UShaka Marine World gives new meaning to swimming with sharks
Cage diving brings you up close to some rather scary creatures, writes Lwandile Bhengu
One of the ocean's most feared creatures, notorious for its flesh-ripping teeth, is just a few centimetres away from me. In fact, not just one but nine sharks - three silvertips, five ragged-tooths and a grey reef - are calmly circling me.
Thankfully I'm in a glass box at uShaka Marine World in Durban taking part - voluntarily - in its shark cage experience.
Originating in Australia in the 1990s, the adrenaline junkie's paradise has taken South Africa by storm. A premium shark cage diving spot is located along the shores of Gansbaai, just outside Cape Town.
One of the ocean's most feared creatures, notorious for its flesh-ripping teeth, is just a few centimetres away from me. In fact, not just one but nine sharks - three silvertips, five ragged-tooths and a grey reef - are calmly circling me
Here divers throw a mixture of fish parts, blood and oil into the water (called chumming) to draw the sharks closer to the cage. Participants are dropped into the middle of the southern Atlantic Ocean and get the chance to look a great white in the eye.
Those not ready to face this creature or its relatives in the deep open waters of the Atlantic can do what I did and visit the Sea Animal Encounters Island at uShaka instead.
This unique experience allowed me to see just how majestic and harmless these creatures can be - as long as you're safely in uShaka's aquarium, of course.
I was put into a 3m-long cage, and then almost fully submerged into the shark-infested pool. The cage accommodates two people at a time - which means you can go with a friend or one of uShaka's friendly divers if, like me, you aren't ready to face this alone.
I had to swim to the bottom of the cage to see the sharks, but once I got over the salty water and learnt to hold my breath, I felt I was part of a magical underwater scene with an authentic feel of the ocean bottom.
Unlike open-water shark cage diving, uShaka does not chum.
"Chumming can make sharks aggressive when in fact they are very calm creatures. We want people to see that," says Sea Animal Encounters manager Elias Lwaboshi.
He added that the sharks adapt well to aquarium conditions.
"Ragged-tooth sharks are slow swimmers who are able to remain almost stationary. The exhibit is not overcrowded and therefore allows sufficient gliding area for both the grey reef and silvertip sharks."
Not half as scary as an encounter with sharks, but just as thrilling, is the Ocean Walker. Immersed in 2032m of marine water, I stumbled along the "ocean bed" of the exhibit, past stingrays and sand sharks, wearing an astronaut-like diving helmet. This adventure is the only one of its kind in South Africa. During the 15-minute walk you are accompanied by a diving instructor.
The Sea Animal Encounters Island merges education and fun.
Says Lwaboshi: "We want people to be educated about these sea creatures, especially sharks, through first-hand experiences, to see that they are not as scary and dangerous as they are made out to be."
• This article was originally published in The Times