You are a thousand times more likely to die hanging your Christmas lights than to be attacked by a great white shark. Even dogs – our best friend – killed more people worldwide last year than have been killed by all species of sharks in the past hundred. With approximately 150 scalps a year, coconuts are positively bloodthirsty by comparison.

Even so, as a journalist entering the shark-infested waters off Dyer Island, near Gansbaai at the south-eastern point of Walker Bay (close to where the Birkenhead went down), I was particularly anxious. If there’s one group of people sharks should be peeved at, it’s us. No other group has spread more falsehoods and hyperbole than the media … with the possible exception of Hollywood directors that is. If sharks were Americans, they’d sue … and if I were a movie director I’d be safely ensconced somewhere high and dry in the Sahara.

Anxiety soon fled, however, as Brian McFarlane helped me and underwater photographer Geoff Spiby into the metal cage bobbing on the surface next to Predator II, the 12-metre catamaran he uses to take tourists shark-cage diving. He asked us to leave the scuba rigs on board and breathe using only our snorkels, as the mechanical sounds made by demand valves tend to scare the sharks – that’s right, I said scare the sharks.

Unfortunately it was summer, not the best season for cage diving, but as we slipped into the cage the signs we’d have a good encounter were promising – a five-and-a-half metre female was mooching around. Let me say it again in case you glossed over that statistic… FIVE-AND-A-HALF METRES – bigger and heavier than a long-wheelbase bakkie.

As we submerged, peeping out from the bars and holding our breaths, the shark appeared out of the gloom. Passing within touching distance, she glided by effortlessly, propelled by imperceptible movements of her tail. It looked almost artificial… as if she were a model toy driven by a little engine. The eyes were not those of a puppet, however. They were alive, assess­ing us, unfamiliar visitors to her aquatic realm.

Rice cake or rump steak?

Sharks are attracted to dive boats by chum: the evil-smelling concoction of fish blood and oil that Brian had been ladling into the water since we anchored. This forms an oily slick behind the boat. Supreme opportunists that they are, whites follow the feint trail, hoping for a windfall-a dead whale, seal or big fish. All they find at these boats, however, is a tuna head tied to a rope. And, what’s more, the operators usually drag this toward the boats preventing the shark from getting it.

This chumming and baiting has concerned other coastal users since cage-diving operations began. It’s banned in the USA and many people in South Mrica would feel happier if this were the case here too.

“There is no clear evidence that shark-cage operators are responsible for the perceived increase in shark activity and shark attacks in recent years,” affirmed shark expert Dr Len Compagno. I caught up with him in his cluttered office – festooned with remnants of old wetsuit, pictures and other shark paraphernalia – at the South African Museum where he is curator of fishes.

“Chumming is not a new activity – fishers have disposed of fish guts and blood into the water round their boats since fishing began, so to suddenly get hot under the collar about 10 or so licensed opera­tors using chum, is unfortunate.”

Not surprisingly, the shark-diving operators agree. “It’s ridiculous,” said JP Botha, co-owner of Marine Dynamics, one of the licensed operators working out of Gansbaai.

“We’ve been blamed for attacks that happened over a thousand kilometres away, involving different species of sharks. Luckily, with the scarcity of evi­dence, all the hoo-ha is beginning to subside.”

Chumming for sharks isn’t the Lotto. Certain areas tend to be good for sharks – Dyer Island off-shore of Gansbaai is arguably the best place to dive with white sharks anywhere in the world. But if you drop chum into the water at random, you could wait a really long rime before any whites pop by for a visit.

Of course that’s not to say whites have a limited distribution. They occur in temperate coastal waters worldwide, yet have a penchant for turning up where they’re not expected. Debbie Smith, who runs the Rocktail Bay Dive Centre in Maputaland, has seen two whites while out with dive groups: one in Ponta do Ouro in Mozambique, the other off Rocktail Bay, south of Kosi Bay.

“I had drifted over the reef to check on a hole where we normally find turtles and came face to face with a three-metre female white shark. Keeping the group close, we watched as she circled us serenely. She then passed roughly a metre from us, before disappearing into the deep blue. It was magic, she was not aggressive at all, probably just curious.”

Unfortunately, this curiosity is probably the root cause of most negative interactions between sharks and humans. Let’s not call them attacks, because that has sinister connotations.

“White sharks are curious, intelligent, apex predators,” said Len Compagno. “They actively investigate new items in their surroundings and it isn’t uncommon for them to investigate floating objects. Some of these behaviours, and I am hesitant to say this, may even be playful. We’ve seen sharks pick up floating planks and toss them, once twice and more – without a rational explanation. It’s kinda like they’re bored and kicking a can about.

“But, and herein lies the problem with their human interactions, their major manipulatory organ is their mouth. So when they investigate you in the water, they can do excessive damage, even if to the shark it was only gently mouthing you to see what you are. To be sure, if it was a full-blown predatory attack they’d easily cut you in half – big sharks have been known to slice 200-kilogram bull-seals in two.”

Apex predators are those at the very top of the food web – very simply: eat everything and fear noth­ing. Yet they face the same problems all predators do – every predatory interaction has to be seen as a cost benefit decision involving the amount of effort exerted in the ‘chase,’ for the amount of energy returned by eating the prey item. Basically, do you chow the stationary rice cake or the galloping rump steak? In this scenario humans are, luckily for us, rice cakes.

