Kevin Rushby, The Guardian, May 5, 2014
I'm heading east from Cape Town on the coast road when I spot something in the fields. Pulling over and digging out my binoculars, I see six blue cranes, one of the most graceful of African birds, and increasingly rare. It seems like a good omen, because I am on the hunt for rare creatures, more particularly one that few people would describe as graceful: the great white shark. The best place in the world to spot these is the tiny South African settlement of Gansbaai, 100 miles south-west of Cape Town, a place that has found a lucrative niche in the world of animal encounters. That success, however, has not come without controversy.
I'm soon sitting having a quick lunch with a dozen other visitors before we don wetsuits and stroll down to the harbour. We're a mixed bag – I won't say bait bag – mostly thrill-seeking, gap-year students fresh from their first bungee jump and eager to tick off cage diving, but also a few wildlife enthusiasts. Some of the group are already swallowing sea sickness pills; there are lots of white caps out in the bay. Gansbaai's "harbour" is actually a narrow rocky inlet whose mouth looks distinctly treacherous.
Our boat is loaded up and we roar out. After 20 minutes, we locate the diving cage, left in the water attached to floats and an anchor line. One crew member starts "chumming" the water – chucking in scoops of mixed seawater, fish-blood and guts – to attract the sharks.
This practice is what has caused all the controversy: some people say it brings the creatures close to humans and then fails to feed them, a potentially dangerous situation. Others counter that the more successful and lucrative shark watching becomes, the more power it will have to fight the shark-killing industry, which is destroying the animals faster than they can reproduce.
No one on our boat can be in any doubt that chumming works. Within seconds a large stingray comes nosing around, and there's soon a triangular fin slicing through the water. On the upper deck, one of the crew recognises the fin shape: it's a massive female measuring almost four metres.
"Each year fewer than 10 people get taken out by sharks," he tells me, "That's compared with more than 400 killed by electric toasters."
With this memorable, if baffling, statistic in mind, I clamber with three others into the cage, now strapped to the boat's side. Almost immediately there's a shout to get down under water and when I do, another massive specimen comes cruising past. Our eyes meet. If I'd been foolish enough, I could have reached out and touched it.
Several other swim-pasts occur, but the action really starts after I've left the cage and the second posse of divers get in. The sharks are coming through thick and fast now. One breaches, another suddenly turns and rams the cage, getting its snout between the top two bars.
"They're just curious," shout the crew, "No worries." But one young woman screams and has to get out of the cage: that was too close for her, innocent curiosity or not.
The third diving group get the least action: the moment has passed and the sharks have lost interest. Are these encounters really of benefit to the sharks, I wonder. The trips have certainly created a community with an interest in shark survival (not least among the volunteers who come from all over the world to help with marine wildlife surveys). The great white, however, ranges all over the southern oceans and is not easily protected. As one of my fellow shark watchers points out: the species is as rare as the tiger with a public image worse than a rattlesnake. They certainly need all the help they can get and, chumming or not, this feels like a step in the right direction.
• Great Whites can be seen at Gansbaai with Marine Dynamics (+27 799 309 694, sharkwatchsa.com) for about £84pp, or at Seal Island, near Cape Town with Apex Predators (+27 79 051 8558, apexpredators.com) for about £95pp. Flights were provided by South African Airways (0844 375 9680, flysaa.com), which flies to Cape Town from Heathrow from £851 return
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk