1992 cageless shark-diving expedition
The 1992 cage-less shark-diving expedition was the world's first cage-less 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], four scuba divers: Ron & Valerie Taylor (notable Australian pioneers of underwater exploration and film-makers), their 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 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 " The Jaws fish - 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. Askew postulated that, as they rely on stealth and surprise when attacking, if the Great White knew you were aware of its presence you had a pretty good chance of not being attacked. He had two more articles on the same thread published in 1983 and 1991, and then went on to prove that point with the historic dive.
The divers discovered that, despite having been excited for hours previously by lots of blood-laden chum and later with chunks of dolphin and whale meat [from washed up carcasses], whilst surface testing of the prototype "Shark POD" Protective Oceanic Device (now Shark Shield) for the Natal Sharks Board that the sharks were actually very shy and difficult to approach, even being scared of these new intruders to their world. After a long 20 minute wait, the divers had several timid encounters with the very cautious sharks and 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 Monster" eating machine, and changed the way the world looked at 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. They, many years before, had twice released Great Whites trapped in wire ropes belonging to cages but were never harassed despite touching the animals. It was as though the sharks knew they were being helped.
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. That first encounter was with a very gravid female who had come into a small cove to drop her pup/s. She was in such an advanced state that her body was distorted with her mouth actually facing forward above her hugely distended stomach. She was what is referred to as a "Drop-Gut". In the animal world a mother is usually very protective and aggressive just before and just after giving birth, and yet this large Apex Predator showed no aggression towards him. Because he was never attacked, and colleagues of his had also seen these animals up close [some too close] but with no real aggression, his fascination grew.
Just before the dive when Ron Taylor and 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 four metre/13foot 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 Prototype 'Pod" Valerie is seen wearing during this dive was a dummy for continuity and afforded the divers no protection.
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, and has provided much very useful information on the much maligned shark.
Since this dive a few intrepid souls have done cage-less dives with big sharks, even, questionably, 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 from free- swimming with Great Whites, the same cannot be said for swimming and diving with other sharks. There have been a few fatalities [which may or may not have been the sharks fault], and some other very worrying moments for a few divers [like having a fin chomped and minor bites requiring a few stitches!]
- (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).