December 16, 2013, 2:57 PM  |  Travel

When I suggested writing about South African great whites, I was thinking more Chenin Blanc. But editors these days seem to be more bloodthirsty than winethirsty, so I reluctantly skipped the lush, safe vineyards of the Stellenbosch and headed up the coast to Gansbaai – the self-proclaimed ‘Great White Shark Capital of the World’.

The ’09 Carcharodon is a palate predator – aggressive, fleshy, racy, muscular, powerful, and sneaky-big. A toothy and chewy monster. Cartilaginous! Perfect with seafood, especially tuna head sashimi. 90 points.

A dozen of us gather at sunrise in the Shark Diving Unlimited clubhouse. It’s a global group – a banker from London, Parisian honeymooners, an American guy whose wife said she’d wait in the car. Everyone’s got their own reason for wanting to cage dive with white sharks – fulfilling dreams, confronting nightmares, torturing their mothers – but everyone shares the same nerves. I know I for one could use a glass or two of a plummy ’05 Shiraz.

Over breakfast we watch a video: Great Whites: Maneaters or Misunderstood? If one of owner/operator Michael ‘Sharkman’ Rutzen’s main goals is to dispel the killer Jaws image, this zen-like footage of him free-diving alongside these massive fish is perfect PR. (Although subsequent images of breaching bus-sized sharks made me dispel in my surf shorts.) And while the python in a corner terrarium ensures all my phobias are covered, photos of satisfied customers Brad Pitt, Leo DiCaprio and Matt Damon, all with limbs intact, provide me with some manly celebrity inspiration. (A publicity shot of ‘Sharkman’ alongside Stephen J. Hawking also makes me question the universe.)


Boarding the Barracuda.

We walk the plank to board the Barracuda. Apparently Sharkman’s on assignment in Europe, so it’s up to his ‘Sharkbrother’ Frank to expertly helm the vessel through choppy seas. We’re heading for the sharks’ favourite neighbourhood dining spot, an all-you-can-eat island smorgasbord of 60,000 cape fur seals. (Pairing suggestion: 2008 Radford Dale Black Rock Blend)

A couple miles offshore, our guide Nsunda begins chumming the water with blood and fish parts. It’s an effective appetizer. And it doesn’t take long for the first patron to show up. A ghostly grey shadow twice the size of Nelson Mandela’s jail cell slips under the boat. Nsunda genuflects (swear to god) flicks his cigarette into the ocean, and prepares the cage.

As we squeeze into our seal costumes wetsuits, First Mate Johann instructs us on procedure. It’s a pretty simple set-up. A steel cage is lowered into the water and affixed to the side of the boat. Six divers at a time climb in. There’s no oxygen, just a mask and a prayer. A rope is baited with a tuna head and cast out in an attempt to lure a shark towards the cage. When one comes close, a spotter shouts, “Down!” You take a big breath, push yourself down to the cage bottom, and try to look a Great White in the eye.


The author heads down.

“Keep your limbs in the cage – South African hospitals are not that good,” says Johann, jokingly not joking.

Bobbing in the water, I’m surprisingly calmer than I think I should be. Maybe I’ve watched too many Discovery Channel Shark Weeks – the glass of my mask still serving as a TV screen. Or maybe it’s just my brain’s survival system kicking in. It’s all more than a little surreal.



I thrust myself to the cage bottom, searching wildly for the fish. Suddenly a flash of grey. A sea monster! A surge of adrenaline swells my heart. I actually feel my eyes bulge. The shark takes a swipe at the tuna; its massive head grazes the cage, flashing its gummy rows of triangle razor teeth, and silently glides off into the deep. It’s over in seconds. I surface and suck in one of the biggest breaths of my life. Emotion flows over me like the seawater. It’s a powerful mix of fear, relief, disbelief, awe – and an overwhelming feeling that you’ve just witnessed something extremely rare and beautiful.

As we’re waiting in the cage for another pass, something even more rare happens. A great white breaches. Three meters and 1000 kg worth of shark bursts from the water, performs an inverted twist and crashes back to sea. There’s a collective gasp, even from the guides. I’m reminded of an African proverb: Do not curse God for creating the tiger – praise him for not giving it wings. The wise man that uttered that obviously never saw something like this.


We counted eight sharks that morning, and I was still able to count all my hands and feet. As the Barracuda heads towards home, everyone is giddy with that ‘first day of the rest of your life’ feeling. If you can survive swimming with sharks, you can probably take on anything. Back at the clubhouse, we recount the experience while feeding on a lunch of pea soup and freshly baked biscuits – which I might suggest would go nicely with a ’10 Viognier.

By Jeff Topham
Photos by Andrew Topham

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