Mike visited:

» Thailand
» Myanmar (Burma)
» Laos
» Cambodia
» Vietnam
» India
» Nepal
» Egypt
» Jordan
» Uganda
» Tanzania
» Malawi
» Mozambique
» Swaziland
» South Africa

View a map of his route.

 press/awards earned a few nice mentions in the press, including's vote as best travel blog on the Web. Read about it on the Press/Awards page.

Great White Shark Cage Dive in South Africa

The introductory video had me feeling like a panicked tuna. I was sitting with nine co-divers in a small restaurant in Hermanus, South Africa, having a light breakfast. A small screen in the corner of the room spat out an orgy of great white horror: enormous grey monsters came within inches of divers in cages; lids rolled back on black, unreasonable eyes; gaping, fantastic jaws seized everything in front of them with mechanical insistence.

Was I really going to confront decades of "Jaws"-inspired fear and get in the water with these predators? Watching the video, allowing my toasted cheese and tomato sandwich to go cold, my inclination was: nope.

Alluring & Controversial
I first heard about great white cage diving from fellow divers in Dahab, Egypt. One of the most exciting experiences of their life – right up there with diving in Tofo, Mozambique – they urged me not to miss it.

Months later, in Malawi, I met an American girl who'd just come from South Africa. "Whatever you do," she cautioned, "do not go cage diving."

"Why not?"

She looked at me as if I'd just slapped a baby chimp. "Because it's, like, the most totally irresponsible, environmentally destructive thing you can do," she said in disgust.

"C'mon now. The most irresponsible thing I can do? More damaging than poaching rhino? Clear-cutting primary forest? Crashing oil tankers in marine reserves?"

"Well, like, I don't know. You're totally teaching sharks to associate humans with food. Shark attacks have been on the rise since people started cage diving."

captain Robert
Notions like these cast a stigma over cage diving, and they're not all unfounded. But Robert, the captain of my diving ship, was quick to refute them. "People who decry cage diving have never actually gone on a dive," he said in his slight Afrikaans accent. "If they'd experience it for themselves, see what we're doing firsthand, they wouldn't dismiss it so quickly." In his defense, he made the following points:

  • Cage dive operators don't feed the sharks; they attract them with bait, but they don't let sharks have it
  • The sharks are being attracted to the boat, not the divers (and people have been attracting sharks to boats for thousands of years)
  • Sharks only stay with the boat for a few minutes at a time, so interference is minimal
  • The sharks have no interest in the cage or its contents; they're after the bait, nothing else

Robert attributed the rise in shark attacks to a growing world population and the increasing popularity of water sports. He also explained that, in the past, shark attacks were reported only locally – if they were reported at all; today, shark attacks are reported globally. "Sharks have been around for 60 million years," Robert concluded. "If anyone thinks we'll change their behavior in a decade or two, they're wrong."

the boat was custom-designed for cage diving
On the Water
The Atlantic Ocean was remarkably calm as we motored off the coast of Hermanus in a small, custom-designed cage diving boat. After 30 minutes we dropped anchor at "shark alley," an area popular with great whites. Robert affixed a basketball-sized chunk of tuna to a line with a large float at its end, and threw it off the back of the boat; first mate Johan prepared the chum, a mixture of blood and shredded tuna. But the real lure, Robert explained, was a bag of shark livers hung off the rear of the boat. The oil from these livers created a "scent slick" which sharks could detect from kilometers away.

My co-divers (two American girls, two British couples, an Australian, and two South African guys) and I sat in the sun on the bridge of the boat and waited for something to happen.

a dark form glided toward the boat
It didn't take long. "See that big shadow? That's a great white!" Johan shouted. "Keep your eyes on the bait!"

A vast dark form glided toward the boat. As it neared, the shape became more distinct, an 11ft (3.5m) blue-gray slab edged with white. Then the dorsal fin broke the surface, the enormous head rose out of the water, the vast jaws opened, and the shark clamped down on the bait.

The movement of a great white shark does not inspire panic. Watching the giant beast circle the boat, I felt more awe than fear, more admiration than panic. There was beauty in his assuredness. Even the eyes, black discs that, in photos, had always struck me as monstrous and mechanical, appeared benign and curious.

"Look off to starboard!" Robert shouted. "Another shark is coming!"

A new dark shape, bigger than the first, sped toward us with such speed and force that, for a moment, I thought it was an airplane's shadow.

"All right," Robert said. "Who wants a wetsuit?"

I assumed shark cages were maximum security affairs. I was wrong

I'd envisioned shark cages to be maximum security affairs – thick titanium bars, triple-welded joints, and bulletproof Kryptonite locks. I was wrong. Slightly larger than a phone booth, our cage was constructed of thin aluminum tubing covered in wire mesh – a construction not unlike a gerbil cage.

If ever I needed some adventure travel insurance, it was now.

The cage was hung over the starboard side of the ship. Floats affixed to the cage lid kept the top six inches above the water. Two people could fit inside at once.

