Sharks are quite possibly one of the world’s most feared animals. From the smallest sand shark to the gargantuan whale shark, they are sleek, muscular and can be as agile as a dolphin.
Row upon row of razor-sharp teeth and the ability to sense the blood of an injured animal from over a kilometer away, make it unsurprising that they are the most feared creatures beneath the waves, and perhaps the most feared of all is the Great White Shark.
The staff at White Shark Ecoventures in Cape Town aim to change the public’s perception of sharks. What they offer is the opportunity of a lifetime, taking people diving in “Shark Alley”, near the fisherman’s village Gaansbaai, to come face-to-face with a Great White Shark on their own terms and learn that this magnificent creature is highly misunderstood and is in fact one that is to be more respected than feared.
How it began
“In 1992 we became one of the first successful shark diving operators in South Africa to actually carry and perform the diving experience in the channel at Dyer Island. We have strived to become more interactive with the locals in Gansbaai and to create awareness around sharks and the importance of conservation,” says Melvyn van der Merwe, marketing and liaison manager at White Shark Ecoventures.
“There are not many places in the world where you can see Great Whites in safety and close up. Statistics have shown that shark cage diving is one of the top five attractions for international visitors to Cape Town, and we are happy to be able to share the wonder of these creatures with our guests.”
“Our tours are not only an adventure but are also highly educational and the crew participate in the documentation of valuable research on Great White Sharks, which is then sent to Marine & Coastal Management Research and various marine biologists
worldwide. We also founded the Great White Shark Protection Foundation, a body dedicated to the protection and preservation of the Great White Shark globally.”
The island was named after African American, Samson Dyer, who went to live on it in the 19th century. He collected “guano” (bird or bat droppings), and made a living from supplying it to farmers on the mainland as fertiliser. The boats that were used to transport the guano from the island to the mainland, were salvaged years ago by the South African Air Force and today they can be viewed in the Maritime Museum at the Waterfront in Cape Town.
Dyer Island (larger island) is the breeding ground of Jackass Penguins, Cape Cormorants and Gannets, while Geyser Rock (smaller island) is a breeding Mecca for Cape Fur Seals and currently home to approximately 50 000 seals. In season, whales and dolphins may also be spotted.
The White Shark Diving experience
“White Shark Ecoventures shows divers how majestic, strong, calm and magnificent these creatures are and why they need to be protected. Coming face to face with a Great White is truly life changing. Almost everyone who comes on board fears them but has a complete change of mind set after the experience.”
“When they are feeding their tails sometimes brush against the cage but they will never attack. Sharks are; however, curious creatures by nature and often come close up to the cage to investigate the divers. Diving occurs in a cage that can hold five people comfortably and the cage stays on the surface of the water so that the divers’ heads stay above the water line.”
White Shark Ecoventures’ cages are situated next to the boat and once ready to dive, the Dive Master will assist the diver in opening the cage and getting inside. The cage will be submerged no more than half a metre below the ocean’s surface and a freeboard of approximately 30cm allows the divers to rise to surface should they need to speak to the Dive Master on the boat. Snorkelers would secure themselves by holding onto the convenient cross bars at the top of the cage.
“Diving takes place on a quick and effective rotational system, with five to six divers down at a time. Time spent in the cage depends on weather and water conditions, shark activity and the eagerness of each diver but is usually around 15 minutes. We do not take more than 25 divers per trip ensuring maximum cage diving time for all divers and snorkelers,” says Melvyn.
“Those who don’t want to actually venture into the water can get a spectacular view from the boat. Since we work with several sharks daily and all year round, breechings are a common occurrence.”
The Boat and crew
“Our boat is the Megalodon II, a stable catamaran, measuring 11 m x 3.8 m, offering the ultimate stability at sea. The boat offers advanced facilities which include, a sophisticated and securely structured five-man steel cage, cabin, large upper shark-viewing deck, private and lockable toilet, fresh water showers, private restroom with bed, fresh drinking water, wetdeck and separate dry-deck for maximum comfort,” states Melvyn.
“She is fully licensed to SA safety standards and has two radio’s, radar equipment, navigation equipment, depth finder, echo sounder, medical first aid kit (including oxygen and fluid replacement), modern safety equipment, life vests for all passengers and a 50-man life raft. The boat, cage and life raft are inspected on an annual basis, ensuring the best safety for all passengers.
“Our crew is highly qualified in their specific fields and together have more than 20 years of experience with the White Sharks. Crew qualifications include: A1 (1) commercially licensed skippers, level three Medics; Satour Registered specialised tour guides; Dive Masters and qualified shark handlers. Skippers are licensed with the Independent Commission Authority of SA (ICASA) as well as the SA Maritime and Safety Authority (SAMSA). And a stepby- step emergency flow chart is available inside the cabin of the vessel,” he adds.
The White Shark Ecoventures cage is a securely structured, galvanised, steel cage that is operated with a winch from a sturdy gantry, ensuring effective cage retrieval. The surface cage is constructed of re-enforced mild steel and built in accordance with
specifications provided by coded welders and registered engineers.
It has a convenient porthole for easy photography, as well as a 300mm freeboard above the surface, allowing divers to communicate with the Dive Master on the boat. The use of the hookah system in the cage, means that the diving cylinders remain on the boat, since there are 5mm air hoses running into the cage. Cage dimensions are; 2,3 metres high, 3 metres in length and 1 metre in width.
“The cage has been designed for the safety of the divers as well as the animal. Therefore there are no sharp edges around the cage, ensuring that the sharks are not harmed in any way. The cage is replaced annually and is inspected by relevant authorities on a regular basis,” he says.
White Shark Ecoventures is not only member of, but is also the only operator who works in close association withSANCCOB (South African National Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds), by saving oil stricken and injuredpenguins (and other birds) from Dyer Island.
According to Melvyn, “The crew are trained to administer medicine on-board, immediately after collecting birds from the island. Birds are then transported to the rehabilitation facility in Cape Town, free of charge.” Such an example is Mariette Hopley, conservationist and co-owner of White Shark Ecoventures, who has only recently
stepped down as Chairlady of the Executive Committee of SANCCOB in South Africa. As an international wildlife facilitator and rehabilitator, Mariette has dedicated many years of her life to supporting non-profitable organisations such as the Effects of Oil on Wild Life (EOW), Shark Alliance and the South African Shark Conservancy (SASC) in wildlife crisis situations. Her knowledge and expertise with wildlife rehabilitation have been invaluable, especially when it comes to incidents like The Treasure Oil Spill, off
the South African coast.
“Mariette is a well-respected figure amongst international emergency relief teams worldwide, and as a contract member, is on 24 hour call to assist with any wildlife crisis globally. At White Shark Ecoventures, we strive to raise public awareness and create a better understanding of Great White Sharks, who nearly faced extinction due to brutal and unnecessary killings over the years. We work towards putting the “Jaws” perception back into perspective and encourage visitors to contribute towards the preservation of our South African heritage,” adds Melvyn.
“Our passion goes beyond profit and we take complete care when handling the sharks, to ensure that they are not harmed or unduly disturbed in any way. Tours are 100% eco-friendly and we refrain from using anything other than natural products to attract
the sharks. My advice to anyone petrified of sharks is to come on board. Your fear of sharks will be a thing of the past once you experience the sheer magnificence of the Great White,” he ends.