For many cage-divers, a view like this represents the experience of a lifetime - but are they helping or hindering the white sharks cause

DIVING RECENTLY IN SODWANA BAY, up on South Africas North-east coast, I got chatting to some fellow scuba-divers from the UK and Holland. I asked if they planned to visit Cape Town to do the white shark cage-diving off Gansbaai, on the Cape south coast. To my surprise, they told me that they disagreed with cage-diving, so would not be doing it.
I have spent my adult life working with great white sharks, and until just over a year ago I owned White Shark Projects, the biggest white shark cage-diving operation in South Africa. Though my wife and I are now out of the cage-diving industry I still champion it, as I believe it is good for the sharks if done correctly.
I have no idea how many scuba divers have an issue with white shark cage-diving, but for those who do, I suspect their reasons are much the same.
Firstly, South Africas cage-diving industry has become a big-money tourist trap, with little or none of the soul it had in past years. Secondly, there is the perception that chumming and baiting condition sharks to attack people.
This controversy is not restricted to the Cape, but has also raged in California, Hawaii, the Bahamas, Australia, Natal and even the UK.
Anyone who says that chumming for sharks has no effect on the animals is talking nonsense. Wherever man is involved with tourism linked with nature or animals, we have an impact, but the reality is that we live in a society built on income, so whether for marine or terrestrial activities, the challenge is to find a balance.
With cage-diving we have to place shark-attack hysteria aside and concentrate on the facts. If sharks are being conditioned, what is it that they are being conditioned to do To attack bathers and surfers
The answer is no, for the following reasons. Firstly, cage-diving activities take place at sites that white sharks have been frequenting throughout their history.
The sharks have not been attracted into these areas by the cage-diving boats. Even if the cage-diving stopped tomorrow, the sharks would still be there.
A 10m shark boat with a five-man cage attached to its side and five divers bobbing around in it does not represent a surfer or bather. Although not proven, it is extremely doubtful whether a white shark can mentally separate the diver from the boat and cage. All the shark sees is one very odd object. Thats why great whites never attack the cages.
Its much the same as a lion and a game vehicle. The lion does not attempt to take the passengers from the vehicle, as all it perceives is one large object.
Sharks will investigate the cage, but all they find is that it tastes like metal. If there was any conditioning occurring, the shark would be learning that people taste like a shark cage.
It is very possible that the sharks are associating food with boats, but this has been occurring for as long as there have been fishing boats in white shark areas.
To place this in perspective, consider the following. On a given day there can be a salmon run off one of the popular beaches near Cape Town, with more than 100 fishing boats chumming, baiting and fishing for the salmon.
The beach can be crowded, but nobody will be aware or interested in the fact that there may be half a dozen white sharks feeding around the fishing boats.
The next day, one cage-diving boat can go to the same area and cause huge public outrage - even though that boat will be using a fraction of the chum and bait used by the fishing fleet the day before. See what I mean
The natural biology of the white shark is another important factor. There is a degree of site utilisation but these sharks are highly nomadic, with a strong natural urge to move from place to place.
My theory is that if their movement was governed by food supply only, they would congregate and stay around seal colonies and fish reefs. They dont do this because of natures way of protecting the environment. A thousand white sharks around a seal colony or fish reef would destroy those areas, so they move on and spread their impact.
If a seal colony cant keep a white sharks interest for more than a few days, I doubt whether some chum and tuna heads will change the sharks urge to be on the go.
I also think back to 1993, when we were working on a big BBC project. At that time there was no cage-diving industry, so the sharks were not influenced at all.
We placed cameras and acoustic tags on some sharks during the project, and I particularly remember one shark we tracked for hours on end up and down a beach, just behind the last line of waves.
The sharks do the same now, more than 10 years into the cage-diving era.
In fact, during December 2006 two friends and I hired a plane to patrol the coast around Gansbaai.
In less than half an hour, we sighted six white sharks in shallow water, as we could have done a decade ago.
Sceptics may point to the spate of shark attacks and incidents around the Cape over the past few years. From the outside it does appear that there has been a sudden and alarming increase, but a closer look beyond the media hype brings this into perspective.
Of the incidents, about half involved people on surf-skis or kayaks, watercraft that are relatively new to the False Bay environment.
There has been an explosion in this sport over the past decade, so contact between users of these craft and the active white shark population should come as no surprise. White sharks are particularly inquisitive creatures, and will readily inspect surface objects.
One of the victims was spearfishing in an area with an abundance of fish and where divers have sighted white sharks on numerous occasions. This water activity is high-risk and an attack on a spearo can occur at any time, in just about any area.
An elderly lady who was attacked by a large white shark at Fishhoek Beach had been warned not to enter the water as a shark had been sighted, but took to the waves anyway.
So where exactly is the balance in all this There are about 500 species of shark in the oceans, and more than half of these are commercially exploited.
Due to very slow growth, late maturation and small litters, sharks cannot sustain exploitation, and this has resulted in many species teetering on the edge of extinction.

