Great White Sharks - The Chance in a Lifetime
September 2004 by Lauren E. Darcey
Since fourth grade, I have been compiling a list of "Things To Do Before I Die". The list is thrilling (to me, but frightening to my parents) and surprisingly short. The list has, in fact, grown shorter this year as I cross the first item off my list - I will swim with a great white shark, in the wild.
From an early age, I harbored the wish to become a celebrated marine biologist with a specialty in great whites - much like Dr. Matt Hooper in the 1975 classic Jaws. I found the great white's portrayed single-mindedness fascinating. They don't discriminate - they'll taste anything and eat most of it. There's nothing unpredictable about them from a human's perspective, and yet there is so little known about the species that in some corner of my juvenile heart, I felt that they were profoundly misunderstood, and I wanted to be the one to set the world straight. To show everyone that sharks are beautiful, graceful creatures with many more facets than we know of. Unfortunately the dry and incessant droning of numerous university microbiology classes and the depressing number of marine biologists who only later found work on oil rigs made me relinquish my illusions of a grandiose career in marine biology and opt for a more practical one that might someday still allow me to spend time with these amazing creatures. Perhaps some would say I sold out, but since my second major was my other passion - computer science - I don't regret it. In fact, my finned friends may yet benefit more from my technical degree. Most of my friends with biology degrees have yet to find work that excites them as I have. Although my sharks have been relegated to hobby or passionate interest status in my life, I have managed to maintained my unwavering awe and regard for the species, just the same.
With the birth of internet travel and dream vacations, ecotourism and adventure travel become more accessible and my dreams of seeing a great white in the wild became much more attainable as a non-scientist. Finally, last year, I traveled to South Africa with some close friends. Our first stop - White Shark Ecoventures, where for two days we would go out into great white shark invested waters in search a close encounter. We were not to be disappointed.
Early the first morning, we boarded the Megalodon, a small boat rigged with a circular metal shark cage, and headed out towards Geyser Rock off Gansbaai, South Africa. Immortalized by wildlife photographer and researcher Chris Fallows, great whites breach or jump out of the water off the coast of Gansbaai, making these some of the active white shark waters in the world. Many of the locals won't bring their smaller fishing boats out for fear of a great white jumping into their boat and swamping them. As we near Geyser Rock, our guide gives us the safety briefing. He points out the life vests and the shore, which is surprisingly close. I'm not sure I'd bother with the vest, though, he says. More likely he'd swim to shore as quickly as he could. He cannot promise us a viewing, but sightings have been plentiful of late, he continues. He throws a little foam floatie in the shape of a seal out and reels it in, also pausing to shake a small bag of shark livers hanging off the side of the boat, in hopes of luring a shark or two.
We don't have to wait long. A three meter shark cruises around not 20 minutes later. She circles the boat leisurely, tilting an eye up to watch us on the boat. It's almost as if she's counting us. The crew rushes to get the shark cage in the water. Soon we are taking turns, in pairs, climbing into the cage, which is lashed to the side of the boat with two ropes. The sharks are lured from a distance by the shark liver oil, but then baited to swim by the cage with large fish heads on a short line. The female great white shows only a passing interest in chasing the bait, but stays for a long while before she is usurped by an even larger female of three and a half meters.
When I have told people about my experiences, they always say I'm so brave, or ask me how I felt. I must admit that while I got into the 5mm wetsuit, the only thing concerning me was how badly it fit me. Once in the water, I was enthralled. She was gigantic, and so graceful. There were no hurried movements and every bit of energy she exerted was for a specific purpose. Her eyes showed interest, curiosity, and of course a willingness to taste just about everything - the bait, the cage, the back of the boat - came part and parcel to those. She was not malicious or evil. In fact she was exceptionally pure of purpose. She met and exceeded all my hopes and dreams of what a great white would be like.
I ended the first day with the immense satisfaction of having achieved a lifetime wish. We spent the rest of the afternoon and evening listening to the southern right whale mothers talking to their young offspring in the shallows while others breached in sets of three farther out to sea.
The next morning after a hearty breakfast, we reboarded the Megalodon for our second day of shark diving. I lay on the upper deck writing postcards to my fiancé for more than an hour. Today the sharks are taking their time before coming to visit. But we are in for a treat. A very young great white, only about a meter long, swims up to the boat and bites the seal decoy floating right off its line and swims off with it! The crew of the Megalodon are surprised - they rarely see young great whites in these waters, and none of them have ever shown such avid interest in the decoy as to steal it. The young shark circles us for a short time before being crowded out by not one but two females over four meters long.
Another boat joins us at anchor off the northeastern coast of Geyser Rock. The guide on that boat is famous for petting the sharks as they go by the back of the boat. They stick their heads out of the water to look around and he pushes on their noses and they slide back into the water. We spend the day with both boat's cages in the water, and two sharks coming at the baits one after another. We end the day with a trip past the Cape fur seal colonies on Geyser Rock before returning to shore and on with our South Africa trip.
It's now been a year since I was at Gansbaai and I've been planning another trip down, this time with my fiancé. We live in California on the Monterey Bay, another hotspot for great whites. One day we hear that a young great white has been caught off the coast of California and the Monterey Bay Aquarium has just put it on display.
This is a once in a lifetime event. Few people will ever see a great white, and most who do won't be in a good position to enjoy it. Marine biologists have found it very difficult to keep a great white healthy and happy in captivity, and the Monterey Bay Aquarium has been trying to successfully do so as part of a shark project for the past several years. Finally, in August of 2004, a small female shark - born just this year - was caught off the coast of Huntington Beach in Southern California. Feeding a captive shark was the first big leap made by the aquarium, and she exceeded everyone's expectations by feeding vigorously and often on restaurant-quality salmon steaks.
It's likely that this young great white's success in captivity is due to several factors. Firstly is the Monterey Bay Aquarium's excellence in the field of marine biology, and especially their newest and largest tank, the Outer Bay exhibit, which holds more than a million gallons of sea water. Secondly is the fact that young great whites are scavengers (eating anything and everything they stumble upon) whereas older great whites switch to a diet of other sharks. This is one of the reasons why great whites have thicker bodies. They grow outwards due to the size of their livers, and are attracted to the boats in Gansbaai using other sharks livers and the oil therein. A young shark is more likely to react well to feeding compared to an older shark who has more complex feeding habits. And lastly, I believe that her captivity has been such a success due to the fact that, having seen her over the weekend, she is a resilient little thing. She is already herding the rest of the tuna, sharks, sunfish, barracuda and other open water fish around her tank like an unpopular new girl at the kindergarten playground. All the other fish in the tank seem to recognize that she's an Apex predator, albeit a small one at the moment. It's unlikely that the Monterey Bay Aquarium will keep her that long - for her own sake as well as the rest of the exhibit - but hopefully you might get a chance to see her while she's visiting. Who knows when you might get another opportunity?
For more of Mamlambo's footage of great white shark diving including photography and videos, check out Great White Sharks - More Footage
For more information about the young captive great white, check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium website.
For more information about the history and track record of captive great whites, check out Henry F. Mollet's listing of great whites in captivity.