It was cold, but I was still sweating a bit in my wetsuit, repeatedly asking myself “why”. There was no point of coming to an answer, it was already too late to back out now…
South Africa is an absolutely amazing country with incredible wildlife to see both on the land and in the ocean. The area offers everything from safaris with the Big Five to great white shark diving. For those uninitiated, shark diving is the process of being lowered into a cage with the oldest predators in the world, great white sharks, on their home turf “Shark Alley”.
It’s difficult to determine whether diving with great whites conditions them to act aggressively around humans as there is a large amount of research attempting to both confirm (see comment section) and deny that the act of chumming the waters around humans conditions sharks to be more aggressive or not. When we were in our cages, I was quite convinced that the great whites were blissfully unconcerned that we were in the water with them and were instead more curious of the decoy and chum in the water.
In a recent study focusing on the conditioning of white sharks in South Africa, biologists Ryan Johnson and Alison Kock came to the conclusion that due to factors such as the neutral stimulus given, lack of long-term exposure, migratory patterns of the sharks make it quite unlikely for them to be conditioned in this manner.
It is highly improbable that the ‘conditioning of sharks’ to a cage diving vessel would increase the danger to human water users such as swimmers, surfers, scuba divers, and kayakers. This is due to visual and olfactory dissimilarity of these humans to the conditioned neutral stimulus (i.e. the cage diving vessel and associated structures).However, even if the public perceive an ‘increase in danger’, this will have a negative effect on the (1) conservation status of white sharks in South Africa, (2) the perceived safety of beaches in the Western Cape, and (3) the long-term viability of the cage diving industry.
Further, shark scientist Erich Ritter has made many claim that shark bites are merely incidental, and that the sharks need a combination of sight, sound, and smell for them to want to deliberately attack humans with an intent to kill.
In full disclosure, Erich has been bitten by a bull shark, the most aggressive breed, but after 12 years of daily interactions with these intense predators, a mishap is bound to happen.
It is undeniable how much money is brought to this area in the name of shark conservation. When it comes to conservation of any species, one can convince even the hardest capitalist to help save these creatures once we can prove the cost of having them alive outweighs having them slaughtered.
Whether you are huge into conservation or are just seeking a thrill, diving with great whites will prove how gentle and beautiful these creatures truly are. We began the trip overcome with curiosity and ended the trip overcome with the desire to try to help protect these prehistoric predators anyway that we can.
Fortunately, great whites are not in captivity. Aside from the sheer depression that is associated with captive animals, it is inarguable that seeing animals in their natural environment is a tremendously breathtaking experience. Although the sharks most certainly wouldn’t interact with the boat without the chum and decoy, it’s undoubtedly their domain. Although my experience was a beautiful one, there is little that will compare to the times that I spent diving in Indonesia or Thailand and happened across sharks authentically and organically.
Although claims are still made that cage diving causes great white sharks to be more agressive, it can also be argued that even if one person is compelled by the grace and beauty of these animals to act to help save sharks it has been worth it. Conservation efforts are only as powerful as their advocates, and those first-hand observations are often times the strongest.
For those still unconvinced that sharks aren’t inherently evil, consider Martin Kochling, a diver who regularly swims with great whites without a cage. Photographer Jean-Marie Ghislain joined Kochling on the trip and got to know the subjects well, even stating that a mature female had ‘amazing social ability’.
I had an absolutely amazing time shark diving. However, like any spoiled traveler, I will continue to hunt for those unalloyed moments where I see sharks without the need for bait. Well, maybe not great whites.