“Sharks are eating machines, and nobody’s told them not to eat us.” Rodney Fox
Last October it happened again: A video showed how a white shark broke through the bars of a shark cage in front of the Mexican island of Guadalupe. A horror for the diver – but also the shark itself. The animal rammed the metal construction and got into it. Helplessly, the crew watched as the shark panted and freaked out in the cage. They opened the lid of the cage in the hope that it would get out again. It took about 50 seconds until it was clear that the diver was not injured. The most battered was the shark himself, who, after panicking tried to get out of the cage. It was hurt and swam away bleeding.
If you are doing some internet research, you will find around half a dozen similar cases. Headlines such as “shark breaks through cage diving rods” or “divers in danger of life: white shark penetrates into cage” rule the gazette and tabloid papers. For years there has been a great controversy between animal protectionists and divers on the subject of cage diving. Some consider it to be irresponsible and demand an immediate stop of these excursions because the hunting instinct of the white sharks are triggered when fed with bait. They would become aggressive and lose their timidity against people.
Many suspect a connection with the increasing attacks on swimmers and surfers off the coast of South Africa. In 2009 and 2010 alone, 14 incidents were recorded, six people died. However, advocates of cage diving claim that sharks are not fed at all, but only attracted and lured to the boat with chum and believe that through this kind of encounter people recognize the white shark’s value as protective creatures.
A closer look at the history of cage diving…
It’s a strange thing with white sharks. While many scuba divers cannot get enough white sharks in front of their masks, most other people are happy when they never see one. The (wrong) picture of the beast lies too deep in our minds, about the killer with the jagged teeth. Something peculiarly sinister. It’s an eerie feeling to suddenly be part of the food chain when you enter the ocean. You could be human prey and end up in a monster’s stomach.
“What is a monster? To a mouse, a cat is a monster. We are just used to being the cat.” This classic line from the movie “Jurassic World” shows the myths of antiquity when thinking about big predators. Some divers are concerned less about their lives when it comes to white sharks, but rather about how they can at least see some of the elegant predators? The answer is – doing cage diving!
20 years ago, cage diving was reserved for daredevils and experienced divers. Nowadays, thanks to increased regulations and safety measures, almost anyone and even children can indulge this adrenaline “kick”. You do not even need scuba diving training. Eye to eye with a white shark – for many it is on their bucket list. That is why cage diving has now become a multi-million-dollar business. There are only four places in the world where you can pursue this thrill: the most famous are South Africa (False Bay and Gansbay) and South Australia (Neptune Islands near Port Lincoln). In California, you have the Farallon Islands and relatively new is the opportunity in New Zealand, at Stewart Island in the very south. The reason: in these places, there are large seal colonies, the main prey of the white sharks.
Australia – How it all began
No, for once it did not start with Richard Dreyfuss as Matt Hooper and his jump into the cage in “Jaws”. Cage diving started in the late 60s, around Dangerous Reef and other places in the South Australian Spencer Gulf. Experienced divers like Ron and Valerie Taylor, or Rodney Fox, made their first attempts at cage diving. They benefited from South Australian fishermen, such as Alf Dean, who had developed techniques to lure white sharks to their boats.
One of the most famous and widely discussed shark incidents of all time, is the attack on Rodney Fox: This attack took place on December 8, 1963, at Aldinga Beach, about 50 km south of Adelaide. This incident became so popular because Fox was the first person to survive a white shark attack and talk about it later. The doctors needed 462 stitches to sew him together and save his life. Fox then came up with an idea:
“My wife and I were at the zoo and we watched lions and tigers behind bars. The thought came to me: Perhaps one can also observe sharks from a cage. Around 1965 I organized an expedition with two other shark attack victims, to observe white sharks. The animals were more interested in the bait than in us. When I was in the water with those apex predators, I became aware that I no longer wanted to be an insurance agent. So, I quit my job, started to collect abalone mussels and offer white shark trips.”
Rodney made plans and then built the first two-man cage. He organized a new boat and found sponsors for the shark expedition. With guests, shark attack victims Brian Rodger and Henri Bource, Rodney called Ron Taylor to film the expedition in partnership with him. This was the first time that great white sharks were filmed under water. It was a turning point in the life of Rodney Fox. He discovered that white sharks were not crazy about human flesh, but fascinating and cautious creatures. Rodney, Ron and Valerie’s film “Blue Water, White Death” was a great success and was shown in 1971 in many countries around the world. During the shooting, large “gorilla cages” made of steel were used. This was safe, but also very time-consuming and therefore cost several thousand dollars.
