After three weeks of living and travelling in South Africa, I now understand why so many travelers that end up here can’t bring themselves to leave. Even after such a short time it feels completely natural to wake up each morning to the warmth of the rising sun, to leave behind the rugged shoreline, and tune my body to the rolling motions of the swell. In Gansbaai, this is the daily ritual of many. The people that work here live each day in harmony with the sea. Like them, I have strengthened my sea legs, and learned to understand environmental cues. I have learned to fish, to recognize different shark species, and to identify individuals in the area. I have even caught a shark with my bare hands.
After growing so accustomed to this lifestyle, it came as a shock to see how quickly the landscapes and livelihoods of the locals transform as you travel inland. Driving the Garden Route eastward along the coast of South Africa is like entering a new world each hour. Farmlands give way to lush forests and mountains, and flawless beaches form the boundaries between civilization and the sea. Despite the varying cultures and backgrounds of the people I have met here, everyone is unified by their appreciation for the beauty of this country.
What came as a surprise to me, however, is that many of us differ in our perceptions of the morality of the cage diving industry in South Africa. During our short trip away from Gansbaai, we came in contact with many people who seemed to have only a vague understanding of how cage diving is conducted, several of whom were strictly against the idea. While not everyone can be convinced of its value, explaining the principles of conscientious interactions with white sharks did prove effective in many cases. What many people don’t understand is that cage diving shouldn’t be harmful to the sharks involved, and is likely the most effective, and often the only feasible platform for conducting meaningful research on this species. Without knowing anything about how or where an animal lives, it is impossible to protect it, and white sharks are in desperate need of our protection if they are to survive as a species.
This volunteer program has shown me how important it is to collect as much data as possible, by whatever means are at our disposal, to get even the tiniest glimpse into their mysterious lives. The cage diving industry needs sharks in order to thrive, and the people of Gansbaai need the cage diving industry for their livelihoods.
If we make use of the opportunities this industry gives us to observe and improve our understanding of white sharks, it could be the very thing that helps us prevent the extinction of one of the ocean’s most impressive top predators.
Photos by Jena Edwards