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In the Face of the Great White

The most frightening of all sharks is worthwhile a test of courage. An outstanding experience in South Africa.

Text and photos by Jerome Konen
(Trip from 9 - 23 June 2001)

A dorsal fin of a Great White is cutting through the smooth surface of the sea and is heading fast for the stern of our boat, so in the rush of the action, I'm quickly adjusting my camera settings, bending myself over the outboard motor to get as close as possible to the water surface. I can see the shark's frightening deep black eyes showing close through the water surface and before he snaps the bait, André, our tour guide, takes him with his fingers by the nose and gets the shark breaking through the water, the mouth wide open. I caught my breath, while shooting some photos at half a meter close right into the mouth of the shark. This has finally been the scene I was dreaming about long before I came for this trip to South Africa.

Best Region for Shark Diving

Diving with the Great White Shark

Here in Gansbaai, about 150 km east of Cape Town, the southernmost part of South Africa, is probably the best region worldwide to see Great White Sharks and to dive with them, well protected by a cage. André Hartman, our guide, is since more than six year in this business and has developed a good feeling for these animals. His experience tells him where he has to search them depending on the current and the visibility under water.

André HartmanAndré Hartman is a rough and courageous guy. He is in the business as a tour guide since several years where he gets the sharks to open their mouth and guides them like a puppet player. But he considers himself still learning everyday about the behaviour of the sharks.

J.K.: How do you estimate the danger when you go free diving with the Great White Shark without protection by a cage?
A.H.: Opening and closing his mouth is the only reliable sign of the shark before attacking. Then give him a hit on his nose and he will be disturbed and turn away. Best is to use a ski stick for your defence. The shark normally considers the diver as another animal searching for the same prey. But I can't assure this works everytime.

J.K.: How do you explain the hesitation of the shark before he catches the bait?
A.H.: The shark has no territory claims, so before he feeds, he investigates first the bait and the complete underwater environment, like circling around the boat and the cage, then he returns back to the bait to catch it. As he has a very short memory, when he's back later, he starts investigating again. But blood in the water makes the sharks very nervous and there is no hesitation anymore during feeding.

J.K.: There seams to be an order of precedence among several sharks while feeding?
A.H.: When a big shark comes into the scenery, he makes his position clear to the smaller ones, those leave the bait to the bigger shark and give him some respect.

J.K.: What may be the reason the shark is giving no reaction when grabbing his fins?
A.H.: The Great White Shark has probably no sensation in the top part of his fins. This may explain the lack of reaction when you grab the fins with your fingers.

Open Mouth

The Usual Prey

Some time ago, Gansbaai was still a small fishing village with a habour, fish cannery, a few shops and pubs, but since a few years several White Shark Tour Operators have been etablished here. They take you out with small boats to a island close to the shore called "Dyer Island", a barren, flat rock where countless birds are breeding. Besides is the small "Gyser Rock", a island occupied by about 30.000 seals. This extensive colony of seals is the usual prey for the White Sharks here. Scientists have found out that the White Sharks are moving from Namibia along the South African coast to Mozambique and further to Tansania and back again. Some tagged animals have even been sighted in Australia.

Waiting for the Sharks

Sometimes it takes one or two hours before the first shark appears on the bait. In order to lure the shark to the boat, a net bag is filled with shark liver from fish offal called "chum" and put in the water at the stern of the small boat. This will stimulate their sense of smell. In addition a rubber seal dummy on a lead takes the white shark close to the boat where the lay out bait should make the shark feeding.

Diving with the Great White Shark

Getting into the Cage

The shark is still around the boat and takes constantly a snap at the bait. Now the time has come to enter the cage. The dry suit is the best protection against the 15°C cold water. Quickly I have to buckle the 16kg weight belt, than comes the most unsecure moment, entering the cage from the deck rail of the boat. Should I have now my arms or legs outside the cage, then an attack by the white shark isn't excluded.

Graceful Appearence

Done, I'm safe in the cage now, in that moment the shark puts his head through the barred frame. My adrenalin level shots up but seconds later the shark turns away again. I gasp for air through the regulator and I try to concentrate now for shooting pictures although the cage is moving quite a lot in the waves. Only underwater you get really conscious about the graceful appearence of that predator having a 400 million years of evolution behind.

The Great White Shark
Great White Shark
Size: At birth 100 - 150 cm, mature females 4 - 6.5 m, mature males 2.4 - 5.5 m.
Dissemination: Worldwide in the coastal waters of most temperate and a few tropic regions.
Usual prey: Seals and other sea mammals, various fish species, sea turtles, other sharks and rays.

As the shark isn't that aggressive to the divers being inside the cage, I asked André at the surface to pull the bait closer to the cage, so that I would have the shark trying to feed pretty close to my camera. Best for taking pictures is having the animal less than one meter close to the lens. This let me shooting the most impressive part of the Great White Shark, the open mouth including it's frightning teeth.

The Shark's Fingerprint

Typical characteristics of the White Shark is his tapering muzzle and his deep black eyes without visible pupils which may turn back at the moment of biting. He is only white colored on the belly side, the back and flanks are in different shades of grey. A reliable distinguishing mark is the horizontal transition in grey shades between the head and the gill slits, as it were the shark's fingerprint.

No Primitive Species

During all these encounters with the Great White Shark I have learned above all that this so feared animal is not a primitive and voracious species but may also be cautious and reserved in his environment. Most of the time the shark tries some tentative attempts at the bait, keeps turning around the boat and the cage, so like he memorizes everything before he snaps at the bait. But if you add blood into the water, the shark gets very nervous, his movements speed up and he bites at the bait immediately.

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Related Links
> Shark Diving with Marine Dynamics
> Diving along the Cape of Good Hope, South Africa

More Info
> Biology of the Great White Shark
> The Gansbaai Net
> Sea Temperature Data for Southern Africa
> South Africa Online

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