Tue, Aug 21, 2007 - Page 6 News List

South African town promoting itself as cage-diving capital


Blessed with clear waters and a high concentration of great white sharks, this sleepy fishing town has become the self-proclaimed capital of cage-diving -- plunging underwater in a sturdy metal basket for a close-up look at one of nature's greatest predators.

But the multimillion-dollar industry is increasingly the target of critics who say it is teaching sharks to associate people with food by luring them to boats with hunks of bait.

So local shark tour operators hosted a Great White weekend festival to reassure locals that there is no link between attacks on humans and the industry that has transformed their town into a draw for adrenaline junkies.

Suspended in underwater cages and gasping with amazement from boats, locals were treated at cut-rate prices to the spectacle of lithe creatures gliding elegantly through the lucid waters of Shark Alley, named for its unusual density of great white sharks attracted to a nearby colony of 40,000 seals.

Gansbaai -- or Goose Bay -- is an unassuming town of a few hundred people about two hours from Cape Town.

But Gansbaai claims that its great whites -- the only type to survive in the frigid waters here -- are more accessible than those at resort areas in California and Australia, because they are so close to the shore.

But the industry has a bad image. One person is killed by a shark every two years in South Africa. Experts say the number of shark-related incidents will probably increase because more people are surfing, kayaking and swimming than before, but many locals say that the cage-diving industry is to blame.

A report last year from experts at the World Wildlife Fund South Africa and government conservationists said there was no evidence linking attacks on humans and the industry.

Operators attract sharks with a mixture of blood and fish remains, a practice known as "chumming," and encourage them to stay near the boat by dangling large fish in the water.

In Gansbaai, eight companies have government permits to operate cage-diving and shark-spotting tours. A code of conduct states the animal must not be harmed or rewarded with food if it comes to the boat.

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