The underwater viewing worked like this: Robert and Johan attracted the shark to the bait, then dragged the bait toward the cage. When the shark came near enough, Robert would shout, "Get down!" The divers inside would then drop down and observe the shark.

The American girls volunteered to go first. Sturdy, brave gals, they leapt right into the cage and joked nonchalantly as they waited for the shark.

"All right, get down! Look toward the bait!" Robert cried.

Everyone on board shrieked as Johan lured the shark within inches of the cage; a torrent of bubbles rose up from the girls inside.

her dorsal fin broke the surface
The shark was a magnificent female. At 13ft (4m) in length and over one ton in weight, she dwarfed the cage. She even made the boat look small. She glided around our starboard side, made a loop toward the back of the boat, and went for the bait again. As her dorsal fin broke the surface, we noticed a satellite transmitter attached to her back.

Johan and Robert lured her past the cage five or six times.

"There's no fear once you see the shark moving down there," the girls reported once they were back on deck. "It's just… beautiful!"

Sharks usually stick around for just a minute or two, Robert informed us, but this big girl was an exception. She hung around long enough for the South African guys and one of the British couples to observe her. I suited up and prepared for a look too but, just as it was my turn, she vanished.

An hour passed before another shark appeared – a slightly smaller female. She circled the bait a few times and then went for it.

"Ready to get in there?" Robert asked.


Robert helped me climb into the cage.

Even with a 7mm wetsuit on, the 59° F (15° C) water took my breath away. Teeth chattering, I stood with my head above the water and waited for Robert's cue. And waited. And waited.

The shark had disappeared. I climbed out of the cage.

I sat on deck for 30 minutes, waiting. Then I took off the wetsuit and waited some more. I chatted with my co-divers, ate peanuts, enjoyed the sun. Robert chummed the water behind us with fish blood. Seagulls swooped down and snatched bits of fish from the water's surface. It was a pleasant scene.

Suddenly there was thrashing off the stern of the boat. Johan shouted something in Afrikaans.

"Suit up!" Robert shouted.

It was a baby great white, 6.5ft (2m) in length. He gnawed frantically on the bait, tumbled around in corkscrews, and thrashed mightily.

"Look at him!" Robert said admiringly. "Just like any baby animal, young white sharks are really frisky and playful. Look at him go for it!" The shark bared his teeth and gnawed on the bait, providing my co-divers with classic photo opportunities.

I quickly suited up, leapt back into the cage, and then… nothing. The shark was gone.

The water felt colder than it had before. I waited. I shivered. Then I climbed back on deck.

We had just 30 minutes left on the boat. The Australian and I were the only ones who hadn't seen a shark from inside the cage. Our chances were dwindling.

he opened his mouth wide
Then the little shark was back! He gnashed at the bait, writhed around in the water. I pulled on my mask and leapt into the cage.

"Okay, down!" Johan shouted. I went under as the shark charged toward the cage. He turned sharply just a foot away from me and glided out of view. I surfaced and took a breath.

"Okay, down!"

Approaching head on, the shark opened his mouth wide, exposing rows of large jagged teeth. His eyes rolled back in his head. He clamped down on the bait. The water around us churned and went white.

this was a beautiful animal
I came up for air. The shark circled the rear of the boat. I could vaguely make out his outline from where I stood. Then the dorsal fin surfaced just inches in front of me.


The shark glided by, close enough to touch. His skin shone brightly in the clear water. His eyes, intelligent black discs, gleamed. I felt calm, reverence, respect. This was a beautiful animal. He made a 90° turn directly in front of me and, with a powerful, graceful thrust of his tail, shot off into the deep blue distance and was gone.

What do you think?

  • Is cage diving, like, totally irresponsible?
  • Ever see a shark in the wild?
  • Would you get into the cage for a close encounter?
Posted on November 13, 2003 12:11 PM


Comments (post your own below)

Welcome back, pal.

Posted by: roane on November 13, 2003 01:43 PM

Welcome back!

Now get a job you damn Hippie...

Posted by: chuck on November 13, 2003 03:08 PM

Did your cape and utility belt get wet in the cage??? You’re a freakin Super Hero Pughy! Damn, it's good to have you back in the States buddy. Welcome home. We'll see you soon.


Posted by: on November 13, 2003 05:46 PM

Y'all know me..know how I earn a 'livin. I'll catch this bird for ya, but ain't gonna be easy. Bad fish. Not like goin' down to the pond and chasin' bluegills or tommycats. This shark...swallow you whole...little sinkin'....little tenderizin....down you go. Now we gotta do it quick. That'll bring back the tourists, that'll put all your businesses on a payin' basis. But it's not gonna be pleasant. I value my neck alot more than three thousand bucks chief. I'll find him for three...but I'll catch him and kill him...for ten. You gotta make up your minds...wanna stay alive and ante up...wanna play it cheap be on welfare the whole winter. I don't want no voulunteers, I don't want no mates, there's to many captains on this island. Ten thousand dollars for me by myself. For that you get the head...the tail...the whole damn thing.

