With a yacht club, boutique stores, and expensive hillside houses overlooking a beautiful blue bay, Knysna reminded me of Sausalito, California. Maybe that was the problem. Everything felt so familiar it was boring. I’d foolishly paid in advance for two nights at my hotel, and there were – of course – no refunds. So I paced around town like a prisoner awaiting parole. My only attempt at an activity was taking a boat out to the Featherbed Nature Reserve, a small wilderness area by the mouth of the bay.
Having served my time in Knysna, I moved west to Mossel Bay, a town I had a specific reason for visiting. Mossel Bay is one of the best places in the world to see great white sharks. My timing wasn’t ideal, given that many of the sharks migrate away during the South African summer, but the people who ran the town’s cage diving operation assured me that the odds of finding great whites were still high. They’d seen four yesterday and seven the day before.
On the morning of my dive the cloudy sky and choppy sea blended seamlessly into a flat gray horizon. Light rain fell on our group as we walked from the tour company’s office to the boat. I’d read that Mossel Bay is famous for having the best weather in South Africa. The sun apparently shines 320 days a year. Already wet and cold, I knew what a Laotian would say: “Unlucky.”
Our group included seven other tourists, all Germans. As we motored north I huddled under my rain jacket on the upper deck of the boat and watched groups of Cape Fur Seals racing towards the open ocean. Occasionally one of them would launch itself completely out of the water, its blubbery brown shape somehow sleek as it cut though the air. I pictured great white sharks circling ominously below the surface. The theme music from Jawsbegan playing in my head.
We dropped anchor about a mile past Seal Island, not far from shore. A crew member began pouring buckets of chum in the water. The boat’s captain uncoiled a rope, tied half a fish to the end, and threw the bait overboard. We watched and waited. Almost two hours passed. A small hammerhead shark appeared and then disappeared just as quickly. The wind picked up and our boat rocked roughly in heavy swells.
Our guide said he was about ready to give up. And then a splash. “Shark!” yelled the captain. A great white, thoughtfully titling to the side so that we could admire its full profile, had taken the bait. Caught by surprise, the captain almost lost his grip on the rope as the nine-foot shark sank its teeth into the fish.
I was poorly prepared for photos. The rain forced me to stash my big camera safely below deck, leaving me armed only with the weak but waterproof Kodak PlaySport videocamera. I did my best to film the shark as it made several more passes.
Great White Shark in Mossel Bay (Video)
The crew deployed the shark cage, which was just large enough to fit all six of us who wanted to dive. Wearing full wetsuits and masks, we dropped into the cage one by one, lurching awkwardly as the boat tilted back and forth in the waves. As we entered the water, a second shark appeared.
Too much was happening for any of us to be frightened. Mostly I felt frustrated. It was almost impossible to stabilize myself for more than a few seconds. Lashed to the side of the boat, the cage, and all of us in it, pitched and rolled in the swells. If I wasn’t bumping into the German on one side I was being elbowed by the German on the other. My mask fogged up. I couldn’t concentrate. With my right hand busy trying to operate my videocamera, I only had my left hand available to hold the cage’s interior bar, which was very easy to confuse with one of the exposed outer bars.
The top part of the cage remained out of the water. We weren’t supposed to submerge our heads until the guide yelled “Dive!”, which would be our signal that a great white was approaching. But our guide hoped to sell us a souvenir video after the trip and he was too focused on filming to bother with his other responsibilities.
My first underwater view of a great white shark happened accidentally. A particularly steep swell dunked all six of us just as a shark chased the captain’s bait directly into our cage. The diver on the far right had a straight-on view of the shark, mouth open, as it rammed the bars a few inches in front of his face.
Visibility was low. We couldn’t see the sharks underwater until they came very close. And even when the sharks swam right next to the cage my videocamera only captured a faint green blur. My best video shows a quick underwater pass by one of those green blurs, followed by a jerky above-the-water shot of the shark’s dorsal fin gliding away.
Cage Diving with Great White Sharks (Video)
After what felt like a very short time our guide ordered us out of the cage. I really enjoyed being able to see the sharks up-close, but I left the boat with a vague sense of disappointment. I expected something more. The impression I had in my head of cage diving with great whites was – and still is – much more exciting than what I actually experienced. Our guide offered us his video at a discount, “Because conditions were not so great today.” No thanks.
While I was in Mossel Bay I stayed at the Santos Express, an old train that had been converted into a backpacker hotel. My window looked right out onto the sand of Santos Beach, and that night the sounds of the Indian Ocean filled my tiny cabin as I fell asleep.