“Then I received this incredible call from Hollywood to see if I could help the film crew with real shark footage for ‘Jaws’. At this time, we had no idea that this movie would give the shark such a bad image. The film crew visited me in Port Lincoln, where I lived. In addition, one of the screenplay authors came, Carl Gottlieb. They gave me their storybook and showed me what they needed. We filmed the white sharks in the next days from the right, from the left, from the top from below.”
In 1976, shortly after “Jaws” was published, Rodney received a request from an American dive company who wanted to bring their customers on a shark expedition. Rodney was happy, and it was the world’s first cage diving tour – the first of many, as it turned out. Thereupon the Taylors developed light-floating cages, which were more suitable for film purposes than the heavier ones used in commercial cage dive trips. The Taylors had found that heavy cages were unnecessary because sharks usually swam around the cages and did not even try to penetrate the cage. The result were light wire mesh cages with galvanized steel frames, side doors and deck flaps.
In South Africa, cage diving is of younger origin and was only practiced sporadically in the western Cape Province around Struis Bay (east of Cape Agulhas) and in False Bay near Cape Town in the late 1980s. In 1997, seven commercial cage dive operators finally entered the Dyer Island Channel at Gansbay. Among them, hard and aggressive competition developed, which also disturbed research, seal and bird colonies. The events finally culminated in threats and trials between individual groups, as more and more funds for films and ecotourism flowed to Gansbay and led to a “cowboy mentality”. Ironically, scientific organizations have received less and less research funding for the white shark research at Dyer Island and elsewhere, while commercial cages and travel agencies have made a fortune with the increasing flood of people who wanted to see and film white sharks.
The “Apex Predator”, “The Ultimate Killing Machine”, “The Perfect Hunter” – when talking about white sharks, superlatives are fast at hand. In every children’s card game it would be the trump card: the world’s biggest predator fish, the white shark. They are usually between four and five meters long and can reach a maximum of six meters and weigh more than two tons. I also wanted to see this animal “live”.
In 2001, I applied to the White Shark Research Institute in Gansbay/South Africa as a student field assistant and was accepted. For three weeks, I could work with the world-famous shark expert Craig Ferreira. Craig was one of the driving forces in a lobby that led to the protection of the white sharks in South Africa in 1991. It was hard to believe that his father Theo was once a notorious hunter who later became an environmentalist.
Even today, the story about Theo Ferreira and his hunt for a notorious shark, which they only called “the Submarine” is still being told. This white shark, was said to be as big as a submarine, supposedly seven meters in length and five tons in weight. Theo harpooned him three times, but he could escape again and again. Craig later transformed the adventurous hunt into a fictional story in his novel ‘The Shark’.
Of course, Craig also told me all about the biology, reproduction, and behaviors of the sharks themselves. The institute owned two boats, the “Elasmo I” with twelve meters in length and the “Elasmo II” with nine meters in length. Each boat had a cage. To my great surprise, these were not heavy steel cages, as I knew from the documentary “Blue Water, White Death,” but simple two-man cages made of wire mesh fence, reinforced only by steel struts.
Also, the brochure with the “Cage Emergency Procedures”, was not very encouraging to me if something went wrong. I was a little nervous when I read: “Broken Air Line”, “Drifting Cage”, “Shark Entangled and Air Line Cut”. I was ready to leave. But that was only in case of emergency, Craig said with a broad grin on his face. If I had once believed where sharks are found, you only had to hold your bleeding finger in the water and they will promptly tear off your arm, I was now taught something better…
Our boat was anchored in front of Seal Island, 5 Kilometers from shore. We dumped liters of chum into the water (mashed up sardines). The minutes went by but nothing happened – nothing at all! No sharks far and wide. It almost seemed to me that the seals were laughing at me with their staccato-like howling. “If a white shark was swimming here, we wouldn’t be in the water, fool” they seemed to tell me. The waves were unrelenting on our boat, I tried to keep my balance. Although the nausea was getting worse, I was pumped with adrenaline, my eyes continuously scanned the water surface for the infamous dorsal fin.
Craig fastened two huge tuna-heads on a rope and threw them into the water. “The bait leads the sharks to the boat and makes sure they stay here for a while. When a shark wants to catch the tuna bait, I pull it away and lure it ever closer to the boat so we can study it well. As if you were attracting a donkey with a carrot”, Craig said. “It’s about keeping the shark by the boat, not feeding them with the bait. Because they should not link boats and humans with prey”, the expert said.