Posted by: Quint on November 14, 2003 11:48 AM

You go inside the cage...cage goes into the go in the water...sharks in the water...our shark.

Posted by: Quint to Hooper on November 14, 2003 11:57 AM

Fantastic blog, excellent journey. Bet its good to be home in many ways. Your questions are insightful and amusing. Write a book and it'll become a bestseller. Best of luck with jobhunting! I just left the states in June because jobs were far and few. If you need money again, South Korea needs lots of teachers with a good salary! That's where I am.

I have been diving for 11 years, mainly in the Philippines, but had the odd bout in Wisconsin (just isn't the same, diving in a former quarry), Kenya, etc.

Best of luck to you, and the Forbes recognition is well deserved.

Posted by: Natalya Marquand on November 14, 2003 12:20 PM

Cages are for little girls! By the power of Grayskull!!!

Posted by: He-Man on November 14, 2003 12:45 PM

Welcome back. I've been following your journey since Day 60. It has been a FANTASTIC year! Thanks for letting me come along. I hate the "readjustment" phase post-travelling. Everything seems strange and weird. Take care of yourself over the next few weeks.
Please keep us posted on your post-trip thoughts.
:) Karen (Alberta, Canada)

Posted by: Karen on November 14, 2003 06:03 PM

Welcome home Mike...Thanks for taking us along...

Posted by: MJ Gillich on November 15, 2003 06:51 PM

hey did the Australian get to go, you never said?

Posted by: erica on November 16, 2003 01:47 AM

Saw the thing. Why is your reputation so bad? What did you do Mike? What did you do?

Posted by: chuck on November 16, 2003 07:08 PM

I'm glad you're home safely, but I am really going to miss following your adventures! Thanks for sharing them with us.

Posted by: Christine on November 16, 2003 07:47 PM

Could someone please add a link to this mention on

Posted by: Christine on November 16, 2003 07:53 PM

Erica - no, the Australian didn't get his wetsuit on in time to see the little shark. Sucker.

Christine - was chosen as Best Travel Blog on

Chuck - my thoughts exactly: how'd they hear about my sinister reputation?

Everyone - there are two more entries coming, including one about readjusting to life in the US, so please stay tuned.

Posted by: mike on November 17, 2003 08:45 AM

Good to have you back, but you must do this all again... so many more places I would love to see you experience! I have joined the ranks of the unemployed, so let me know if you are bored in Chicago.

Posted by: Jen on November 17, 2003 09:03 AM

hi mike,

welcome back and thanks for taking us vagabonding with you. what a fun, crazy year!

don't hang up your chacos for good...


ps. did you like cape town?

Posted by: kate on November 18, 2003 01:08 PM

Welcome back to the States.
Thanks for the gift of sharing your adventure.

Posted by: Frank on November 20, 2003 05:43 PM

I'd love to see a well constructed "summary" of travel tips and things to avoid, things to bring, and things to leave home. Your travels leave you with great expertise in these matters. Rock on!!

Posted by: another Mike on November 21, 2003 09:36 PM

Well done and welcome home. Will look forward to hearing about your readjustment. Someone famous (Forget who)said that the whole point of travel is the coming back - to be able to see your own country from a different point of view. Will be interested to hear if you feel this made you a different person in any way? As well as the courage and stamina it takes to make a trip like that you have a lot of talent as a web designer. Not at all surprised to hear that the site was best travelblog of the year. It is much better than a lot of so-called professional sites. Well done on all accounts and the best of luck in the future.

Posted by: Linda on November 22, 2003 08:45 AM

Linda: I think it was Chevy Chase who said that, or something like it. It was on the plane back to the US in European Vacation. A classic.

Thanks for the creating this site and keeping up with the posting. It has been thoroughly inspiring.


Posted by: Clint on November 24, 2003 11:29 AM

wow, your site isn't a total waste of space. i love it.

Posted by: stacia on November 29, 2003 09:38 PM

FELLOW divers can you help me im trying to find pictures of a man outside a cage free diving with a great white in south africa the problem is some wanker has his name plaster over the top off the shot so i cant use it as wallpaper on my pc reguards greg(Australia n.s.w)ps we have a rugby league team called the Sharks see

Posted by: greg on December 17, 2003 06:49 PM

if you looking for travel tips, i got one for you. Leave the chum bucket at home.

Posted by: Mr. Jupiter on May 9, 2004 09:03 AM

I went shark diving in Gansbaii, too, and I loved it. It was an amazing experience: totally unforgettable. The animals are not mistreated, and there is no way that millions of years of evolution could be undone with a few guys on boats chumming the waters. I would go back and do it again in a heartbeat. South Africa is beautiful, and her people are very friendly.

Posted by: Willy on November 10, 2004 08:30 AM

Comments closed.


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