The cage, Cassie Weinberg tells us, is optional.
It’s a sunny morning on the southern coast of South Africa, and we’re bobbing on indigo waves a few miles off shore, while the wind kicks around air that smells of salt, stale wetsuit and a dash of fear. We’ve come this morning with Aliwal Shoal Scuba for a cage dive with sharks, specifically oceanic blacktips, which reach lengths of about seven feet and are generally non-aggressive. But the scuba divers will be outside the metal enclosure, and snorkelers can ditch it too, provided we’re competent swimmers and committed to one crucial contingency.
“If you see a bull or a tiger shark, you have to swim toward it,” our captain, Weinberg, says seriously.
They’re rare around here, a “special treat,” but the blacktips’ larger cousins can be “cheeky.” Flee, the skipper warns, and you'll look like prey.
“How will we know if we see one?” I ask.
“Oh, you’ll know,” he says.
An hour south of Durban off the coast of KwaZulu-Natal, Aliwal Shoal is an ancient sand dune turned rocky reef, renowned for its wreck diving and abundant sharks. Here, powerful waves bash golden beaches, and divers explore caves and gullies, floating alongside predators, including blacktips, tigers, bulls and ragged-tooth sharks, whose mouths gape open in a perpetual grin. The waters are clear and warm, dive schools and lodges dot the shore, and the annual sardine run brings a swarm of dolphins, whales and other species to feed on massive schools of the silvery fish.
For its shark dives, Aliwal Shoal Scuba uses sealed bait drums to attract the animals, a controversial practice that some people say conditions sharks to be too comfortable around humans and teases the creatures with enticing aromas sans the satisfying payoff. Unlike Gansbaai, another popular South African diving destination two hours from Cape Town, great white sharks are only occasional visitors here, so snorkelers are encouraged to escape the cage’s confinement for a more relaxed experience.
Aliwal Shoal is also known for its tricky boat launch, which involves leaving from a placid riverbank and charging through relentless surf to reach the open ocean. Never mind the toothy fish out there. This, Weinberg claims, is the most dangerous part of the day.
Snorkelers and divers from Spain, the Netherlands, the United States and South Africa cinch lifejackets snug and jam our feet under straps on the floor of the motorized raft. We grip ropes with both hands, so we’re braced against the brunt of the pounding break, while the skipper engages in a sort of nautical flirtation, zipping forward, darting laterally, pausing, then forging ahead until finally we’re clear — soaked, smiling and coursing with adrenalin.
A few minutes later, the guides drop the bait bucket and steer in gentle loops until a silver shadow cruises under the surface inches from the boat. First it’s one, then two, then they’re everywhere — oceanic blacktip sharks gliding like gray ghosts all around us.
I shriek. I am actually terrified, and it’s time to get in the water.
Not entirely confident I can look a bull shark in the eye and stroke towards it, I opt for the relative safety of the open-topped cage, plopping in ungracefully and standing for a second with my head above the surface, willfully ignorant of what’s happening below. Then I put my face in. The water is full of sharks, graceful silver streaks that seem to move by magic. They slide effortlessly around the bait bucket trailed by smaller remora fish, occasionally swimming straight for the cage before swerving away at the last second.
Once the initial “Shark!” jitters subside, it's entrancing, beautiful and surprisingly peaceful.
“They sneak up on you,” Weinberg had warned in the boat, and he was right. Just when I think I’ve gathered the entire shiver — as a group of sharks are called — in my field of vision, one slips past the wide metal mesh, close enough to reach out and stroke. (Though that would be a terrible idea: Most blacktip bites are on hands or fingers mistaken for fish, according to our guides.)
Eventually, I heave myself out of the cage and float on the surface, a blob of wet-suited human admiring the aquatic view. It feels like a great privilege to be here, free of the cage, resting on the ocean, witnessing these elegant animals in their natural environment.
No bull or tiger sharks make an appearance; no one’s fingers are mistaken for fish. A few passengers succumb to seasickness, but even between leaning over the side of the boat, we all agree it’s been an incredible morning.
As Weinberg steers us through the chop toward shore, a whale breaches nearby and a pod of dolphins arch through the waves, hunting down their next meal. The rich waters of Aliwal Shoal have delivered spectacularly, no cage required.