Cage diving with great white sharks off the island of Guadalupe in the Pacific Ocean. (Photo: iStock)

South Africa - White shark cage diving – plan to bring chumming closer to shore splits opinions

Great white shark populations are dwindling around Cape Town. In an effort to save the industry, the environment minister has proposed extending the operating area for False Bay’s cage diving. But surfers and other beach users don’t relish the potential risk of more sharks in the area.

Environment Minister Barbara Creecy is calling for public comment on a proposal to temporarily extend the False Bay white shark cage diving operating area, in an effort to support operators after years of dwindling great white shark sightings.

The proposal is out for public comment until 2 October. If finalised, the shark cage diving operating area in the bay would expand from its current area around Seal Island to include a section of the inshore area adjacent to Strandfontein Beach, and would permit cage diving operators to work about 1.3km to 2.5km from the shore.

The proposed extension is intended to help revive ailing ecotourism, which has been struggling since the great whites began disappearing in 2017.

“The current request for False Bay dates as far back as 2014. However, because of the risk associated with bathers and prevalence and sightings of white sharks in the bay at that time, the department did not see the possibility of considering the request,” Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment spokesperson Albi Modise told DM168.

The department “remains mindful of the history of a shark attack that occurred in the area, as well as the public’s concerns and perceptions associated with chumming”.

DM168 understands the proposal has been backed by cage diving companies in the bay, which have been calling for an area extension for years. The extension would allow operators to attract other shark species, including the bronze whaler and the sevengill cow shark.

“False Bay is the only area of the three shark cage diving operations that hasn’t got an inshore operating area, because even when the white sharks were here, our business was always curtailed to white shark patterns and could not interact with the bronze whalers,” explained founder and director of African Shark Eco-Charters Rob Lawrence, who added that extensions have been allocated to Gansbaai and Mossel Bay.

Read more in Daily Maverick: “Where have all the Great White Sharks gone?

In pre-pandemic days, and before the disappearance of white sharks from the bay, shark cage diving was booming.

After Boulders Beach, shark tourism in False Bay was the largest marine tourism venture in the southern peninsula, co-founder of Apex Shark Expeditions Chris Fallows told DM168. “It attracted more than 7,000 people to Simon’s Town each year,” he said.

Fallows described the industry as “the lifeblood of Simon’s Town”, which kept hotels, B&Bs and restaurants alive during the doldrums of winter.

But without an extension, the sector faces an uncertain future. “If we are unsuccessful at being able to work in that slightly extended area, all companies would close down,” co-owner of Shark Explorers Stephan Swanson said.

Lawrence, who has been operating in the area since 1995, said: “Seal Island was arguably the premier white shark viewing and diving spot in the world until about 2017/18. [The absence of great whites], coupled with two years of Covid-19, has all but decimated the industry.”

Goodbye, great whites

On average, 205 great white shark sightings were recorded a year from 2010 to 2016 in False Bay. But since 2017, white sharks have all but disappeared from the area. In 2018, there were 50 sightings. In 2021, Shark Spotters, a shark safety and research organisation, reported only four.

Read more.