Sharks make split-second decisions on the energy content of a prey item as soon as they bite into it. If they bite you they immediately assess you as something not worth eating and so are unlikely to finish you off. If you were a seal with a high percentage of energy-rich blubber, however….

There have, of course, been instances of sharks eating people; such as the white captured in the Mediterranean with the bodies of two adults and a child in it. But these are relatively rare and probably have lots to do with the nutritional state of the shark in question. If the shark is half starved, then rice cakes make a welcome snack until something blubberier comes along.

Back off – that girl’s mine!

Scientists are also beginning to understand more about the behavioural interactions between white sharks. However, research in this direction is slow and frustrating according to Ryan Jordan, a PhD student from the University of Pretoria currently studying white shark biology.

“There are just so many unknowns – we are really just discovering aspects of the very complex lifestyles these animals lead. A little bit here, a little bit there.”

Some of the interesting trends scientists such as Ryan are beginning to notice, however, is sharks definitely interact with each other and communicate using body language. For instance, stiff, arched bodies and gaping mouths (underwater) seem to be threat displays, warning off other sharks.

These same behaviours interest Andre Hartman, another co-owner of Marine Dynamics. Andre, it must be said, is God’s gift to the media – a real old man of the sea and seemingly fearless shark man. He has been featured in numerous documentaries and was one of the central characters in the National Geographic cover story of April 2000. He has lived and worked with whites his whole life and now regularly dives with white sharks outside of protective cages.

In this very high-risk activity, understanding what the whites are trying to communicate is the difference between a nice dive and Davey Jones’s locker.

Andre was also the first person known to have placed his hand on a white shark’s snout, by accident originally, and notice that the shark went into a kind of trance. With his hand on their snouts, sharks stand on their tails in the water between the engines of his boat, head out, motionless. Why and how this works no-one is quite sure. But possibly it has something to do with the over-stimulation of the organs of Lorenzini – or the complex sensory array in their snouts capable of detecting miniscule electoral pulses, which aid the shark in hunting. Whatever the reason, it’s still dramatic to see two-and-a-half tons tamed by this Daniel of the ocean.

In summer, however, Andre has noticed the sharks are much more skittish and weary. “Everybody down there seems to get a little stressed out and so I tend to be far more cautious. Even the snout trick doesn’t usually work,” he told me.

I asked Len Compagno about this, who said he wasn’t sure of the exact causes, but did mention that many sharks have a definite mating season. During this time males assert their dominance. This is especially true when receptive females are in the vicinity. For ragged-tooth sharks at least, this seems to happen in the southern summer.

Is this also a factor in white shark behaviour? It’s hard to tell as mating white sharks have never been documented. However, the pattern fits. What this means of course, is white sharks kicking round Southern Africa during the summer holiday are not only more likely to encounter people, but could be feeling a little aggro when they do.

Could this explain the recent spate of interactions between surf-skiers in the Western Cape and great whites? No-one can say for sure, but think of it this way: surf-skis are six-odd-metre intruders. If there were females in the ‘vicinity, males could easily be saying: “Hey dude back off, that girl’s mine.”

This aggressive, dominance behaviour could also help explain the attack on Craig Bovim off Scarborough on the Cape Peninsula, Christmas eve.

He was in the water diving for lobsters, when he noticed a four-metre shark, initially thought to be a raggie but more likely a great white. The shark did not attack immediately but hung around – possibly issuing threats Craig didn’t understand. Keeping it in sight, he tried to head into the relative safety of the kelp, but too late. The shark ‘investigated’ him and in the process, unfortunately, Craig stuffed his arms down the shark’s throat.

He pummelled it with his knees and the shark, realising its error, released him and departed. His arms, however, were already badly lacerated and he was losing blood fast. Craig headed for the beach, from where he was rushed to hospital by air ambu­lance. I am glad to report that Craig is recovering.

The rapid response of medical-rescue services has been the number one factor in decreasing the percentage of fatal interactions – attacks if you must – between sharks and humans. “The best way to deal with the shark issue is to remain calm and emotionless. It is far too easy to shout: bring in shark nets or kill all sharks – both of which amount to an environmental disaster,” according to Compagno. “The reality is, we are in their world and in some ways we have to accept the consequences. That doesn’t mean we should stand idle. Rescue services should be trained and prepared to deal with the trauma of shark ‘attacks’.”

Sharks are not killers but, rather, they have killed. And therein lies a subtle difference. Killer implies ruthless, cold-blooded and malicious. None of which apply to whites. They kill to survive, as do we.

Worldwide shark populations are in alarming decline. White sharks, in particular, seem to be threatened, even though they are protected in large parts of their range. This is due to the price on their heads. Shark-fin soup made from white’s fins fetches top-dollar; a set of jaws could bring in a couple of thousand dollars. With that sort of reward an active black-market exists.

As Ryan Jordan pointed out: “That is only the direct mortality. It’s hard to quantify the effects of over-fishing, which reduces available prey and by-catch, or sharks caught incidentally while fishing for other species. These are probably even more detrimental to population numbers.”

That there should be any doubt of the survival of white sharks is a tragedy. After my experiences diving in the shark cages, it’s hard to think that such a majestic creature could be heading towards its end.

Possibly, just possibly, we journalists can help prevent this. We now have a different story to tell. Whites don’t target people deliberately and, all things considered, would probably be mortified to know we hold them up in such fear. As Joseph Conrad said: “The belief in a supernatural source of evil is not necessary; [humans] alone are quite capable of every wickedness.”

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