1992 cageless shark-diving expedition
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The 1992 cageless shark-diving expedition was the world's first cageless dive with great white sharks. It contributed to changing public opinions about the supposed ferocity of these animals.
In January 1992, during the filming of the National Geographic documentary Blue Wilderness, at Dyer Island, South Africa, after 8 - 10 large Great White sharks were kept around their boat for about 6 hours with Chum [mashed fish, blood and oil]and being fed, and after surface testing of the prototype "Shark Pod" Protective Oceanic Device (now Shark Shield) for the Natal Sharks Board, four scuba divers: Ron & Valerie Taylor (notable Australian pioneers of underwater exploration and film-makers), good friend George Askew (Pioneer South African diver and photographer), and Piet 'PJ' van der Walt*, carried out the world's first dive amongst these animals without a safety cage, or any other protection like chain-mail suits.
The Prototype 'Pod" Valerie is seen wearing during this dive was a dummy for continuity and afforded the divers no protection.
- (van der Walt founded the South African cage diving industry in 1988 and was joined a short while after by Askew whose publicity brought the "Crazy new thrill" firmly into the public eye - locally and internationally).
The Taylors and Askew, recognised shark experts and authorities, were testing their hypotheses, based on many years of experiences with sharks, that these animals had a much fiercer reputation than they deserved. In fact Askew had proposed, in an article (the first of its kind), entitled "Myth or Maneater?", published in the UK magazine Underwater World back in 1978, that Great Whites did not deserve the horrific image and reputation that Jaws author Peter Benchley and film director Steven Spielberg had imprinted in peoples minds. He postulated that if the Great White knew you were aware of its presence you had a pretty good chance of not being attacked, as they rely on stealth and surprise when attacking. He wrote two more articles on the same thread in 1983 and 1991, and then went on to prove that point with the historic dive.
The divers discovered that the sharks actually were very timid and difficult to approach even being scared of these new intruders to their world - despite having been excited for hours previously by lots of blood-laden chum and chunks of dolphin and whale meat [from washed up carcasses]. After a long 20 minute wait the divers had several timid encounters with the very cauitious sharks . The divers were never at any time challenged, nor made to feel uneasy. This ground-breaking "Underwater Everest" conquest - (a huge leap forward in ocean exploration) convincingly destroyed the myth of the Great White being a mindless eating machine Monster, and changed people's perceptions of them and all other sharks forever.
The Taylors felt that the Australian sharks had a slightly different disposition to South African ones, but as it is now known that Great Whites swim between South Africa and Australia, this may be questionable. Askew had encountered Great White Sharks several times previously over the years whilst spearfishing; the first being in 1960 when in those days it was thought that meeting one was sure death. Because he was never attacked his fascination grew. The Taylors many years before had twice released Great Whites trapped in wire ropes belonging to cages. They were never harassed despite touching the animals.
Just before the dive when Ron Taylor and George Askew were kneeling on the dive platform a few centimetres / inches above water filming, with their hands in the water, a premonition made Askew get up. As he did so and stepped back, a 4 metre/13 ft Great White slid onto the platform and stopped 75mm /3inches from his foot before sliding back, but made no attempt to snap or lunge at him. It would have taken his camera and arms, and maybe pulled him in if he had not got up. Askew sees that incident as pure opportunism and not savagery.
The consequences of that first historic close encounter 'Frontier Pushing' dive showed the world that Great Whites are not there to devour people but are very curious and can be quite 'friendly'. This dive is directly responsible for the upsurge in Shark Tourism – especially free-diving (i.e. Out of cage swimming) with big sharks. When operators and would be ones around the world became aware of these 4 'mad' people who proved that the Great White was quite approachable and not likely to attack – they thought that maybe all the other 'Bad Boy' sharks like Tigers, Bulls and Oceanics were safe to swim with too. This proved to be the case and Shark Tourism took off. It is now a multi-billion dollar a year industry.
Since this dive a few intrepid souls have done cage-less dives with big sharks, even hitching rides on their dorsal fins and touching them underwater. However - anyone attempting such unfettered activity must be aware that they are still Apex Predators and very opportunistic. One should never be blasé and let one’s vigilance slip, as although there have never been any serious incidents, there have been some very worrying moments for a few divers [like having a fin chomped!]