It was 1992. I was 9. Our family of six was packed into a cute little motel outside of Monterrey, California. Being the only boy I somehow always managed to take control of the remote control. Flipping through quality 90’s TV I stumbled upon my greatest treasure yet:
Wait what? There could be weeks of television dedicated to one thing? Apparently yes. My life was simple at that point. I loved baseball (primarily based on the Atlanta Braves being on TBS) and I loved all things the ocean. Like many a confused kid when asked what they want to do with their life I said marine biologist.
Okay, enough about pre-pubescent career aspirations.
If you haven’t seen Shark Week, I really feel sorry for you. It’s everything you could ever want. It’s shark attack stories; it’s shark tracking; it’s searching for sharks sleeping; it’s shark infested beach flyovers; it’s never before seen shark footage. About 8 years ago or so they started dropping these hot new ‘Air Jaws’ series with flying sharks.
At age 9, I couldn’t get enough and to top it off there was an entire segment about the Sharks of NorCal. There was also a segment on that one time the Monterrey Bay Aquarium (right down the street from our motel) tried to keep a Great White in captivity. The shark wanted none of dat shit. The rest of our family vacation I went around asking storekeepers, waitresses, complete strangers about sharks and shark attacks in Monterrey. Call me Joel Bronkowski Shark Detective. It was clear that my life would be centred around sharks and to a certain extent that 9-year-old aspiration isn’t too far from reality.
Flash forward to 2007 when I headed over to Cape Town, South Africa for a year of volunteer work. I ended up staying for nearly nine years and marrying a South African. Our first kiss actually took place during Shark Week: Air Jaws 4. Coincidence or destiny?
I know this is a travel blog. I’m getting there.
So, with all that shark background, I’d like to share some opportunities to encounter the majesty and wonder of Sharks in your travels: the ultimate shark travel bucket list. I know this post will just scratch the surface of opportunities out there so forgive me for having not lived out my full Shark travel life yet.
Home to The Largest Concentration of Great White Sharks in the World
Cape Town, South Africa is home to the largest concentration of Great White Sharks in the world. They are not the biggest but they have a reputation for being the fastest and most aggressive (ask Mick Fanning). Back in 2008, I had my first go at shark cage diving experience and have gone back twice after that. So, you’ve got shark cage diving questions? I got answers.
I’ll give you a quick breakdown of the experience and what stood out to me. I’ll also share some tips on when to go and who to go with.
Which Company to Choose?
The majority of Shark Cage diving expeditions in South Africa run out of Gans Bay – 70-90 minutes from Cape Town. However, you will find a few companies that operate out of Simon’s Town. I’ve done both and they don’t seem to differ that much.
I’ve had varying experiences with the level of professionalism with this. I would say White Shark Projects stood out as the most professional and educational. Great White Shark Cage diving is right there with scuba diving and skydiving, you don’t want to go with the cheapest company, am I right?
What to Expect?
Most of the boats will take 20-30 people out to sea. Out of Gans Bay, you can expect about a 20-minute boat ride until you anchor. Some companies will tow a seal cut-out in an attempt to get a Great White Shark breach. I’m 0 for 2 in this department.
Two big considerations for Shark cage diving, which play the largest role in whether you enjoy the experience or not, are weather conditions and water visibility. Rain and high winds can cause poor underwater visibility. High seas can make for a perfect storm of sea-sickness, especially once the boat stops moving and begins rocking. Unfortunately, I’ve seen this go really wrong for a lot of people. (There’s something about a rocking boat and the smell of chum (fish guts & blood) that can stir up some stomachs). Consider taking Dramamine or other motion sickness drugs before heading out.
Most Common Misconceptions
In talking with people about the experience of shark cage diving I’ve realised there are a lot of misconceptions (thanks a lot Hollywood). The cage is actually attached to the side of the boat and about 2/3 of it dips below the surface. You simply prop yourself into the water when the sharks come by and then come up after.
The staff will hang a big ball of bait – usually some frozen fish – off the back of the boat to attract the sharks. They can usually spot them swimming towards the boat. This is one of the most dramatic and exciting parts of the experience: seeing a massive beast swimming at the boat and then coming up from the depths to take a lunge at the bait. The staff will try to pull the bait out of the water just before the shark is able to attack, causing the shark’s open mouth to come bursting to the surface. This all takes place about 10 meters from where you would be positioned in the cage. The shark(s) then swims around the boat to take another stab at it.
Some people seem to think that sharks will be interested in the cage, and that companies bait inside of it. In my experience, the sharks do not care about the people. All the videos you see of sharks flying into and onto cages are because the bait ball was thrown near the cage and the shark grabbed a hold of the bait ball and is fighting to get it. In my three trips, I’ve seen this happen twice – once with me in the cage. I’ll never forget seeing the ferocity of the shark as it tore side to side.
