GANSBAAI, South Africa — Submerged chest-deep in a cage, seven tourists clad in wet suits helplessly bobbed in the Atlantic Ocean's relentless swells. Many had traveled halfway around the world to South Africa, where they hoped to catch a glimpse of the ocean's most fierce and feared creature: the great white shark.
The cage was the only thing between the predator and them. Half-inch bars didn't seem thick enough or close enough together; a man's leg could slip through easily. And wet suits didn't keep the divers' lips from turning sickly shades of purple in the 50-degree water.
But soon enough, they forgot about the cage and the cold. A 15-foot great white appeared 10 feet away in the murky water. A crew member tossed a bait line to coax it in. The shark lurched toward the cage as it pursued the bait, its jaws wide open, revealing rows upon rows of teeth.
Then, as quickly as it appeared, the shark was gone. The tourists resurfaced, amazed by what they'd just seen.
These thrilling excursions are at the heart of a controversy flaring along the South African coast that pits the decade-old cage-diving industry against surfers and environmental activists. The critics charge that one of South Africa's most popular tourist attractions is contributing to an increase in shark attacks and fatalities because the bait tour operators use — fish oils, blood, even tuna heads — is conditioning the great whites to associate humans with easy meals.
"I think cage diving is great because it brings tourists," said surfer Stuart Miller, 15, of Cape Town. "So long as no one dies."
Though there are only about 3,500 great whites in the world, shark attacks on people have been on the rise in South African waters. There are many possible reasons: More people spending more time in the water, more tourists visiting post-apartheid South Africa and the addition of great white sharks to the country's protected species list.
While evidence linking the cage-diving industry to shark attacks is inconclusive, South Africa saw a drastic increase in attacks from 2000 to 2004, the first years that the excursions were allowed.
For many surfers, the cage-diving industry is the factor that can be controlled most easily. But some anti-cage-diving activists claim to be afraid to speak out openly because of the industry's financial clout. Websites and Facebook groups against cage diving are maintained anonymously by people with pseudonyms such as "Justin Othersurfa."
From 2000 to 2008, there were 27 shark attacks in South Africa, two of which were fatal, according to the International Shark Attack File, maintained by the American Elasmobranch Society and the Florida Museum of Natural History. Annually, five to 15 people die worldwide.
But in 2009 and 2010 alone, there were 14 attacks in South Africa. Six people died.
Tour operators describe cage diving as a conservation experience: Tourists pay to see the sharks while operators use the opportunity to observe and research great whites.
"If one person dies by any animal in the sea, it is the animal that gets blamed," said cage-diving operator Jan Debruyn, 26. And in turn, so do cage-diving companies, he said. "What we do here isn't an adrenaline rush, and we don't promote it as such."
Eight of South Africa's 12 cage-diving companies are in Gansbaai, a quaint fishing town two hours southeast of Cape Town that one marketing manager called "the shark capital of the world." Many of the companies have been filmed for the Discovery Channel's Shark Week, and they're clearly marked by life-sized reproductions of great whites hovering in front of cottage-like buildings.
On a late-summer day, about five and a half miles from land, one boat dropped anchor near a reef. Excited tourists snapped photos of seals playfully swimming near the boat. Others were plagued by seasickness; operators simply ask that the tourists lean over the edge of the boat — after all, it's extra bait for the sharks.
The boats floated in "Shark Alley," near Dyer Island, which is home to about 60,000 Cape fur seals, the great whites' primary prey. From May to September, great whites migrate through the bay to hunt seal pups. It's "basically the McDonald's drive-through for great whites," said Alison Towner, a marine biologist from the cage-diving company Marine Dynamics.
When an operator yells, "Down, left," divers dip into the frigid water, slide their feet under the bottom rail and look to their left. If the crew member's calculations are correct, they should be looking directly at a great white.
Among other things, great whites have been hunted for their fins, which are used in shark fin soup, and their jaws, often seen as a trophy piece. In 1991, the South African government passed a law protecting great whites.
After about a half-hour of waiting, Towner leapt to her feet, camera in hand. She rapidly spit out information about the shark that was swimming toward the seal decoy: length, sex and whether she'd seen it before. Towner watched as the 4-yard-long male swam by.
"The first time seeing one with your head under was the best," said diver Juliette Mizouni, 35, of Orlando, Fla.
The tourists saw seven or eight great whites on the more than four-hour trip.
The cage-diving ventures are strictly regulated. Each company has to apply for an operating permit, employ qualified crews and carry insurance. Operators aren't allowed to feed the sharks, but footage of sharks being fed has found its way onto websites such as YouTube.
"You say that it won't happen again and you keep quiet about it because it's bad for the industry," acknowledged Christabel Vosloo, marketing manager for White Shark Adventures, a local cage-diving company.
A 2006 study by South African environmental authorities and the World Wide Fund for Nature said: "Even the perception of a link between cage-diving operations and shark attacks is detrimental to shark conservation, tourism and the long-term viability of the cage-diving industry."
Whatever the cause, shark attacks continue to increase each year in South Africa. Almost every surfer knows someone who's encountered a great white. It's a calculated risk that surfers take, but surfer Nick Abrahams speaks for many when he says the threat isn't enough to keep him out of the water:
"I'm 39, and the sharks haven't got me yet."
(Belculfine, a student at Penn State University, reported this story for a class in international journalism.)
VIDEO FROM SOUTH AFRICA
See video reports from Penn State student journalists in South Africa.
McClatchy Newspapers 2011