GANSBAAI, South Africa – Blessed with clear waters and a high concentration of great white sharks, this sleepy fishing town has become the self-proclaimed capital of cage-diving – plunging underwater in a sturdy cage for a close-up look at one of nature’s greatest predators.
But the multimillion-dollar industry is increasingly the target of critics who say it is teaching sharks to associate people with food by luring them to boats with hunks of bait.
So local shark tour operators hosted a Great White weekend festival to persuade locals that there is no link between attacks on humans and the industry that has transformed their town into a draw for adrenaline junkies.
Suspended in underwater cages and gasping with amazement from boats, locals were treated at cut-rate prices to the spectacle of lithe creatures gliding elegantly through the lucid waters of Shark Alley, named for its unusual density of great white sharks attracted to a nearby colony of 40,000 seals.
On shore, children donned cardboard shark hats and watched a local theater company perform a shark-related play, while conservationists sought to educate visitors about the mighty predator.
Gansbaai, an unassuming town of a few hundred people, claims that its great whites are more accessible than those at resort areas in California and Australia, which also have thriving shark tourism industries, because they are so close to the shore.
But the industry has a bad image. One person is killed by a shark every two years in South Africa. Experts say the number of incidents will probably increase because more people are surfing, kayaking and swimming than before, but many locals say that the cage-diving industry is to blame.
A report last year from experts at the World Wildlife Fund South Africa and government conservationists said there was no evidence linking attacks on humans and the industry. But it did warn tour operators to stick to the rules and not to provoke sharks into aggressive behavior.
Operators attract sharks with a mixture of blood and fish remains, and encourage them to stay near the boat by dangling a large fish in the water. In Gansbaai, eight companies have government permits to operate shark cage diving and spotting tours. A code of conduct states the animal must not be harmed or rewarded with food if it comes to the boat.
Operators acknowledge this does sometimes happen through a mixture of the shark’s speed and stealth and the crew’s carelessness.
“Watch the bait! watch the bait!” skipper Johannes van der Merwe yelled repeatedly to passengers and his crew on a trip Saturday, when sharks around 10 feet long came within touching distance of the boat in search of a tasty bit of fish.
It was an awe-inspiring sight, and a far cry from the terror invoked by “Jaws,” the 1975 film that portrayed the great white as an indiscriminate killing machine.
Alison Kock, with the University of Cape Town’s shark research unit, says there should be independent monitors on all the cage-diving vessels to ensure they don’t feed the sharks or tease them into coming too close.
“The problem is with high expectations that tourists have,” Kock said. “They are not happy with just seeing the sharks but they want them to leap out of the water or go right against the cage.”
Kock says the shark tour operators help dispel myths that have plagued the great white since “Jaws” and are helping to educate the public that sharks are far more at risk from humans – pollution and fishing nets – than the other way round.
Although naturally aggressive, great white sharks are intelligent and don’t regard swimmers and surfers as natural prey, she said.
“They are very confident, curious animals,” Kock said. “If they don’t know what something is, they give an exploratory bite or nudge.”