Dispatch from South Africa: Close encounter of the shark kind

March 25, 2011

Editor's note: During Spring Break, 16 Penn State students made their way to Cape Town, South Africa, as part of a weeklong journalism expedition led by Tony Barbieri, professor of writing and editing. The immersive project, part of Barbieri's spring 2011 journalism course on "International Reporting," provided an opportunity for students to experience duties similar to those of foreign correspondents working for media outlets. During the first part of the semester, the students researched South Africa and developed story ideas. In South Africa, they conducted interviews with subjects in and around Cape Town, and assembled a final portfolio of projects from each student that will be marketed to newspapers across North America. In addition to the students and Barbieri, two other professors attended, along with two documentary film students who are producing a documentary on the group's expedition, and their adviser, Barbara Bird.

In this final entry, Andy Colwell describes the experience of shark cage diving, an opportunity afforded to him, fellow student Lexi Belculfine and professor Thor Wasbotten as part of the students' investigative piece on the relationship between shark cage diving and shark attacks on surfers.

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Shark-inhabited waters might not seem like the best choice for doing research on a journalism story in South Africa – unless, of course, those sharks are the reason for doing the story. It was for that reason professor Thor Wasbotten, student Lexi Belculfine and I submerged ourselves in the chilly Atlantic Ocean in a metal cage: to get a feel for South Africa's shark cage diving tourism industry.

South Africa is home to a vast tourism industry, with attractions including backpacking, wildlife safaris, wine-tasting, luxury vacationing and surfing, but shark cage diving is the second-highest profit-generating activity in the country. Such a rating results from the country's attractive coastline and its proximity to shark havens such as Dyer Island, one of the places we visited with the tour group Marine Dynamics. Based near the town of Gansbaai, Marine Dynamics operates daily diving tours from the port of Kleinsbaai. Located along the coastline are dozens of beaches, large and small, that see thousands of surfers each year. Those surfers make the second side of our story: what is the relationship between surfing and cage diving, in the face of increases in shark attacks on surfers, and concurrent growth in the cage diving industry?

There are only 3,500 great white sharks left in the world, and we were fortunate enough to see eight of them in the wild from the relative safety of the boat and its cage. The Discovery Channel comes to the area frequently to film its “Shark Week” programming during the prime underwater viewing season, which takes place from May through August. Those excellent observation conditions were not around this day, however, but the encounter still was invaluable for both our story and our South African experience.

Knowing weeks before that we had the diving expedition arranged, I prepared by purchasing an underwater housing rig for my Canon G11, a rugged point-and-shoot camera that captures great images despite its size. Sensitive camera equipment does not take kindly to salt water, or any water in fact, but as a photographer, I felt pictures of this unique experience were key. I opted out of acquiring the underwater gear needed for my beloved professional Nikon DSLR gear, because of sheer cost and space in my luggage. In the end, the Canon's video mode sufficed, and I succeeded in visually illustrating why people would want to pay hundreds of dollars to do this. However, no camera can quite capture the feeling of having a live shark cruising past, inches from you and separated from you only by some metal bars.

On television, a 14-foot shark is hard to imagine, but that viewpoint is erased the moment that shark swims out of the murky deep, and brushes against the cage on its way to the bait. That's why people do this, and that's why we went to cover it.

-- Andy Colwell

To follow the weeklong series of Dispatches after they have been posted, visit http://live.psu.edu/tag/Spring_Break_2011_South_Africa online.

  • A great white shark surfaces and snaps at the seal-shaped decoy used by Marine Dynamics to draw sharks closer to the viewing cage. For more photos, click on the image above.

    IMAGE: Andy Colwell
Last Updated March 28, 2011