“We’re going to need a bigger boat.”

That’s all I could think of as we set sail from Betty’s Bay at high tide first thing in the morning, coordinates set for an area of ocean that was home to over 10% of the world’s Great White Shark population. As I reverse peeled my way into a wet suit, clumsiness personified, I gave more serious consideration to what I was about to do. Here was an apex predator, the epitome of cold-blooded ruthlessness, and the leading role in many a nightmare and I was about to put myself at its mercy, in its element, with only a cage between me and it. “This is going to be insane”, said a twenty-something Swede, laughing uncontrollably as we put on our weight belts and pulled on our face masks.

I went in search of the researcher on the boat who had assured me there was a serious point behind the twice daily shark cage diving trips operated by Marine Dynamics in the Gansbaai. I wanted to reconcile my conscience with the impulsive, thrill seeking side of my personality that had jumped at the chance of cage diving the night before, when at least half a bottle of Pinotage to the good.

“Should I have misgivings about the ethics of a shark cage diving?” I asked the researcher, a Canadian PHD student. “Our actions here are not instigating behavioural change – for me that is the critical point. They don’t call this stretch of ocean Shark Alley for nothing and Great Whites were here long before cage diving started, taking advantage of the huge Cape Fur Seal numbers.”

Steppes’ cage diving partner works with Dyer Island Conservation Trust, who place researchers, interns and volunteers on their boats to conduct acoustic-tagging and tracking of sharks to record their movements and interactions with other marine species. They are also encouraging tourists to submit photographs to assist with compiling a fin-recognition database. “We recently had one of our sharks turn up on the west coast of Australia” the researcher proudly told me.

Scientists estimate that there are only approx 3,500 Great White Sharks in the ocean today – that’s less than the number of tigers roaming the world. Numbers continue to decline due to the growing demand for shark fins and meat in Asia and modern fishing practises such as the use of gill nets. Urgent conservation solutions are required if this great apex predator is to be protected however there are still many unanswered questions about the Great White’s behaviour. What is their life expectancy? How and where do they breed? How do they move from ocean to ocean? These are fundamental questions that urgently require answers if the Great White is to continue terrorising the seas and so if conservation bodies can take advantage of tourism ventures like shark cage diving to help with crucial research, then surely this is a positive thing.

It was my turn to go down in the cage. I tried to spit into my face mask as I’d seen people do this before. “I don’t have any spit” I announced. The Swede offered to assist with his own phlegm, of which he nonchalantly declared to have in copious supply. The next hour can only be described as one of the most exhilarating experiences I have had in years. The crowning moment came when a Great White, the size of a large caravan with teeth like gigantic Stanley knives, swam with malevolent intent straight up to the cage and rubbed his sizeable snout up against the bars, less than a foot from my face-mask. Whether he was sizing up the cage and its occupants, working out if we would make a decent meal or not, we’ll never know. What is for sure is that if Great Whites remain a mystery, to both the general population and more significantly, marine biologists, these magnificent animals will move closer to extinction.