Nature in All Its Glory

Diving with the Great Whites of Gansbaai

by Mille Vardheim

A great white shark bares its teeth to the seal decoy. All photos by Mille Vardheim

The rows of razor sharp teeth and the bloody reputation are enough to steer most away from great white sharks. But those who have spent time working to protect these magnificent beasts have a different impression. Manchester-based student Mille Vardheim tells us what it was like swimming in a cage mere feet from these creatures, and how she did her part to reverse the stigma that has hurt sharks more than sharks can ever hurt humans.

GANSBAAI, South Africa – At five years old, most girls I knew were into Barbies and princess films; I could care less. Dinosaurs and sharks drew me in. I’ve always been fascinated with great white sharks. My desire to meet them in the wild grew stronger after seeing the giants breaching off South Africa's coast on television during Shark Week.

I signed up to volunteer with Marine Dynamics through a Norwegian travel company. The program included lectures with marine biologists and excursions to South Africa's Shark Alley, Geyser Rock, and Dyer Island.

Each day, I worked on the shark cage diving boat, assisting the crew and clients. The feeling you get when a massive great white appears out of the blue, gliding effortlessly through the water, cannot be described with words. You expect the creature to lunge out of the sea and ravage everything in its path, but what you first encounter is a curious animal attracted only to the seal decoy used to lure it from the depths. Within a split second that calm silhouette can go haywire, breaching the surface of the water to seize the decoy and violently thrash its tail. 

Seals in Shark Alley.

A large group of lazy seals on Dyer Island.

Filming the great white.

A great white attacking the seal decoy.

As a volunteer, I had the opportunity to enter the cage and dive with sharks at the end of each day. My first cage dive was a truly amazing experience. My heart pounded rapidly, and my eyes scanned left and right. When the first great white approached, I was in total awe. It was enormous yet graceful. Watching sharks from the safety of the boat’s deck is one thing, but being down below —within arm’s reach — it's surreal.

Part of what made the experience so great was being able share my enthusiasm with others, teaching that sharks are a vital part of the ocean’s ecosystem. It wasn’t just about the thrill of seeing sharks up close for the first time. It was about changing attitudes and replacing fear with respect. I am proud to have been a part of the program and my only regret is that I didn't stay longer.

In the shark cage.

The only underwater photo I managed to snap.

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