It's likely that you've never heard of Mossel Bay. But, there's a good chance you've seen pictures of it. A dummy seal drags limply behind a boat. In an instant, two tonnes of husky, toothy apex predator comes straight up from the bottom like a freight train. It flies through the air like Gabriel Medina, before flopping down and displacing the ocean the way a VW bus might make a splash if you dropped it from a helicopter.
Mossel Bay is a popular place for scientists, natgeo photographers, and lowly surfbloggers to go and get a glimpse of the scariest critter on earth. The great white shark is nature's perfect hunter. Like a sentient panzer tank, I think I can speak for most of us when I say it evokes a feeling of both awe and soiled wetsuit.
Numerous seal colonies and the ideal water temperature create the perfect climate for men in grey suits all along the South African coast. Commercial shark cage diving has become extremely popular among visitors. There are just a handful of countries where cage diving is available to the public; including Mexico, Australia, and South Africa. But some of our wetsuit clad brethren are not particularly keen on the idea.
On a small and placid day, early on in my time on the Cape, I recall seeing a boat bobbing lazily about 200m from where I was floating on my board.
"Is that a fishing boat?" I asked the Afrikaans longboarder nearby.
"Naw bru, that's the cage diving boat!"
The concentration of sharks along the South African coast is something that surfers in the area have to make peace with. For many, this isn't an issue. Maybe you've heard it before, I hope I'm not blowing a secret. But there are a few decent surf spots in South Africa.
The South African surfers I've met either have an unwavering confidence in statistics, or an equally unwavering level of denial about the subject. I could never discern which was which. Either way, they seem to have a healthy respect for the ocean's top boss, though some might politely shush you if you try to talk too much about them.
Once, while wading in the keyhole in Jbay, I saw what was probably an 8 foot blue pointer breaching not far from the lineup. Rather than thrash and claw their way back to shore in a panic, everyone sat on their boards and enjoyed the show as the fish put on a display of leaps and flops before disappearing back into the alien world. The alien world where we like to dangle our feet just for fun. I'm fairly certain that it was not a great white, but some other kind of large shark. But the experience helped me understand a few things. First, South African surfers are batshit crazy. Second, it's obvious that the people who spent their lives in these waters have developed a kind of distant understanding of the things that lurk underneath them.
Not long before that, I had spent three days on a cage diving boat in Mossel Bay, trying to see a great white with my own eyes. For the first two days, biology interns poured rotten fish juice into the water near Seal Island, in the hopes of appeasing tourists who came in droves. Armed with nothing but false bravado and GoPros, we waited. No sharks appeared. Growing up away from the ocean, I once had this idea in my head that as soon as you dipped your toe in the water, something would probably bite your leg off. Wade a bit too far from the sandbar? BAM, you've been bitten in half. I think that this fear is not uncommon among inlanders. But here we were, literally begging the sharks to come say hello. And we saw nothing.
It was on the third day that we finally saw one. It goes without saying that I never considered a great white to be cuddly, and I still don't. I am also not a marine biologist. But the behavior of this hefty grey sheila looked more like a timid and curious cat, than a cold-blooded jaws. Throw a toy mouse on a string at a cat, and watch the way it studies the toy before it makes a move. This is what came to my mind while I watched her swim around and inspect the tuna head, making several passes before showing us her terrifying bite.
Afterwards, I embellished my story a bit in an attempt impress two Brazilian girls at my hostel. It was around this time that one of the local surfers cut me off.
"That is just about the stupidest f****** thing you can do. Would you go to Kruger with a steak tied around your neck to get a photo of a lion?"
I'd never really thought about it, but he made a good point. All over the Western Cape, there are signs telling tourists that they'll be fined massively for feeding baboons or baiting them with food. Over time, baboons have become less afraid of humans and see them now as an opportunity to get something to eat. As a result, they are more likely to approach people in places where they share close proximity. Granted, the cage diving boats aren't actually feeding the sharks. But the sharks smell the tuna, and they come to hunt; right next to a cage full of people.
I don't know how a shark's feeding habits compare to a baboon's. But I do know that on dry land, it is pretty widely accepted that baiting an animal with food is a pretty stupid idea. The same goes for bears in Montana, where I work as a mountain bike guide. I'm sure as hell not going to be dragging a deer carcass behind me with the hopes that my clients get a photo-op with a grizzly. In part because a deer carcass would be heavy, but also because I'm afraid of bears.
I can't advocate against shark cage diving, because I'm no expert. But if you're considering doing it on your next vacation, read up a little. Decide for yourself. There are more educated people in this world who are already posing the same question.
In my mind, maybe climbing into chummy and baited water wearing a shiny black wetsuit to get a photo isn't a great idea. I mean, you won't get eaten because you're in a cage. But I bet if you asked the surfer in the shiny black wetsuit, surfing just within spitting distance of your cage diving boat, he might agree with me.
Here are some links to a few people who know what they're talking about: