In Gansbaai, South Africa, the self-claimed "white shark capital of the world," a whole industry has evolved around the Great White. Eight competing companies offer shark-diving trips, and boats with names like "Cage" and "Shark" sit docked in the harbor. These boats set sail every day, as long as the weather is good.
Today, the weather is especially nice: sunny with a slight breeze. Twenty shark divers have gathered in the harbor to board a boat called Slashfin, a 46-feet long catamaran vessel, awaiting their chance to swim with the great beasts.
Shark diving is the second largest tourist attraction in South Africa, after safaris. The excursions bring divers face-to-face with sharks, though separated by large cages.
Two years ago, the Australian government waged a war on sharks after several fatal shark attacks in the country. The government's solution was to start killing sharks, due to the increasing fear from the public. Although the policy was abandoned after critique from scientists, the Western Australian government still reserves the right to kill individual sharks who are believed to pose an imminent threat. The guidelines allow for culling of sharks when there has been an attack, or when multiple sightings of a "high hazard shark" have taken place, and where the shark is considered to be "high risk."
The policy is not unprecedented: Between 1959 and 1976, over 4,500 sharks were killed in Hawaii, in an attempt to alleviate the public's fear of shark attacks. More recently, after a 12-year-old girl was bit by a shark in Oak Island, North Carolina, the town suggested killing any and all sharks that "look like they're posing danger." According to one study, 100 million sharks are killed by humans every year.
Christopher Neff, political scientist at the University of Sidney, says a "Jaws effect" has influenced the debate surrounding the killing of sharks. According to Neff, film-based analogies are used by politicians to frame sharks as serial killers, which prejudices the policy option of killing sharks. He describes this strategy as a "blame-casting device that informs causal stories." Neff argues that because shark attacks are framed as intentional, vicious, and fatal, it's easier to support the option to kill sharks.
But are sharks actually dangerous? Or is it all a big misunderstanding? Shark-diving excursions, like the ones made popular in Gansbaai, bring humans closer to sharks, and teach them that the creatures are really just big, beautiful fish.
"Every year, only five to ten people get killed [globally] as a result of a shark attack," said Nicolas Stelluto, a marine biologist at Marine Dynamics. The company organizes Cage Diving trips for tourists, but also researches sharks in cooperation with the University of Cape Town. Stelluto works on the "tourist boat" and is involved in the shark research, by taking water samples and keeping track of the shark population around Gansbaai.
"Usually when people get attacked by a shark, that happens because the shark mistakes them for a seal," Stelluto explained. "There is a higher chance you will die being attacked by dogs—or even by a falling coconut. However, animals are animals. You never know how they are going to react, so you always have to be cautious."
Kalyani Lodhia, a 19-year-old from England, works as a volunteer on the boat. "At first I thought, sharks are just big things that eat everybody. But they are actually quite cute." Stelluto echoes the pet-like sentiment, speaking fondly of "his sharks" and even gives them names. "They all have their own personality. Some are a bit more playful than the others, some are more curious. I seriously can't imagine a more beautiful animal."
Critics say that cage diving is harmful because it attracts sharks to the shores and makes them associate people with food. But according to Stelluto, that assumption is false. "We do not attract sharks to us, but [rather] go to the places where they already are and use their natural curiousness." Boats like Stelluto's use chum—a mixture of fish remains—to attract the sharks to the boat, but they don't actually feed the sharks.
The first half an hour at sea, nothing happens. It's a bright, beautiful day and everyone seems to be enjoying the excursion. Then, suddenly, Stelluto shouts out: "There! Look!"
The slash fin of a shark is just visible above the water. Stelluto and his crew throw bait made out of wood at the shark, and the shark attacks it fiercely. Some of the passengers seem a bit less at ease.
The cage is thrown in by the crew of Slashfin. One by one, the passengers go into the cage and into the cold water. Visibility is around two meters with no shark in sight. Suddenly, someone shouts: "Down guys, down!" Everyone in the cage pushes themselves under water.
The shark swims by, smooth and elegant. He is so close that, if you had the courage, you could touch it. The shark swims away fast and is gone for a few minutes. Then, it comes back and attacks a wooden piece of bate with great strength, all its sharp teeth are clearly visible.
"OK, I've had enough, get me out!" someone in the cage shouts. She doesn't have to wait for a very long time—the next group is already waiting to go into the cage.
A second shark shows up a few moments later. It's a big one, and a few tourists lurch to grab their cameras. "It's a male of four meters," Stelluto says. "Female sharks can get even bigger. Two weeks ago, we saw one of five meters."
It's possible to see sharks up close in these waters without the cage diving excursions, and many experienced divers have swam with sharks before without the added drama of the cage and bait. But for those who wouldn't witness the creatures otherwise—and especially for those who consider sharks frightening or dangerous—the trips offer a chance to recharacterize sharks.
A few hours later, when we're tired and shaking from the adrenaline, the final group of shark divers gets back on board of the boat. A Dutch tourist, Daniel Goos, looks into the water with a dreamy gaze.
"It's an almost spiritual experience," he says. "The sharks are so graceful when you see them from the water. They are not scary at all. They are just fish. Very beautiful fish."
Follow Joost Knaap on Twitter.