However, contrary to the lonely JAWS spectre of an idiot eating-machine, white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) are social animals which behave in a complex way. Little is known about their breeding habits, how long they live or how big they get (the largest CONFIRMED specimen is 19.5ft although there have been claims of up to 25ft). What is known is that they don't go out of their way to bite people but rather interact with humans in much the same way as any other intelligent animal would.
On the day I went cage diving in Gansbaai, just 80km from the southern tip of Africa, we were fully briefed by our guide, a man who is quietly confident, competent and professional whether skippering the boat, acting as a dive master or lecturing about his one great passion in life - cage diving.
After checking out the conditions and anchoring the boat, our guide threw bait into the water and within an hour we had an interested customer. A 4.5 metre female circled the boat a few times before moving in on the bait and her small cold eyes above the water had a black, impassionate stare. She made a few more passes before our guide gave us the thumbs up to go down in the cage, two at a time.
Visibility in the blue-green is only eight metres. I waited, heart pounding. Out of nowhere a huge grey form headed straight for the cage. Full of grace and power. No fear, too big and fast to hesitate. She gave me that impassive stare as she flashed past, bumping the cage. On her third or fourth pass I plucked up the courage to put my hand out and ran it down her back as she went by. Although I only saw the shark fleetingly during a period of about 10 minutes, the intensity of the experience was so mind-blowingly incredible that I hadn't even had time to be scared. It was rather "Wow, am I really experiencing this?"
Cage diving is often marketed as an 'adventure sport' littering their advertising with words like 'dare to', 'challenge' and 'thrilling'. This 'fear factor' puts it in the same category as eg bungee jumping, further inculcating what Peter Benchley did in Jaws so many years ago - scaring the living hell out of anyone going in the water. Operators, however, went to great lengths to ensure the diving was a learning experience as opposed to a challenge.