And then, after an hour or so, they came: first one, then two, then three and four. White sharks circled our boat, I could hardly believe my luck! Gracefully their dorsal fins cut through the water surface, their torpedo-shaped bodies were simply enormous. These sharks were between three and four meters long, so just a good average for a white shark. But it is not the pure length, which takes one’s breath away, but above all it’s the girth. If you have never seen a shark in reality, let me tell you that sharks are not thin, slender fish, such as barracuda. Their bodies are massive and conical at the same time, their chest fins act like huge wings of a jet fighter!
The water was greenish and murky. Because of the bad visibility it was difficult for me to keep the individual animals apart. But after another hour, Craig told me that ten different sharks were swimming around our boat – ten! And the most fascinating thing was that they were not at all aggressive. Rather curiously and carefully they approached the bait, snapped here and there for a tuna and dived leisurely. I understood quite quickly – these sharks were no brainless killer machines from the cinema, but highly developed, perfectly adapted predators.
In 2010, I repeated my trip to South Africa, but this time I visited shark researcher Chris Fallows in False Bay. His TV documentaries ‘Air Jaws’, about the breaching white sharks are world famous. With his boat “Apex Predator” we went to Seal Island. We anchored nearly 100 meters from the island, the seals howled on the rocks, the wind rushed around my ears – it was a hellish noise. But it was a beautiful day with sunshine and calm sea, numerous seals swimming around in the water.
I just pulled the neoprene suit up to get into the cage, as the water exploded not far from the boat: a white spray fountain exploded into the air. I finally witnessed a white shark catapulting itself out of the sea to catch a seal. He jumped in complete silence and brought the total destruction on impact – a natural force that manifested itself as strong and invisible as a storm! The seal had no chance.
On this trip, I could deepen my studies and I was surprised to find some news: Chris did not use a chum to lure the sharks. “We have found that the sharks are here anyway and we do not need blood to lure the animals to our boat. A few tuna-baits and our seal decoy are completely sufficient”, he told me.
During this trip, we had eleven white sharks around our boat, the largest measured roughly more than 4 meters. And the cages had changed a lot: now there were long steel cages with space for at least four to six people, which were attached to the boat. There were no diving bottles or air hoses – when a shark approached the cage, we just dived down with the air in our lungs for a few seconds. So, you did not need a divers licence – just a little courage.
Not only in Gansbay and False Bay there are large seal colonies, but also in Mossel Bay, some 400 kilometers further east. Here you can also find a large rock with a seal population of around 3,000 animals. While in the first two locations the islands are located about five kilometers from the mainland, the seals in Mossel Bay are only 800 meters from the beach – very close to swimmers and surfers! It could be assumed that there are many attacks on humans – but the opposite is the case. The only deadly attack took place in the vicinity on 29 August 2009 on surfer Gerhard van Zyl. His right lower leg was bitten off, he died a little later from the blood loss in hospital.
The seal colony is largely left alone by the sharks. As a reason, Fallows suspects that the white sharks in Mossel Bay are subadult animals up to a maximum of three meters in length. They hunt mainly fish and are not yet big enough to kill seals. Therefore, Mossel Bay is a kind of “training camp” for the sharks. Once they have learned to sneak and chase here, they swim further south to Gansbay and False Bay.
Christian’s story continues in Part 2 tomorrow… as he travels to Guadalupe, Mexico and asks whether the cage industry and ‘shark tourism’ have any benefit for sharks. Check back tomorrow!
All photos by Christian Kemper unless otherwise stated.
You can purchase Christian’s book, ‘Strange Pool Friends – Mein Freund, der Hai’, here.
PADI Teams Up with Wellness Brand Neuro to Drive Ocean Change and Create a Blue State of Mind
Together launching a whale-inspired limited-edition tin to fund ocean conservation
Ocean lovers and wellness enthusiasts can join PADI® (Professional Association of Diving Instructors®) and Neuro® functional gum and mints in creating positive ocean change.
The two leading lifestyle and purpose-driven brands have united in a shared mission that is born out of the transformational powers of the water and are offering a streamlined way to enhance your wellbeing and that of the ocean. Throughout the year, they will be releasing a collection of two limited edition re-usable Neuro x PADI tins designed to be used with all the bulk Neuro bag products, with 20% of profits donated to PADI AWARE FoundationTMand $100K USD committed to the world’s largest purpose-driven diving organisation’s non-profit charity by the end of 2024.
The first of the co-branded tins that are now available for purchase showcases artwork created by Neuro co-founder Kent Yoshimura, who is also a renowned mural artist and depicts a whale breaching in the ocean.
“The whale is symbolic of how everything is interconnected and small changes can have a huge impact upon our ocean – and all life that calls it home,” explains Yoshimura. “By refilling and using this tin, you’ll cut down on your packaging waste, fuel yourself with clean ingredients to live your best life and do more for all vulnerable marine species.”
