Cage Diving with Marine Dynamics offers an easy but thrilling experience.
"LEFT! LEFT! LEFT! OK, go down! Go down!"
I took a gulp of air and ducked under the waves, holding my breath and gripping the slender metal cage as I peered into the teal soup off South Africa's Dyer Island, where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet in a chilly wet kiss.
Spotters on deck of Marine Dynamic's Shark Fever were telling us another great white shark was cruising our way, but at about 15 feet of viz, it was impossible to guess what would loom out of the eerily tinted sea - or where - until the monsters were right on top of us.
I had come to South Africa with a group of American journalists on an adventure tour of this rugged, gorgeous country at the end of the known world, a tour that included the chance to cage dive with great white sharks. As soon as we launched our 11-meter power catamaran out of the fishing village of Kleinbaai, it was easy to see why great whites are found here in such numbers: Our route took us through a narrow passage between Dyer Island's African penguin colony to the north and Geyser Rock's bustling cape fur seal station to the south - "Shark Alley," locals call it. "Lunch" is what the sharks might say.
"Monster" is an uncharitable way to describe the juveniles who started the show. Sleek and beautiful, at 9 to 10 feet long they were positively lithe compared with Hollywood depictions of this mysterious animal. Curious too - they seemed to enjoy playing chase-the-bait but were clearly interested in what was in the cage: us. One youngster suddenly checked himself midflow, made an abrupt, 90-degree turn and hung for a second just inches from our faces, staring intently with the same expression as a whip-smart puppy. Curious, almost playful, and strangely nonthreatening.
And then the big guys showed up.
In an instant, I got the "great" in great white shark, her gleaming, bulging belly marking her as the most feared predator in the sea - "Here we GO!" I thought, Jane's Addiction cueing in my head. From then on it was a roller coaster of roiling water and snapping jaws - these grownups had no time for children's games, they were all business, intent on taking possession of the enormous fish heads being towed on a line just out of their reach by Marine Dynamic's crew right above our heads. If you're looking for an up-close-and-personal experience with great white sharks, this is it - nobody went home unsatisfied that day.
Including, as it turns out, the sharks: Our last encounter was with a determined 11-plus-footer who managed to get his jaws firmly around that bait, eventually sawing through the line and sailing off into the deep with his hard-earned catch. You could almost see him smile. - Mary Frances Emmons, Sport Diver features editor
IF YOU GO: Marine Dynamics uses neither scuba equipment nor a hookah system, because they believe bubbles scare off the sharks; divers simply duck under the water on cue from spotters when sharks are present. Divers are issued 6 mm wetsuits with hoods, plus booties and masks, although you are permitted to bring your own equipment such as prescription masks. Dyer Island is about five miles, or a 25-minute boat ride, from Kleinbaai; water temperature that day was about 57 degrees F. Divers rotate from deck to cage; time in the water varied by individual, up to 45 to 60 minutes max. Prices start at about US$200 per person. Get more info at sharkwatchsa.com.