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Correction to This Article
The article about a diving tour to see great white sharks off South Africa incorrectly said that the ship's crew tried to lure sharks to the boat using hooks baited with fish heads. The fish heads were attached to ropes, not hooks.

Swimming with great white sharks in South Africa

Keep your toes inside the cage: A great white shark swims up for a closer look in Gansbaai.
Keep your toes inside the cage: A great white shark swims up for a closer look in Gansbaai. (Fotograferen.net/Alamy)

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By Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 23, 2010

If you want to see a big, scary great white shark -- the kind that reached global iconic status with the 1975 movie "Jaws" -- head to Gansbaai, South Africa. Depending on the time of year, the place is lousy with them. In a good way.

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Gansbaai, a 2 1/2 -hour drive from Cape Town, isn't a place you visit for its restaurants, its shopping or its scenery. (For that. you can visit Hermanus, an idyllic town half an hour away where you can see right whales migrating offshore as you browse a local crafts market.) It is the launching pad for several shark-diving operations that bring you closer to one of the planet's top predators than you can get almost anywhere else on Earth.

Since great whites have been demonized for decades, you have two choices: You can go with a tour operator who exploits the animals for their sensationalistic reputation, or with one that makes an effort to promote shark conservation. I opted for the latter, signing up for Shark Lady Adventures. (Its slogan: "We care, protect and educate.") Kim Maclean, who has run Shark Lady Adventures since 1992, says that people get an alternative view of sharks when they go on her tour. "This time," she says, "you're in the zoo."

Maclean does her best to put her clients at ease. She arranges for shuttle transportation from guests' accommodations to Gansbaai, and they are taken to a building she has dubbed the "White Shark Embassy," a bright white structure decorated in a nautical theme just steps from the dock the boats depart from. Her staff serves tour participants a hot breakfast upon arrival; that's followed by a short lecture in which the dive master combines safety tips with a detailed description of the sharks' migrating patterns in the area.

When I arrived for my dive in early August (South Africa's winter, which coincides with summer in the United States, is the best time to view great whites there), nearly everyone who had gathered at the White Shark Embassy was visibly nervous. We were an international crew, a collection of tourists that included a Scottish businessman and his daughter; a South African cricket star and his girlfriend; a Brazilian salesman and his wife and 9-year-old daughter; and a Malaysian-British couple with two teenage sons.

Our dive master, Lance Coetzee, acknowledged that coming face to face with a shark might seem scary. But it's worth keeping in mind that sharks generally thrive by relying on an element of surprise when they target their victims, he said. "It's the shark that you don't see that is the one you should worry about," he explained. "To be bitten by a white shark, you must be exceptionally unlucky."

The statistics bear that out: Conservation groups such as Save Our Seas note that typically somewhere between four and seven people die annually due to shark strikes, a tiny figure compared with the number of lethal household accidents that claim people's lives each year. Just in case, Maclean has trained medics on her staff.

Comforted by these statistics, we set off on a 30-foot catamaran for an area known as "Shark Alley," where great whites congregate during the winter. The reason they flock to this area is straightforward: Seals are pupping on Dyer Island, just a few miles offshore from Gansbaai, providing the sharks with ample prey.

Although baby seals should be sufficient lure for white sharks, Coetzee and his colleagues don't take any chances. They pour chum, a mixture of chopped-up fish, off the side of the boat to attract any nearby predators. It's clear that there are sharks around -- a few other ships are nearby, and we can hear people hooting and hollering -- but as Coetzee's shipmates cast hooks baited with fish heads into the water, I wonder what it will take to bring the great whites over to our vessel.

Until I started pondering the chances of the sharks' arrival, I had been focused on the large diving cage, which is made of steel but sports a rubberized coat, as it was being lowered into the water. I had envisioned shark-diving as an activity where you bob around in a free-floating cage that could ricochet in any direction with a simple nudge from a shark. But the cage Shark Lady Adventures uses is more like a small underwater horse stable, with a stall for each diver to drop into.

I'm using the word "diver" generously. There's no actual diving involved in cage tours, unless you specially request it. It's snorkeling, without much movement. Each participant dons a mask and a snorkel along with a wet suit and lowers him- or herself into a slot within the cage. You hold on to a metal bar extended toward you, so that none of your fingers or toes peek out through the cage into the open water, where a shark might be tempted to snack on them. You can even keep your head above water while in the cage, until the dive master yells out that a shark is approaching and it's time to duck underwater.

Coetzee provided straightforward instructions: When he yelled, "Divers, look left!" we quickly submerged our heads and looked to the left to catch a glimpse of the creature as it approached the cage. The moment it happened, I was reminded of everything I love about lamnidae sharks, as the great white's family is called. Their torpedo-shaped bodies glide gracefully, and the water is so clear that you can watch their every move.

While white sharks do socialize and compete with each other for food occasionally (they slap tails as a form of communication when vying for prey), they usually hunt separately, which makes for a less frenzied viewing experience. I gazed as a couple of sharks took turns passing in front of the cage, tempted by both the chum and the fish head dangling in the water.

But the most exciting moment was when one Carcharodon carcharias went for the kill, so to speak, opening its jaws to chomp down on the bait a few feet to the right of the cage. As it flashed its ragged-looking teeth, it demonstrated exactly why its kind has survived for tens of millions of years. Great whites remain paramount in this underwater world, while we humans are just fortunate enough to visit from time to time.

Eilperin is writing a book about sharks, to be published by Knopf-Pantheon in 2011.


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