“At least 8 million tons of plastic end up in our oceans every year and more than 250 million tons of plastic are estimated to pollute our waters by 2025,” says Julie Andersen, PADI’s Senior Director of Brand. “Much of that debris is ingested by all of the ocean’s creatures – including the symbolic megafauna like whales. By creating this campaign, PADI and Neuro have come together to drive change and heal ourselves, our communities, and the ocean – our largest and most important ecosystem on this blue planet, and the very thing responsible for life on earth.”
Uniting Two Purpose-Driven Brands
Founded in 2015 by Yoshimura and his co-founder Ryan Chen on their first dive trip in Catalina, the two college friends and PADI Scuba Divers were looking for a more sustainable way to optimise one’s health and energy – and soon after established Neuro®, a collection of functional gum and mints crafted with a patented formula and clean ingredients to help you do more.
What started as a small start-up conceived on a dive boat, led them to garner international recognition for their appearance on Shark Tank in 2020 – and they have now sold over 90 million pieces of Neuro products.
“Core to our purpose-driven ethos, we want to encourage the world to not only improve their own lives, but the lives of others,” explains Chen. “We understand that being a truly sustainable company is more than just protecting the environment. That is why we prioritise environmental, social, and economic sustainability to ensure Neuro operates in a way that benefits everyone – including the smallest of plankton to the largest of whales that live beneath the surface.”
“Just like Neuro, PADI empowers people to become the best version of themselves when they are in a state of ‘blue mind’, where you become deeply aware of your own personal health’s connection to that of our blue planet’s – realising that your own wellbeing gives you superpowers to make a real difference,” says Andersen. “We are obsessed with creating positive ocean change and transforming lives by making the wonder of the underwater world accessible to all and ensuring that communities and ecosystems live in harmony that mutually support one another. Together, we are magnifying our powers to do more by raising awareness to the issues facing our ocean, while at the same time, providing meaningful ways to take action.”
How the Ocean Healed Neuro Co-Founders
Scuba diving isn’t just a passionate hobby for Neuro co-founders Yoshimura and Chen. It is from this that they experienced the entrepreneurial side-effects of scuba diving, in which the dive trip was a core driver to their business success and personal wellbeing – giving them both their “million-dollar idea” and a renewed sense of purpose and belief that anything is possible.
“It was during this dive trip that we realised the need to have a practical, sustainable, and approachable system that can be shared with fellow divers that provide clean energy during surface intervals,” Yoshimura explains. “When you fall in love with the ocean, you want to spend as much time as possible exploring and protecting it. So, we wanted to create a product that supported this passion and gives you a prolonged state of ‘blue mind’.”
For Chen, earning his PADI Open Water Diver certification also provided him with a pivotal moment in his own healing journey after he had suffered a tragic snowboarding accident that left him partially paralysed. He became certified through the PADI Adaptive Techniques Diving Course and benefited greatly from the physical and mental therapy the sport of scuba diving provides. Soon after, his renewed sense of purpose led him to be named to Forbes 30 Under 30 in 2019.
“There’s no cooler feeling than taking that first breath underwater,” Chen recalls. “All of a sudden you have this superpower, to breathe underwater and explore. Learning to dive re-ignited my passion for life but also my belief that I too could make a difference in protecting and saving the ocean.”
“Learning to scuba dive unlocks hidden superpowers that are not only empowering – but essential to keep our shared blue planet healthy,” Andersen explains. “As a PADI Scuba Diver, you not only develop a new passion, but you also earn the unique ability to protect what you love, engaging in impactful citizen science with your own two hands. Through a shared mission of instilling hope, connecting with other species, and fueling hands-on conservation, we hope that we can make a better world for all of us.”
“That is why we rebuilt our company mission at PADI to reach every 1 in 10 people on our shared blue planet and inspire them to join us as Ocean Torchbearers to create positive ocean change,” says Andersen. “Our work with Neuro helps us inspire more people to experience, fall in love with, and protect the ocean and all life that calls it home. Together, Neuro and PADI are supporting more people in achieving a state of “blue mind”, in which they realise they too are superheroes that can accelerate and optimise healing: our own, our communities, and our planets.”
Win a Healing Trip of a Lifetime and Become PADI Whale Defenders in Mexico
Note: This competition is only open to residents of the USA
As part of their limited edition re-usable tin launch, PADI and Neuro are offering one lucky winner the ultimate healing trip of a lifetime: the chance to become a PADI Whale Defender in Baja California, Mexico. The prize includes flights, accommodation, the PADI Whale Defender Course, and a whale-watching tour with Dive Ninja Expeditions for two, as well as a collection of Neuro mint and gum products that includes Energy + Focus, Calm + Clarity and Sleep + Recharge.
