, seal-shaped decoy in a attempt to get the Great White to breach. If successful, this provides excellent photo opportunities.hen the predation activity has quietened down, we try for a shor
We then do a lap of Seal Island giving you full information on the animal and bird life that is found on the island as well as the history of the island and the structures that are to be found on the island.
We then choose the best spot to drop anchor taking into account the direction of the wind and currents. We then lower the cage into the water. A bait line is put in the water as well as the seal decoy. Then we wait for the first Great White to appear.
Every precaution is taken not to injure the sharks at all. We also do not touch the sharks. We are not an adrenalin operator, but an educator and custodian of the Great White's. No dive experience is required in order to get into the cage although we do use scuba gear. The average time spent in the cage depends on animal activity but could be as long as 20 minutes. On-board guides will interact with the guests during the course of the encounter and will be more than willing to answer any questions.
At about 12h00, depending on animal activity and weather conditions we will up anchor and head back to Simon's Town Harbour. You should be back at your hotel / B&B by 14h00 when you will have the rest of the afternoon free.
- Full refund in the event of the dive being cancelled due to bad weather.
- Should the weather forecast be favourable when you depart Cape Town, and on arrival at the dive site and the dive is cancelled due to the weather you will receive a full refund on the cost of the dive, but you will be liable for the road transfer fee.
- Should we launch the boat for the dive and during the course of the dive the skipper decides to return to shore due to unfavourable weather conditions, there will be no refund.
- The skipper’s decision is final and is based purely on your safety and comfort.
It's definitely advisable to book in advance and to book with the right White Shark operator.
Some operators operate out of Gansbaai Harbour, and from Gansbaai Harbour to Dyer Island, the place where it all happens, is an hour and twenty minute boat ride.
Other operators operate out of Kleinbaai Harbour, and from Kleinbaai Harbour to Dyer Island is only 20 minutes on a calm day. You don't want to spend 2 of your 5 hours just getting to the dive site!
Then some operators operate a "shuttle service" and not a dedicated Great White experience. They run two trips per day, one on the morning departing at about 08h00 and returning again at 13h00. They then turn around and go straight out again and come back at about 17h00. Not what you want when the action hots up and you could also wait anything up to two hours before the first shark makes it's appearance.
Some operators boats are big and impersonal accommodating anything up to 30 divers at a time, others are small and intimate with a maximum of only 12 people on board. The size of the cage is limited and some cages accommodate 4 divers whilst others only 2 divers at a time. Imagine 30 divers on a boat and a cage that accommodates 4 divers at a time. It's a bun fight to see who gets "cage time"!
Then there is the actual quality of the operation, that you don't know. We do!
Dive The Big 5 has been operating in the Dyer Island area since 1996 when there was only one Great White Shark operator - The White Shark Research Institute. They no longer exist, but now there are 8!! We've experienced them all, and only use and recommend the one that gives the best overall Great White experience, has a boat that only accommodates 12 people at a time, does not go out twice a day, has a cage that accommodates 4 divers at a time and has a crew dedicated to giving the diver an experience of a lifetime and who also has the interests of the Great White at heart. And you don't pay any more by booking through us.
Don't leave an experience of a lifetime to chance, book in advance and let our experience and expertise ensure you get the most out of your Great White Encounter.
Let us put your mind at rest as far as Great White Shark Cage Diving is concerned. South Africa was the first country in the world to protect Great Whites, and this was done way back in 1991, so since then it has been illegal to hunt or deal in any part of a Great White Shark.
In 1996 we selected the South African White Shark Research Institute, White Shark Expeditions and White Shark Ecoventures. These three were the only operators who at the time could conform to standards we would feel happy with by entrusting our clients in their care. Up until a year ago, it was an absolute circus. A disaster waiting for a place to happen, and the industry, and rightfully so, received a very bad name. The incident of an operator picking a cage off a rubbish dump was reported in one of the local magazines but was never substantiated.
However, due to all the bad publicity that the industry received the authorities stepped in. The area where the diving takes place is in a narrow channel of water between Dyer Island and Geyser Rock, affectionately known as "Shark Alley". Dyer Island is a bird sanctuary with a warden living on the island, whose job it is to keep the Cape Fur Seals off the island as its a nesting ground for a number of endangered bird species such as the BlackOyster Catcher. On the other side of the channel is Geyser Rock which is home to between 30 and 60 000 Cape Fur Seals, depending on the season. These two islands fall within a marine sanctuary which is under the control of the Department of Sea Fisheries, now renamed Marine and Coastal Management falling under the Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism. They then got together with all the operators and formulated a code of conduct that was agreed to by all and which is policed by the Department.
Briefly this lays down the law and prescribes what may and may not be done. Such as all boats must be registered with the Department of Transport and under go an annual certificate of sea worthiness, must be registered as a dive boat, must have a qualified skipper at the helm at all times, must have minimum prescribed equipment on board such as VHF and UHF radios, life jackets, a shark trauma kit etc, etc, must have a qualified paramedic on board as well as a qualified dive master on board. They also went as far as restricting the number of boats that are allowed in the channel at any one time to three. This is controlled by means of a permit system which must be purchased at least a week in advance and is "policed" by the warden living on Dyer Island. The method of chumming as well as the bait used is also prescribed by the authorities. Only natural foodstuffs may me used and anything foreign to the diet of the sharks is strictly forbidden. So much so that only "natural fibre" ropes may be used to attach the bait to the boat, no nylon.
So it is very strictly controlled and "Eco-friendly", and we are proud the say that the three operators that were selected way back in 1996 to conduct our Great White Encounters are all still in business and conform to all the requirements.