The Great White Experience is about getting up close and personal with these majestic creatures.
I've always been fascinated rather than afraid of Great White Sharks. This probably stems from the fact that I live in the safety of middle England and rarely venture into their domain, but that's also why I've wanted to put myself out there, to see them first hand.
The most popular way of doing this is cage diving, where you spend three to four hours on a boat which, once out at sea, will be anchored. The crew then attach the cage to the side of boat, whilst chumming the water to attract sharks. Once a shark shows up, you then brave the cold water, enter the cage and, if you're lucky, look a Great White straight in the eye.
We don't get many Great Whites off the coast of Britain, so I knew it would mean traveling further afield to see them. Having photographed other animals in the wild, I'm aware that no matter how much planning and preparation you do before hand, there are no guarantees of sightings when it comes to viewing wildlife. With that in mind, going half way around the world for a day trip didn't seem like a sensible plan, so I decided I wanted to spend a couple of weeks at sea. I was also looking at ways of keeping the cost of the trip down, whilst getting the most out of my time. This led me to the idea of volunteering to work on a boat and the concept of 'VolunTourism'.
VolunTourism is simply a form of tourism in which travellers participate in voluntary work. The idea is that both parties benefit in some way from the experience. Normally, volunteer programmes are for extended periods of time and the volunteer has some knowledge or skill to bring to the table. This wasn't going to be the case for me. I only had a couple of weeks, a lay person's understanding of sharks and no experience of working on a boat. Not one for being put off though, I found a volunteer programme with a commercial cage diving boat in South Africa.
South Africa was an obvious choice for the trip: the country is in the Great White’s migratory path and is renowned for sightings all year round. However, never having volunteered overseas before, I started to look into some of the debates going on about these programmes, particularly when it comes to short term volunteering by unskilled volunteers.
It was important to me that this experience should prove beneficial all round, so I questioned the Company about where my money was going, what work I would be doing, how the programme was useful to the Company, the wildlife and the local community. Most importantly, I asked if my presence would be depriving a local person of a job. The answers I got laid any concerns I had to rest and in December 2013 I set off to Gansbaai, South Africa.
About a two-hour drive southeast of Cape Town, Gansbaai is a small seaside town, which derives its income from fishing and tourism. White Shark Projects
is one of eight companies in the town licensed to run cage diving trips for tourists. I paid them around £800. In return they provided airport transfers, two weeks accommodation in a shared house, a couple of t-shirts and a beanie (as a uniform when working on the boat), 10 trips to sea, plus a couple of day trips to Hermanus and Cape Agulha - when we had 'no sea days' due to inclement weather. More importantly, I received an education and a fantastic experience.
When you consider a single cage diving trip costs about £90, volunteering proved quite cost effective. In terms of where my money went, it covered my overheads; a donation to the South Africa Shark Conservancy
- an organisation focused on research and education - along with a donation to a Recycle Swop Shop
to help keep the shelves stocked. This is a community scheme, set up by the White Shark Projects, where children in the local township collect discarded plastic bottles and swap them for a whole range of things, such as clothes, toys, books, pens etcetera.
Although a commercial company, White Shark Projects' decision to run a volunteer programme forms part of their commitment to responsible tourism, through educating people about these mythologised and often maligned creatures. They strongly believe education and advocacy are vital activities if we are to conserve these magnificent predators.
I received lectures on a variety of topics including Great White biology, behaviour, shark finning and tagging. My duties as a volunteer included packing the boat, cleaning wetsuits, helping out through basic seamanship, chumming and client interaction - not necessarily in that order! I was also taught how to collect data from shark sightings such as identifying their gender - a male has a pair of reproductive organs, called claspers - and determining their size -the cage was 3 meters in length so we would use this like a ruler, as the sharks swam past.
In addition, I managed to put my photographic skills to use by taking photos of shark fins. By capturing their fin colour, distinct markings and shape, these photographs can be used as a non-invasive way to identify individual sharks. Images such as these, along with the data collected, can help researchers and scientists monitor the shark population.
Although no one really knows how many Great White sharks there are, it's believed their numbers are declining due to them being hunted for their fins and teeth, as trophies for sport fishing, in revenge attacks or simply by accidentally being caught up in fishing nets. As a species they are currently classified as vulnerable
- not a word most people would associate with a Great White!
Like many conservation groups, I share the view that efforts focused on making people less hostile to sharks and which increase people's understanding of the role sharks play in nature, are the key to reducing the threat humans pose to their survival. Sharks keep populations of other species in check and healthy by preying upon old, sick, or slow marine life. They also prevent their prey species from over eating other marine life further down the food chain, often simply by their mere presence, as a shark in the area can be intimidating.
White Shark Projects' boat is a 36ft catamaran and holds 20 passengers plus crew. As a volunteer, if the boat was full you didn't get to go to sea and would just help to prepare the boat pre-and post-launch. I was okay with this, as I found it reassuring that they run their business without the need of free labour. This was also confirmation that, as a volunteer, I wasn't affecting someone's livelihood. The Company would have up to five volunteers at any one time. Even when there was room on the boat, only two or three would go to sea per trip. On average, barring bad weather, they operate two trips per day, so this still gave each volunteer the chance to go to sea most days.
