Gansbaai, small town located at 150 km from Cape Town, is the Mecca for great white sharks’ fans. Here, the shark is everywhere, on giant billboards, posters, as statues in gardens or still, on shop-fronts of stores. Gansbaai has the peculiarity of being located near the famous “Shark Alley”, a marine corridor where a big agglomeration of white sharks is on patrol. Hordes of tourists, avid of strong sensations or simply curious to observe this formidable predator, come to dive in a cage and look the beast in the eye.
8 km off the coast of Gansbaai, “Dyer Island” and “Geyser Rock” are two tiny islands sheltering thousands of Cape fur seals, which are among the favourite meal of the white shark! Attracted by this meat safe, the sharks proliferate in these waters. An estimated population of 200 of these specimens is reckoned to live in the region. Obviously, it is not always the same individual since the white sharks are very nomadic. Recently, it has been proved, by the help of an electronic marking (a satellite positioning device), that a white shark can effectuate a round trip between South Africa and Australia in 6 months, which represents more than 22’000 km!
Because of its strength and its considerable size (on average between 3 and 4 metres, and a maximum of 6 metres), the white shark can be potentially dangerous for Man. However, in reality, we are much more harmful for it. Millions of sharks are slaughtered each year around the globe, mainly for their fins that are reputed to have aphrodisiac properties or simply hunted down for the prestige. The film “Jaws” has harmed the protection of this species, seen as a bloody beast when in fact, the white shark brings about lesser fatal accidents for the humans. We can try as much to warn that the risk of being attacked is extremely rare, that sharks kill Man less than bees, and to add that most victims have on their own endangered themselves; this will not be enough to forget the traumatizing images of the film. In most cases, the white shark bites a human by mistake. If it attacks a swimmer or a surfer, it is often because it has mistaken them for one of its habitual preys. This is the case for surfers who lie on their boards and who, seen from below, resemble a sea lion that white sharks are mad about.
In 1991, South Africa becomes the first country to declare the great white shark as a protected species. Unfortunately, after millions of years of indisputable supremacy, they are now fighting for their survival. This should have the force to convince us that when the white shark meets Man, it is generally the shark, which is in more danger!
A face-to-face encounter with the white shark
We embark a ship from Kleinbaai, a tiny neighbouring village of Gansbaai, in the direction of Dyer Island. Having reached the famous “Shark Alley”, the ship is anchored and the cage takes a plunge. A member of the crew prepares the “chum”, a foul-smelling mixture of minced fishes and sardines’ oil, then, he throws small quantities in the water, leaving a reddish trail on the surface following the current. We can only wait…The shark should detect the odor and come up to us. A long waiting moment has started and can last for hours. We are impatient, pacing up and down the embarkation trying to locate the tiniest signs that herald the presence of a shark, our eyes riveted on the water. A shout tears finally the silence: "a fin on the left!". Some metres away, a dorsal fin appears on the surface of the ocean. The animal slides through the water with an unbelievable grace and seems to swim further away. The fugitive silhouette plays on our nerves. It prowls around the ship and the cage, which confines four wide-eyed divers, bathing in waters of 14 degrees. A big deception: the visibility does not go beyond one metre in these much-agitated waters; it is practically impossible to observe the king of the ocean. Highly frustrated, we decide to focus our observation from the deck of the ship, dry and warm, which turns out to be not a so-bad idea since our visitors do not hesitate to come to the surface, their jaws wide-opened and menacing. Even though the white sharks are present all year round, the best period to observe them stretches from May to October since they are many in numbers. However, we will learn much later that the best season is the month of June, during this period, the visibility is good and allows us to admire them easily in clear waters. In addition, there is a meager chance to see them jumping out of the water. Therefore, it is mostly in June that they lend themselves to these astounding exercises, which prove to be very aesthetic for the photographers.
On the surface, a tuna head linked to a float is used to lure the shark. At times, the shark hesitates, prowls around the bait, cautious and suspicious, inspecting and then finally, deciding to catch it with calm and tact, it is quite amazing! We are far from the barbarity of “Jaws”… At other times, it does not hesitate at all; surfacing violently, it snaps up the fish and shakes it in frenzy. It all seems unreal, as the strength, which is coming from the shark, is impressive. The bait ends up in pieces under the stare of the few braves who have remained in the cage.
We can ask the well founded question of the tourist excursions where the shark has turned into a circus animal and provides a significant livelihood for the many operators who share among themselves this lucrative market. However, if these excursions are organized while respecting the animal and its environment, then it will become an educational tool. It is finally the only way to observe this fabulous animal, which cannot live in captivity. We should stop dreading this animal and start instead its protection, as the white shark is much less dangerous than its reputation.
Either way, we will keep the image of the king of the ocean, which certainly does not deserve to be slaughtered and have his fins swimming in a bowl of soup!
Text & photos: © Fabrice Bettex / Mysterra