Shark cage diving can be one of the most exciting and disappointing activities possible. At best you are right next to one of the strongest animals on the planet. Its might is on display; it is terrifying and exhilarating. At worst you are waiting on a boat for minutes or hours to no avail. There’s no guarantee you will see sharks and when you do there’s always a mad scramble to give everyone a chance to get in the cage to get close. Be sure to have realistic expectations for the experience. I’ve also been in the cage with bad visibility where a shark went by but all you saw was bubbles. However, viewing sharks from the boat is always really amazing and in some ways you see more – especially if you are on a boat with a top deck.
How much does it cost?
There are a handful of places in the world to Great White Shark Cage Dive but I am certain South Africa is the most affordable. Prices can be as low as R900 ($70) but on average expect to spend R1,500 ($110). Winter (June-August) is a time when you can grab some deals.
Outside of South Africa, you can check out Guadalupe Island in Mexico to see some of the largest Great Whites in the world but these chartered 5-day live aboard trips are very pricey at $2,000+. In October and November, the Farrallon Islands 30 miles from San Francisco offer day trips with cage diving for $775. Out of Dana Point, you can take part in shark search Saturdays where you look for juvenile great whites just 100 meters off the shore. A 2-hour boat tour is $45. In South Australia, you can dive with Great Whites for $495 AUD ($365).
A Sweet Spot for Swimming with the Largest Fish in the Sea: Whale Sharks
People love to ask us about our favourite travel destination. It’s a really tough question…but if I have to choose there’s one answer. I’m talking about a corner of the world place called Tofo, Mozambique. This amazing little village is not easy to get to (more on that later). But once you’re there it’s a delicate balance of expats from around the world and local villagers living in relative harmony. The economy in this village is driven by white sand, incredible scuba diving, and whale shark snorkeling expeditions.
I wrote a post back in 2015 on our most recent adventure to Tofo so I will keep this somewhat brief. Snorkeling with whale sharks is the most incredible thing I’ve ever done. There’s just something so wild about buzzing around the ocean searching for massive shadows cruising along. Every single time they tell you to jump is electric, as you scurry amidst the fins and bubbles to spot the shark. Swimming next to a shark that is up to 20x your size is just something that will never seem normal and watching them descend into the depths is an immediate reminder of how tiny we are.
The most common and affordable route to Tofo, Mozambique is via Johannesburg, South Africa. You can catch a bus from Johannesburg which will get you to Maputo. From Maputo, you can catch a number of vans/taxis that head to Inhambane which is about 15 mins from Tofo. It’s a long journey and not the most comfortable, but it’s affordable and adventurous. The other alternative is to fly into Maputo or even Inhambane but expect to pay a big premium for these flights.
Deep Blue Visibility and Sharks Bay
In terms of size and proximity, this last experience falls a bit short. But in terms of ocean beauty, I would say it’s easily the most stunning.
Some would say Sharm El Shiekh has peaked. Some would say it’s not safe to travel there. I’ve heard it’s picking up steam in terms of tourism, which is great because I’d hate to see people miss out on an incredible destination like this due to unwarranted fear.
I’ll get to the sharks but before I do that I want to highlight what makes Sharm El-Sheikh a place I will continue to visit as often as possible.
The visibility of the water, the colour of the reefs and the abundance of sea life are unparalleled.
It’s not only unparalleled but it’s available right off some of the coastal resorts (two of the best resorts for this are the Hilton Waterfall Resort and Reef Oasis Blue Bay). We stayed at the Hilton and experienced incredible beauty snorkeling before embarking on our Advanced Diver PADI course. If you are looking for some R&R at a nice resort and want to be blown away by natural underwater splendour, then I can think of nothing more incredible than Sharm.
Sharm El-Sheikh has an interesting relationship to sharks. There have been a few reef shark attacks in last decade even though these sharks are not well known for fatally attacking humans. On our last dive in Sharm El-Sheikh’s Ras Mohammed reserve, we came upon two Black Tip sharks at about 35m. It was my first time being with large sharks in the open water and it was incredibly peaceful. If you are looking to spot some sharks in one of the best dive spots in the world then look no further than Sharm El Sheikh. (From Sharm you can also do one of the most incredible hikes ever).
Shark Week 2018 is upon us! So happy Shark Week – I hope I’ve inspired you just a little bit to jump in the water with these great fierce beauties. I’d love to hear about your experiences with travel and sharks below.
Where should we go next?!