During my ten days at sea I saw, on average, three to four different sharks on each trip - sometimes as many as nine in one day. They ranged in size from 2.5 to 4.2 metres (over 8ft to almost 14ft) and included both male and females. On occasions I saw two at a time, which is rare as these are solitary creatures. The sightings were at various locations in an area know as 'Shark Alley', which is a strip of sea between Dyer island and Geyser Rock, off the Gansbaai coast.
What I found fascinating was the difference in the behaviour of sharks around the boat. Some were clearly disinterested in both the bait and the boat. These sharks would typically do one pass and not return. Others would be more inquisitive and spy hop, where they would poke their head out of the water to take a closer look at us. Then, there were the ones who would stick around for a while, doing a number of passes around the boat before attempting to get the bait. What struck me most was their calm and graceful behaviour. I would describe the sharks that went for the bait as determined and assertive at most, but certainly not aggressive or agitated. When they swam around the boat and alongside the cage they were simply majestic.
Cage diving with Great Whites is, in itself, controversial. Opponents argue that practices such as baiting sharks to approach boats and using seal decoys are linked to a rise in attacks, by conditioning sharks to associate people with food and lowering their fear of people. The counter argument is that these companies are not actually feeding sharks. Baits tend to be tuna heads, which are thrown out on a line in front of the cage to simply entice the shark and lead it towards the cage. A good bait handler will remove the bait from the water before the shark gets it. This is not only to avoid feeding the shark but to prevent them from crashing into the cage. Unfortunately, this doesn't always pan out. Great Whites are designed to be difficult to see from above; this, coupled with their explosive speed, can prove quite challenging, even for the most experienced bait handler. One day we lost four baits to a very fast, determined and persistent shark. Even though the bait was taken, being just the head of the tuna meant there was not exactly a lot of substance for the shark.
I'm not convinced sharks associate people with food. At best I think it's more likely they would associate boats with food. Fishermen have reported losing part of their haul to sharks who attack their nets.
I'm also of the opinion that the majority of shark attacks on people are an exploratory bite or a case of mistaken identity - if you look like a seal, behave like a seal, you're likely to get attacked like a seal!
When people are attacked it's usually a single bite. When the shark realises it's not the meal it anticipated, they generally break off the attack. It's just that with the size of their jaws and their razor sharp teeth, a nibble from a shark's perspective can be catastrophic to us. If you are unfortunate enough to find yourself caught up in a shark attack and have the presence of mind to keep your wits about you, then my suggestion would be to go for the shark's eyes or hit it's gills to discourage it. I wouldn't recommended trying a smack on its sensitive nose, due to its close proximity to its mouth!
I can appreciate the argument that if you want to see sharks you should look for an "authentic" experience and simply watch them behaving naturally without any intervention on our part.
After my experience in Gansbaai, I was so enthralled by these creatures that I wanted to see more. In late July 2014 I returned to South Africa to spend a couple of weeks with Apex Shark Expeditions
, who operate excursions to observe and photograph natural predation behaviour between Great Whites and Cape Fur Seals, in False Bay.
I chose this company after reading Chris Fallow's book 'GREAT WHITE: The Majesty of Sharks'
, as this gave me the confidence that he had the knowledge, skill and integrity to get the balance right between getting close to the action but not getting in the way.
Chris and Monique, who own and operate Apex Shark Expeditions
, are particularly conscious about not interfering with the natural behaviour between shark and seal. They carefully position the boat so it doesn't block the seal's route either out of the bay or back to the safety of Seal Island. They also don't get too close to a predation. If seals aren't taken out in the first blitz attack, there can be quite a skirmish as they are agile and formidable foes in their own right. Seals don't tend to try and out swim the shark; they may retaliate, going for the shark's eyes, more often they will simply attempt to get behind the shark, out of the way of it's jaws, as sharks don't have a tight turning circle. Due to the energy a shark expends in attacking a seal, if it doesn't achieve a kill quickly it will lose interest and swim off, allowing the seal to continue on its way.
Below is a Cape Fur Seal who survived a shark attack and managed to make it back to the safety of Seal Island. His next challenge was to fend of the gulls and fight off infection. Unfortunately, I don't know how successful he was with that.
Although the months of July and August are the prime time to see Great Whites breaching, most of the shark activity during the weeks I was there were sub-surface predations. I managed one shot of a full natural breach where the shark took out the front seal. The other two seals managed to get away unscathed. Unfortunately, the timing and angle of my shot wasn't the best.
Capturing "flying" White sharks on camera is the most challenging photography I've tried to date. Not only do you have to contend with the motion of the boat and the movement of the seal, but a breach will be over in a fraction of a second and it takes a degree of luck to be focused on the same seal as the shark! Undeterred by my first attempt at photographing breaches, I returned in July 2015 and had a greater degree of success.
Having spent six weeks at sea observing these fascinating creatures I can confidently say that when it comes to cage diving with Great Whites, not only is it "safe to get in the water", but it's a thrilling experience! For me though, I much prefer being onboard, watching their natural predatory behaviour. Personally, nothing beats the spectacular sight of a full breach, in a shark verses seal encounter.