The Great White…..
A creature of immense fascination and wonder, invoking our most primal fears and at the same time an almost addictive fascination.
I have always loved sharks, and the Great White in particular, and of course, I had heard of Shark Alley in South Africa, the place with the largest white shark population anywhere in the world. Seeing this region and possibly a Great White up close was the opportunity of a lifetime.
Or so it seemed….
When I arrived in Hermanus, whale capital of the world and only 40 min. from Shark Alley, I wanted to go on a cage dive. Who wouldn’t, right…?
Only problem: there were no sharks in Shark Alley at that time - and hadn’t been for several weeks which was highly unusual.
January wasn’t high shark season and there can always be an occasional day or two without any shark sightings, but an extended period of several weeks had been unheard of, even according to the shark experts in the area.
It was a mystery…
Since cage diving wasn’t an option, I decided to visit several shark research facilities and speak with the experts as well as “Sharklady” herself - Kim McLean - who back in the day was the first to take tourists on shark cage dives. She has since turned an unusual idea into a thriving business and even Princes William and Harry as well as Brad Pitt have gone shark diving with her.
Her newly founded Shark Bay Research Trust had just begun to study the possibility of attracting sharks by sonar, when the disappearances began.
Meaghan McCord who founded the South African Shark Conservancy in Hermanus and Tamzyn Zweig her resident shark researcher have known these waters for many years.
Like Sharklady Kim, they considered the disappearance highly unusual and not something that fit into any particular pattern. While climate change is frequently mentioned as a possible reason, particularly El Nino, Tamzyn pointed out that sharks had also disappeared from nearby Mossel Bay where the water temperature had not changed. The explanation was clearly more complex.
As for the busy shark cage diving industry being at fault, both Tamzyn and Kim pointed out that sharks have followed fishing boats for centuries and have long been conditioned by blood washed from fishing decks to associate boats with food. To blame the shark diving industry for re-conditioning sharks or causing their disappearance seemed not sensical to them.
Alison Towner, one of the premier experts on the Great White and lead researcher of the Dyer Island Conservation Trust (Dyer Island being the little seal island in Shark Alley) had a somewhat different take.
As part of her doctoral thesis, she investigates the impact of shark cage diving and whether it is harmful. So far, the findings have not proven a negative impact, but the study is still in the early stages and will take a few more years to reach a final conclusion.
Interestingly, her research station had radio trackers on a number of sharks in the region and could still spot a few of them in Shark Alley, they were just far below the boats.
Had some of them maybe smarted up to the cage diving industry, realizing that chasing a tag line around a boat for two hours would bring them no result? And that they could find a lot more fish at the bottom of the sea?
Possibly, but certainly not the only explanation, especially with younger sharks that are less experienced. Plus, Great Whites never stay in one area for more than 6 weeks, so even if they had smarted up there would still be new sharks coming in all the time.
So what drove the them away?
Alison had been bombarded all morning by reporters seeking sensationalist answers and for someone who loves and knows sharks as well as she does, it had been rather frustrating.
She invited me to consider that there isn’t always a quick and clear answer. That while the prolonged disappearance was unusual, it wasn't necessarily alarming. We simply didn’t know yet and a frenzy was never helpful.
Sometimes a number of unusual factors come together and create a situation that may seem unusual on the outside, but isn’t necessarily a dramatic change or shift.
More importantly though, during my conversations with Allison it gradually dawned on me that maybe the shark’s disappearance was not such a bad thing after all. That maybe a little break in the frantic tourism industry that shark diving has become, could be a good thing.
Helping everyone to respect and appreciate nature again, especially an awesome creature like the Great White. To value and be grateful when we can be near them - which undoubtedly is the experience of a lifetime - but to also not demand or be frustrated when sharks do not show up on command, even for weeks at a time.
Maybe it was all part of a larger cycle that we may not be able to understand, but that nonetheless has a deeper order and logic.
Global climate change is a fact and is more and more becoming a daily reality. The temporary disappearance of Great Whites from Shark Alley can help remind us of how precious nature is and restore a balance that so easily gets lost when tourists become obsessed with snapping a shark selfie or see shark cage diving merely as an adrenaline activity.
Instead respecting nature and its creatures for what they are and for their right to live and exist, without having to earn that right by entertaining tourists.
The Great White is an endangered species, something we often forget. They are magnificent, fascinating and also terrifying - and they should most certainly not be seen as just a thrill ride or monsters of the sea that kill people (who invaded their space) - or as tourist attractions that need to serve a purpose to stay alive.
They have a right to be just as they are and if we are lucky enough to get close to a Great White during a cage dive, we can count our blessings and appreciate the wonder we were just allowed to witness.
Maybe the sharks are giving us some time of reflection. Of re-evaluating the precious commodity nature is - and the delicate marine system in particular. Giving us a breather to appreciate them once again.
The sharks will be back, that seems pretty certain according to Alison Towner, but they will do it in their own time and on their own terms - as they should.
Let’s appreciate and support them and make sure we don’t loose yet another amazing species in our quest for the next exciting selfie!