For adrenalin junkies planning a visit to South Africa, a close encounter with a great white shark is a bucket list adventure not to be missed. Several locations in the Western Cape offer guided cage diving trips that allow you to come face-to-face with the ocean's most legendary apex predator without compromising your safety. In this article, we explain how to cage dive with great whites in a way that ensures a positive experience both for you and the sharks, which are now listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Red List.
How it Works
First introduced by Jacques Cousteau and developed further by famous shark attack survivor Rodney Fox, shark cages have been around since the 1950s. They are made from galvanized steel tubing and float on the surface with the top of the cage above the water. This allows you to enter directly from the boat. Shark cages are attached to the boat at all times, and typically have a "window" or gap big enough to allow a clear view through the bars while still keeping inquisitive sharks from getting too close.
Responsible cage diving operators attract sharks by scenting the water with fish blood and chum rather than feeding them. Some may use tuna heads attached to a rope to lure sharks closer to the cage so that you get a clearer view. Once the sharks are present, you will be allowed to enter the cage in small groups, where you will either use a snorkel or a scuba regulator to stay underwater long enough to observe the sharks as they pass close to the bars.
What to Expect
Most charters depart early in the morning, when the sea conditions are at their calmest. Your experience will begin with a detailed safety briefing, which should include details about the sharks' biology as well as information on how to stay safe on the boat and in the cage. Depending on which location you choose, it will take between 10 and 30 minutes to reach the chumming site. Boat capacities vary, but most allow between four and six people in the shark cage at any one time. You can expect to spend around two hours at the dive site, with around 30 minutes spent in the water.
Because the cages float at the surface, you don't have to be scuba certified to go cage diving (in fact, it's not even necessary to be a particularly good swimmer). Benefits of choosing to view great whites in South Africa rather than in other hotspots such as Guadalupe Island in Mexico or the Farallon Islands in California include the relatively cheap cost, the accessibility of the shark viewing sites and the fact that sightings are virtually guaranteed.
Where to Go
There are three places to go cage diving with great whites in South Africa. The first and most famous is Gansbaai, a small town located 165 kilometers southeast of Cape Town. From here, it's a short boat trip to Dyer Island, known for having one of the world's largest populations of great white shark. The channel in between the island and nearby Geyser Rock is called Shark Alley, and it's here that those iconic National Geographic images of breaching great whites are taken. Gansbaai is also just 30 minutes from Hermanus, South Africa's whale-watching capital.
Other destinations include Simon's Town, located just outside the Cape Town CBD; and Mossel Bay, situated halfway between Cape Town and Port Elizabeth on South Africa's Garden Route. The former is a convenient choice for those staying in the Mother City, and also affords great access to False Bay and Seal Island, home to a colony of the great white's preferred prey (the Cape fur seal). The latter offers protected, warmer waters and accessible viewing sites just 10 minutes from shore.
There are many different cage diving operators to choose from. For the best experience, choose one that prioritizes your safety by using up-to-date equipment and professional staff; while also promoting sustainability and supporting local conservation efforts. Recommended companies in Gansbaai include Marine Dynamics (an operator affiliated with the Dyer Island Conservation Trust) and White Shark Diving Company (who also run a volunteer research program).
Other environmentally conscious operators include White Shark Africa in Mossel Bay and Simon's Town's African Shark Eco-Charters. The latter also offer specialist breaching trips for those that want a chance to get some seriously impressive aerial photographs.
When to Go
Sharks are present year-round in the waters of the Western Cape, although winter (May to August) is traditionally considered the optimum time to see large numbers of great whites. The winter season also coincides with the annual southern right and humpback whale migrations, making it the best time to travel if you want to see other marine species on your journeys to and from the chumming site.
Things to Consider
Although your operator should provide all of the equipment you need to view sharks underwater (including a wetsuit and a snorkel or scuba regulator), there are a few items you should bring with you. At the top of the list is warm clothes for after your dive, as the frigid temperatures of the Benguela current are extremely effective at lowering your core temperature. Sunscreen is a must for sunny days, seasick tablets may make all the difference on rough days and polarized sunglasses protect your eyes while making it easier to spot sharks through the surface glare.
Most operators offer a discounted rate on a return trip in the unlikely event that you don't see any sharks, so consider leaving enough time in your itinerary for a second attempt.
If you're not sure about getting in the water with the great whites, you can also observe from the safety of the boat. Ocean safaris like the one offered by Dyer Island Cruises give you the chance to look out for the Marine Big Five, which includes the great white in addition to the southern right whale, the African penguin, the Cape fur seal and the bottlenose dolphin. If you're scuba certified and don't like the idea of being restricted by a cage, consider signing up to dive with sevengill sharks in the kelp forests off Cape Town, or head further north to dive with bull sharks and tiger sharks on the KwaZulu-Natal coast.