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Octopus eats crab, seal eats octopus, Great White Shark eats seal. Man as an entrée, though, is not on the menu. Yet, the myth is still being perpetuated through films and books that feed off our most morbid fear. After three trips to South Africa to view sharks, we’ve managed to come home, all body parts intact, with our addiction to witnessing the greatest predator in the ocean temporarily satisfied.
Two hours north of Capetown on the east coast, the small fishing village of Gansbaai sits on a rugged coastline near a lighthouse, situated on ominously named Danger Point. This area is known as the Cape of Storms because you never know what is in store for you at any point in the day. The day can start with sunny skies and flat seas and turn into a gale within hours. And in order to experience one of the ocean’s apex predators, you must spend time on the water.
On the day we headed out with good weather surrounding us, our destination was a narrow strip of water between Geyser Rock and Dyer Island called Shark Alley. Geyser Rock is a rookery for hundreds of Cape Fur Seals, while Dyer Island is home for penguins. Meal service is provided for the sharks at any time of the day.
A hundred or so yards from the entrance of Shark Alley, Andre Hartman, our captain, slowed the boat and his crew quickly established the chum slick and dropped the cage over the side of the boat. As the clock ticked away, Andre weaved through many stories of spearfishing on the coast. At 47, his faced is etched with years spent at sea.
“I was terrified of sharks,” said Andre, his eyes watching the bait.
Asking what changed his mind, Andre responded that his fear has been replaced with respect. “I competed in spearfishing tournaments for many years and had encounters with 23 Whites. Only two tried to bite, probably because I had a fish on the end of my spear.” Personally, I could not imagine staring face to teeth at a Great White without any bars in between. He explained that on several occasions, he observed sharks from the safety of the kelp. As scientists are discovering, it seems that because of the lower fat content compared to seals, humans are not actually a meal of choice. Looking at Andre’s race-horse thin physique, he should have no worries.
“Shark on the bait!”
Everyone jumped into position. Andre immediately took his place on the platform at the stem.
“We have a player,” Andre shouted and the show began.
The massive Great White circled the boat methodically, drawn by the chum slick floating on the surface. It stalked the bait hanging on the line several times before approaching for a test bite. As Andre pulled the tantalizing tidbit closer to the stern, the shark rose up to bite, and Andre reached with one hand to tickle the underside of its nose. Within seconds, a large gaping mouth appeared, and Andre pulled his hand back from eminent danger.
Why would anyone attempt such a daring move?
Andre explained that in the early days he observed the sharks trying to bite the engines or the transom of the boat. Feeling the hard metal, the sharks would spook and leave. “I didn’t like the idea of the animal hurting itself then vanishing not to be seen again. So one day, when I had a shark that was moving slowly toward the motor, I pushed her nose away. That is when I discovered it would raise up out of the water after feeling something soft and warm.” Since then, Andre has perfected his technique and protected many sharks from becoming injured.
I was ready to face the challenge of the cage. Water temperatures off South Africa can fluctuate between 50 and 62°F, requiring a drysuit for this cold water wimp. All the cloth and extra weight can be cumbersome, but it was all well worth it on this day. We had four sharks in the area and none of them shy of the cage. As one shark would pass within inches, another circled the boat sizing things up. One big female took exception of another White in her territory and quickly turned to bite the intruder, teeth flashing in the sunlight. After two hours of jaw-dropping action, it was time to retreat to the warmth of the sun. I, like Andre, gained new respect for this much maligned animal.
Great White Sharks are protected in South Africa as they should be throughout the rest of the world. Studies by the scientific community continue to eliminate man’s most basic fear of this great predator. Andre Hartman takes it a step beyond with his ability to see and touch the shark in a way no one else can.
Special thanks to Andre Hartman and JP Botha of Marine Dynamics.