Shark cage diving under the spotlight

White knuckles: great white shark cage diving in Gansbaai, South Africa

When Peter Benchley wrote the book “Jaws” he underestimated the powerful effect his novel would have on the way the world views sharks. And the inestimable damage it would do to the great white shark, creating a fear and loathing of this incredible fish which would help to decimate populations of it all over the globe.

The smash-hit film of the book broke box office records wherever it played, and its haunting, bone-chilling music is still very much the great white’s “theme” tune, even 36 years down the line.

Before his death in 2006, Benchley publicly apologized for doing the great white down. His apology came at a time when interest in the great white was reaching new peaks, thanks to ground-breaking natural history documentaries focusing on this apex marine predator revealing it for the breathtakingly beautiful and fascinating animal that it is.

Who can forget the slow motion images of great whites breaching off the shores of Gansbaai in South Africa in “Planet Earth”? Indeed, those images put Gansbaai on the map as the great white shark capital of the world. And launched a thousand ships, so to speak, offering great white encounters to tourists.

Great white shark cage diving is the end result of all this fascination with “Jaws” and, like its terrestrial “cousin” elephant-back safaris it’s an industry which depends upon an animal icon for its existence.

So you’d think that cage diving operators would have a vested interest in taking good care of great whites. Sadly, not all of them are as conscientious as that.

Because the great white is a fish, its welfare is of less interest to people than an elephant’s, and some operators take full advantage of this by taking the “adrenalin” approach to shark encounters.

They create an atmosphere of near hysteria for their guests when out on the ocean’s depths, eliciting screams and engineering “close calls” with the great whites they attract with a steady line of “chum” – mashed up fish guts and, in some unethical cases, shark liver.

Apparently there is something in shark liver that excites sharks and causes the menacing behavior that these unscrupulous operators thrive on, making their “encounters” more like a terrifying side-show than an educational introduction to the ocean’s most maligned creature.

Thankfully, not all shark cage dive operators are this unethical. In fact, two of them in Kleinbaai, next to Gansbaai on South Africa’s western Cape coast, have been accredited by Fair Trade in Tourism South Africa, a non-government organization which upholds the ethics of Fair Trade, including the all-important respect for the environment and the fauna and flora which live in it.

White Shark Projects and Marine Dynamics/Dyer Island Cruises are the two operators in question, and I cannot laud them highly enough for the incredible work they are doing to help dispel the myth that great whites are evil creatures to be feared and abused for kicks.

Each operator employs its own marine biologist aboard the tourist boats who educates guests all about the shark and its habits, and tells them exactly how much we don’t know about these mysterious and compelling fish. At the same time, those biologists are engaged in ongoing research projects which are helping us to better understand the great white.

Most importantly, operators like these are making the great white an ambassador for all sharks, teaching us that far from fearing and loathing them we need to protect them, and their kind, for future generations, because without them the oceans of the world will suffer.

That is the real value of great white shark cage diving when it is done properly, with respect for the animal on which it depends.

I can happily say that a cage dive with great whites is one of the most awesome experiences available to animal lovers on this planet.

It leaves you breathless and awestruck by these fabulous, mesmerizing animals and completely committed to saving them from the ignorance and brutality of man.

So go do it – at least before you die! Just make sure that the operator you choose has the required credentials and steer clear of anything which sells adrenalin!

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