“Together, we all must heal ourselves before we can heal the planet,” says Andersen. “Neuro and PADI are united in purpose, focused on our holistic wellbeing by healing from within, connecting with like-minded, purpose-driven communities, and joining a movement bigger than yourself to create positive ocean change. Seeing is believing, and an unforgettable, life-altering encounter with a whale will change your life forever, filling you with a drive to protect their – and our – blue world.”
For more information, to purchase the limited edition re-usable tins and to enter this competition, visit padi.neurogum.com/sweepstakes.
Diver Discovering Whale Skeletons Beneath Ice Judged World’s Best Underwater Photograph
An emotive photograph showing a freediver examining the aftermath of whaling sees
Alex Dawson from Sweden named Underwater Photographer of the Year 2024. Dawson’s
photograph ‘Whale Bones’ triumphed over 6500 underwater pictures entered by underwater
photographers from around the world.
“Whale Bones was photographed in the toughest conditions,” explains chair of judging
panel Alex Mustard, “as a breath-hold diver descends below the Greenland ice sheet to bear
witness to the carcasses. The composition invites us to consider our impact on the great
creatures of this planet. Since the rise of humans, wild animals have declined by 85%. Today,
just 4% of mammals are wildlife, the remaining 96% are humans and our livestock. Our way
needs to change to find a balance with nature.”
Whales dominated the winning pictures this year with Spanish photographer Rafael
Fernandez Caballero winning two categories with his revealing photos of these ocean giants:
a close up of a grey whale’s eye and an action shot of a Bryde’s whale engulfing an entire bait
ball, both taken in Magdalena Bay, Baja California, Mexico. Fernandez Caballero took ‘Grey
Whale Connection’ while drifting in a small boat, holding his camera over the side in the water
to photograph the curious whale. ‘The End Of A Baitball’ required Fernandez Caballero to dive
down and be in exactly the right place at the moment the whale lunged. “The photo shows
the high speed attack,” he said, “with the whale engulfing hundreds of kilograms of sardines
in one bite — simply unforgettable to see predation on such a scale.”
Lisa Stengel from the United States was named Up & Coming Underwater Photographer of the Year 2024 for her image of a mahi-mahi catching a sardine, in Mexico. Stengel used both a very fast shutter speed and her hearing to catch the moment. “If you listen there’s an enormous amount of sound in the ocean,” she explained. “The action was too fast to see, so I honed in on the sound of the attacks with my camera to capture this special moment.”
“It is such an exciting time in underwater photography because photographers are capturing such amazing new images, by visiting new locations and using the latest cameras,”
commented judge Alex Mustard. “Until this year I’d hardly ever see a photo of a mahi mahi,
now Lisa has photographed one hunting, action that plays out in the blink of an eye.”
The Underwater Photographer of the Year contest is based in the UK, and Jenny Stock,
was named as British Underwater Photographer of the Year 2024 for her image “Star
Attraction”, which finds beauty in species of British wildlife that are often overlooked.
Exploring the west coast of Scotland, Stock explained “in the dark green depths my torch
picked out the vivid colours of a living carpet of thousands of brittle stars, each with a
different pattern. I was happily snapping away, when I spotted this purple sea urchin and I
got really excited.”
In the same contest, Portuguese photographer, Nuno Sá, was named ‘Save Our Seas
Foundation’ Marine Conservation Photographer of the Year 2024, with his photo ‘Saving
Goliath’, taken in Portugal. Sá’s photo shows beachgoers trying to save a stranded sperm
whale. The picture gives us hope that people do care and want to help the oceans, but also
warns us that bigger changes are needed. “The whale had been struck by a ship and its fate
was sealed,” explains Sá. “An estimated 20,000 whales are killed every year, and many more
injured, after being struck by ships-and few people even realise that it happens.”
More winning images can be found at www.underwaterphotographeroftheyear.com.
About Underwater Photographer of the Year
Underwater Photographer of the Year is an annual competition, based in the UK, that celebrates photography beneath the surface of the ocean, lakes, rivers and even swimming pools, and attracts entries from all around the world. The contest has 13 categories, testing photographers with themes such as Macro, Wide Angle, Behaviour and Wreck photography, as well as four categories for photos taken specifically in British waters. The winners were announced in an award ceremony in Mayfair, London, hosted by The Crown Estate. This year’s UPY judges were experienced underwater photographers Peter Rowlands, Tobias Friedrich and Dr Alexander Mustard MBE.
Header image: Underwater Photographer of the Year 2024 winner Alex Dawson
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