HUMANS HAVE NO SYMPATHY for sharks, because of their bad press and the fact that they are not cute and cuddly - though some of us think they are.
Along the South African coast there are more than 100 species of shark, and only a few have any value as non-consumptive resources. There is cage-diving with whites along the Cape; raggie, bull and tiger shark diving in southern Natal; and whale shark diving in Sodwana Bay.
The financial value of keeping these sharks alive has caused a flurry of conservation drives. Off Protea Banks in Natal, for example, a bloody battle rages over the bull sharks. On one side are the charter-fishing companies targeting the sharks; on the other, the dive companies trying to stop the fishing. If it were not for these dive companies, there would be no opposition to the fishing outfits.
With this in mind, I believe that any shark tourism that is conducted in an ethical manner with a good degree of balance should be championed and supported, as this places a live value on the animals. This is besides the fact that they deserve our respect as integral parts of the environment. I also believe that we all deserve the chance to encounter these sharks in their own world.
Money talks. While the sharks are more valuable alive than dead, there will always be strong representation for their conservation. And although the white shark diving trips in Gansbaai are touristy, they do a very good thing. They bring people from all walks of life and age groups into direct contact with the sharks and their environment. These encounters have changed the perception of tens of thousands of tourists.
These people have walked away with an appreciation and awe that will remain with them for the rest of their lives. This is good for sharks.
The beauty of the white shark is that, no matter how touristy the trips, they still do not take away from the raw presence of these majestic creatures. Even if you have to travel halfway across the Earth to see them, its worth it. This goes for all shark dive tourism around the globe.
With sharks disappearing from our oceans every day, it is of paramount importance that we come into contact with them and build an appreciation for their beauty and place in the world around us.

It seems likely that great white sharks see boat, cage and divers as one single object.
CAGE TRAP: How to avoid dodgy operators.
Don't be afraid of casting a critical eye when considering a shark-diving trip. This will ensure that you have the best possible experience, and keeps the shark-diving companies on their toes.
I would like to believe that all such companies are on the level but this is not the case. So you need to do your homework.
Down in Gansbaai, it is sad to see that white sharks have taken a backseat to frantic pursuit of the dollar. Unethical operators rip unsuspecting tourists off by cramming them into schedules of up to three trips a day. These trips are a waste of time.
The better companies will do more for the sharks image than the mediocre ones, so look around and try not to base your decision on cost-savings or fancy brochures. If serious, pitch your visit between April and October.
Dont be afraid to ask questions. The agents all get large commissions and will paint the most amazing picture.
Many sales staff working for the white shark dive companies also rely on commissions. They will tell you whatever you want to hear.
Ask how many trips they will be doing, how many people they take on the boat, the duration of the trip, how knowledgeable the staff are, what information they will provide on the boat, what conservation projects they are involved with, what kind of chum and bait they use, and in what quantities
If the company is on the up, it will be able to answer these questions. They all advertise themselves as being deeply involved with conservation and education projects, so they have to stand by this.
A trip should cost you about R1100. Your time on the water should be around four hours. Tell the booking agent or company that if it does not provide what it advertises, you will be demanding your money back and taking the matter to the tourism authorities.
If your white shark trip is the central reason for you visiting South Africa and the trip is not as advertised, you can claim all your trip expenses from that company!
The sharks are wild, so their presence cannot be guaranteed, but much of the trip is in the control of the operators, and they need to deliver.
Craig Ferreira was a pioneer in great white shark conservation, research, filming and diving. As a leading White Shark Research Project team member, he was responsible for having the white shark declared a protected species in South Africa in 1991.
Craig has worked with several thousand individual white sharks and tagged more than 500. He has lectured all over the world, has featured in dozens of international documentaries and conducted behavioural research, including freediving with white sharks.