George Bartsch wanted to swim with Great White sharks.
He quickly came to his senses.
“I had the desire to dive outside the cage, until I saw one. Then I was glad to be in the cage,” the Simcoe, Ontario, scuba diver says of his trip in February to South Africa, where he witnessed close up the size and power of the Great White.
George, a scuba instructor who opened his own dive shop in Simcoe two years ago, went out with Shark Diving Unlimited to Dyer Island (also known as Seal Island) off the coast of Gansbaai, South Africa. There, he got in a steel cage attached to the boat that would offer protection from the giant predators.
The cage is rectangular, ten by four feet, and occupancy is limited to six people at a time. Once they enter it the lid is closed.
“They do a very good safety briefing,” says George. This includes a warning to keep all body parts inside the cage. The grid is large enough that sharks can be photographed with your hands and camera inside the cage without the bars showing. Children as young as seven view the Great Whites from the cage.
George and the others in the cage, who included his niece, did not use scuba gear at all. It isn’t needed because the top of the cage is above water and scuba bubbles tend to scare away the sharks.
“When the sharks come, you hold your breath and pull yourself down. The passes only last a few seconds, says George. “You get a fleeting glimpse. They come several times, about 30 to 35 passes. They’re very fast and agile.
“I’ve seen other kinds of sharks but this is the first time I’ve seen Great Whites. At one point we had five different sharks. The largest was five and a half metres and it would weigh about a ton and a half. It was a female and it came up right close and personal.”
On the way out, the boat operator dumps tuna blood into the ocean, creating a chum slick that the sharks follow. Once the boat is stopped and the customers are in the cage, they bring the sharks in close by throwing out a rope that has large tuna heads attached to one end. Close to the cage, they pull it out of the water before the sharks can strike.
“They are careful to make sure the sharks don’t get the tuna heads. They don’t want them to associate people with food.”
“It was breath-taking to say the least,” says George. “The mouth was right in front of us. You could see the teeth and the eyes.”
The sharks bumped the cage so hard it rocked the 22-foot, steel-hulled boat. They never did bite down on the steel bars, but large foam tubes on top of the cage had bite marks.
“The water was very cold but the adrenaline was pumping so hard you didn’t feel it,” he says of the 52-degree Fahrenheit water temperature.
While seeing Great Whites so close was obviously exciting, George also found the whole experience educational. A marine biologist was onboard the boat to answer questions. Someone wanted to know if the Great Whites’ appearance in the area was seasonal. They were told that while some of that species do migrate, those common to this particular area do not because the seals (food for the predator sharks) are there all the time. The boat operator’s success rate in finding sharks is 90 per cent.
Little is known about Great Whites, including where they breed or the length of the gestation period.
While Great Whites are aggressive, George says the much smaller bull sharks, which are at most six or seven feet long, are probably even more threatening. “You see them in Florida. A lot of the incidents (attacks) there are by bull sharks that come into the shallows.”
With the Great White experience now ticked off on his bucket list, his next project will be a trip to Utila, Honduras, to see the whale sharks. Growing up to 40 feet in length, they’re even bigger than Great Whites.
But there will be no need for a steel cage on this adventure. Whale sharks eat plankton. Not worried about becoming their dinner, divers often snorkel on the surface with whale sharks.