Photo: Stefan Pircher/Shutterstock

Shark Diving Isn’t as Scary as You Think -- but It Is Really Gross

South Africa Wildlife Diving
by Matthew Meltzer Jul 3, 2018

When you tell anyone you’re going shark diving you’ll get one of two responses:

1. “Oh my God I’m so jealous, please take pictures regardless of what might happen to your left arm!”

2. “Since you’ve clearly lost your mind and might be dead tomorrow, don’t forget you still owe me $20.”

These both are reasonable responses to announcing you’ll spend a perfectly nice Tuesday morning trapped in an underwater cage surrounded by man-eating sharks. Most of that excitement/terror is based on YouTube videos of Great Whites auditioning for Jaws 5 and biting their way into said underwater cages. These videos do well because, well, who doesn’t want to see people getting attacked by sharks? But also because if someone posted a video of actual shark diving, it would get less views than a tutorial on how to mix paint.

Those viral videos are the .000000000000001 percent exception to the rule. Skipping out on shark diving because you saw that would be like skipping a football game because you saw someone get body slammed through at table at a Buffalo Bills tailgate. Which is actually a far more likely possibility than getting eaten during a shark dive.

A long boat ride with no guarantees

Shark diving is a highly misleading name, because there is almost no diving and even fewer sharks. I say this because I had the rare opportunity to actually go shark diving off the coast of Cape Town recently.

The trip was called something like “Cage diving, breaching, and natural predation.” Which might lead one to believe you’ll spend the morning in an underwater cage watching Great Whites leap in the air. Or maybe find an unfortunate seal to maul for your viewing pleasure. The problem, of course, is nobody tells the sharks there are boatloads of people who’ve forked out $175 to watch them do flips and eat breakfast. And sharks, being the assholes they are, don’t feel much of an obligation to put on a show for you.

For their part, the dive company makes this pretty clear. In fact, they make a point of telling you there’s a fairly good chance you won’t see anything, and that you just gave them a Kia payment for a stripped-down bay cruise.

“This is, about, the 19th trip we’ve made this month,” our guide said in the pre-dawn dark as we shivered outside his boat. “We’ve seen about four predations, which is, like, incredibly lucky.”

Disappointing to learn you won’t get your own, personal live version of Seal Slaughterhouse 6. On the other hand, if the very-uncaged seals have a 75 percent chance of surviving the morning, your odds are even better.

“But most days,” he continues, “we’ve had sharks swim right by the boat.”

Most days. An older man in glasses behind me groaned.

“My third day out here, I haven’t seen shit,” he muttered. I assumed he was a plant the dive company put on the docks to keep our expectations low. Kinda like a three-card monte shill, just with carnivorous fish.

The trip was a 40 minute voyage out to Seal Island, the highly-creative name given to a tiny rock populated by about 65,000 seals. To a Great White shark, it was basically Sizzler.

Our guide explained that sharks liked to feed in the morning, because it was easier to sneak up on prey when there’s less light. And also because this was the time when seals usually returned home to the island after a long night of doing whatever it is seals do at night. Effectively picking the poor little guys off as they do their Tuesday morning swim of shame.

He continued that we could generally see a predation — that’s the nice euphemism they use for “turning a live animal into a pulled-seal sandwich” — by looking for red in the water and listening for a skirmish.

“Don’t jump in after it,” he warned. Presumably for the same people that need to be reminded to stay off of train tracks.

Like cage diving in the East River

Seal Island was pretty hard to miss. Not because it’s particularly large, but more because your peaceful boatride is violently interrupted by an odor best described as “a hot day in Calcutta.”

“That’s how the sharks know where to go,” our guide laughed as we collectively made the universal expression for what’s that smell? “That five-acre island has 65,000 seals, and they all puke and shit a LOT. Those waves come up and wash all that puke and shit into the water, the sharks smell it, and they know where to go.”

To put that in people terms, this would be like if waves came up onto Manhattan after a particularly nasty Saturday night, and washed all the college kid vomit and bum feces into the water. Which, now that I think about it, is pretty much the East River.
I looked down at the water wondering if they were expecting us to actually swim in that sea of marine mammal waste. My question was immediately answered when they dropped the cage in the water and said, “Ok! Who wants to go first?”

The cage was about 15 feet long by 10 feet tall, where six or seven people can cram in with their heads above water and wait for sharks to come by. It would be better described as “shark floating,” though that makes you sound more like human chum than an intelligent person in a wetsuit standing in a cage. The guide and your fellow passengers watch the water for sharks. If they see one, they yell “Cage down!” At which point everyone in the cage goes underwater to try and spot the shark.

Guides try and lure sharks by chumming the water around you. This isn’t accomplished by simply tossing fish guts around the boat, appetizing as that might sound. But rather, by repeatedly hoisting and tossing giant fish heads out into the sea. Which means about every three to four minutes, a fish head the size of a small pizza is getting dragged right past your face, then thrown right over you again. Dripping fish-head juice on the way out, staring at you with its dead, fish-head eyes on the way back in.

This comprises most of the action during a morning of shark diving.

Every so often, the guide yells “Cage down! Cage right!” meaning if you get under the water and look to your right, you’ll see a man-eating beast fighting to pull a fish head off a line.

Underwater it’s like Lady Gaga just showed up at the Oscars. The half-dozen people in the cage are all shoving their underwater cameras in front of each other, trying to get a shot of the Great White. What they end up with is a picture of a bunch of underwater cameras with some grey mass somewhere in the middle. Which they’ll spend the rest of their life showing to people saying, “If you look right there between that lady’s hair and the GoPro, you can kinda make out a fin.”

Intermittently, you can get a clear view of the shark if you’re not concerned with getting a picture. It is pretty cool to see something that you thought only existed as an animatronic puppet at Universal Studios up close and personal. But the sharks catch on to the ruse pretty quickly, so you’re lucky if the sharks are there for more than a minute. If someone was dangling a bacon, egg, and cheese croissanwich in front of you and pulling it away every time you tried to take a bite, you wouldn’t hang around long either.

Typically you’ll spend about 30 to 45 minutes in the chilly sewer water waiting for sharks to come by. A good trip down will have three or four encounters. Sometimes you’ll have more. Sometimes, the sharks are like, “Yo, those fish heads over there? It’s a scam, bro don’t waste your time,” and you get nothing. Good day sir.

That’s not to say that shark diving is a waste of time or not something you should absolutely do. It’s to say that it’s not SeaWorld so you’re not guaranteed of seeing anything, so look at whatever you spend as an investment. It might pay off. It might be an expensive morning cruise through shark-infested waters. The only guarantee is that afterwards, you’ll definitely want a shower.

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