A great white shark swims straight towards the Sharksub


FOR MORE THAN AN HOUR we have been travelling up and down Shark Alley, a small passage between Dyer Island and Geyser Rock. Great white sharks gather in their hundreds here
at this time of year, not for social reasons but to hunt South African sea-lions, thousands of which breed on the rock.
Visibility is no more than 4m and water temperature down here at the Cape of Good Hope is only 12C. Even in a drysuit, its uncomfortable.
I guess my diving partner Andre Hartman, who is navigating the submarine, is in a worse state than me, as he refuses to wear a heavy undersuit.
But were not giving up, because at this moment we see the profiles of seals next to the sub.
Leaving the safety of the shallow kelp forests near the islands for open water is very dangerous for these animals, because Carcharodon carcharius, the shark with the serrated teeth, is lying in wait for them.
Were sure that great whites are in the vicinity. We too are bound to attract their attention, because they react sensitively to anything that doesnt fit into their scheme of things. And that must include our Shark Observation Vehicle (SOV)!
Our three engines also produce a strong electromagnetic field, which should draw in all sharks within 30m. We dont want to use chum, the bait usually used for shark observation, because it interrupts the normal behaviour of the animals. Instead of attracting sharks to a boat or cage, we want to drive to where they live.
Andre attracts my attention with his acoustic buzzer and hands his slate over his shoulder. Battery level, operation time and remaining air supply is noted there - its time to turn back.
We prefer to surface on the leeward side of the island, as it makes it easier for our supply boat. Our return journey will last some 20 minutes - our last chance for a shark confrontation.
Seals surround us, several youngsters looping round the submarine. They should be alive to the shark threat, but perhaps the sub exerts a stronger attraction than their survival instinct.
Im starting to worry that our presence is increasing the risk to the seals when they suddenly disappear at unbelievable speed. There is no question - a shark is approaching us.
At first its blurred. Then, ever more clearly, the outlines of a great white appear in the green water. The animal is huge, a female longer than our submarine. This is our first shark encounter in the SOV, so we have no precedent for how to behave. Switch our engines off... continue driving... hover motionless White sharks are very fearful animals, and any wrong reaction could prompt this one to escape.
Its already too late for such decisions. As fast as she arrived, she disappears again. I am astonished by this encounter. Even Andre, always cool after working with white sharks for years, including free diving with them in open water, is so excited that he cant keep the submarine straight. Im not cold any more - the adrenalin has kicked in.

ALTHOUGH THE GREAT WHITE is probably the shark best known to the public, little is known about the real behaviour of this animal. Does it live in groups or alone How and where does it mate and give birth Does it have particular hunting techniques Does it roam, and how far does it travel
Science knows so little because this top predators habitat is the open ocean, making encounters difficult to arrange.
Only in a few places, such as Gansbaai in South Africa or Guadalupe in Mexico, are the sharks sure to appear at certain times of year. Even then, poor visibility and environmental conditions can make research very difficult and time-consuming.
Until 20 years or so ago, research meant catching sharks and putting them on the dissection table, or keeping them alive in pools to study behaviour that could never even approximate to that in nature. Then marine biologists began to dive and study the sharks in open water.
Their more realistic results showed that 50 per cent of everything written previously in scientific papers had been more or less wrong!
Beside scientific knowledge, a vital fact soon became clear - sharks are not killers or man-eaters, and pose no great danger to swimmers or divers.
They are normal predators that follow instincts hundreds of millions years old. They hunt and eat only what they know, and its the same menu as their ancestors enjoyed - from a time when no humans existed.
The media, however, gave out other information. The great white shark, especially, was the subject of horror stories and films, and the publics fear of them spread over onto all other sharks.
The extermination of this 450-million-year-old top predator seems inexorable and threatens the future of mankind. Sharks are at the top of the food chain, so they control the ecological balance.
If the sharks disappear, the oceans will die - if the oceans die, well die! said shark scientist Dr Erich Ritter.
Only the great white, basking and whale shark as yet appear on the CITES red list of endangered species. Even then, the regulations control only the trade and export of products made of shark.
All the other 300 species can be hunted and traded without restriction and, in any case, the fishing industry can always find a way to bypass regulations. More than 150 million sharks are killed worldwide every year.
The way to fight these massacres is to create a strong lobby in favour of sharks, but who protects something of which hes afraid Though 10 years too late, several organisations worldwide are now taking action to protect these animals, some at a political level, some in the field, others through educating the public.
The objective of the German organisation Sharkproject is to protect sharks through supporting scientific research and - even more important - to raise awareness by communicating the facts through PR and international campaigns such as Stop-Finning.
Our year-long Sharksub expedition is part of this project. The submarine was designed by Sharkproject, built in Germany and tested in Lake Constance and the Baltic over more than a year.
During World War Two, Italian frogmen used similar wetsubs, called maiale. Equipped with oxygen rebreathers, they blew up British warships in the Straits of Gibraltar by attaching mines under the hulls.
Our SOV looks a bit like a space shuttle and is packed with technology and electronics. Stabilisation and trim is achieved by use of two rigid and two flexible chambers. Marker buoys, alternative air supplies, emergency surfacing aids and navigation systems make this sub safe in any conditions.
It has a speed of eight knots and a six-mile range.
The first dives off Cape Town last September, carried out in extreme conditions with big waves and currents and poor visibility, suggested certain modifications. But the SOV worked, and our adventure could start.
This year the Sharksub will operate along South Africas west coast and support scientific groups in their work.
The research is being carried out on behalf of the South African Coastal Management Department and the scientists involved expect to gain many insights into the life of the white sharks.
The hope is to observe and record previously unseen events, such as white sharks mating or giving birth, so that pictures and footage can be shared with the public and help raise awareness of the plight of sharks.

  • More information on the protection of sharks and the submarine expeditions can be found at www.sharkproject.org

    How a mouse can help the turtles
    Kurt Amsler is not concerned only to protect sharks - his campaign against turtle-hunting in Bali is coming to a head, the police are onside and he wants us all to get involved

    The island of Bali in Indonesia has been the hub of the sea-turtle trade for two decades. The market is mainly in Asia, including Indonesia itself. Turtle meat and eggs are not going to feed the poor, but are a privilege of affluent societies, while hundreds of thousands of turtles lose their lives to provide the shell for jewellery and ornaments, all unnecessary objects.
    All eight species of sea turtles are threatened with extinction, so are strictly protected under the Convention of International Trade of Endangered Species (CITES). Yet the population of these animals, which have inhabited our oceans for more than 150 million years, is constantly declining.
    Until a few years ago, in Bali alone, an average of 25,000 sea turtles a year were brutally cut out of their shells - alive.
    Through action by local organisations and our first SOS-Seaturtles campaign in 2001, this number has dropped to around 3000, but every single life is important if the population is to be preserved
    The aim of our latest campaign is to collect as many signatures, statements and letters of protest as possible. We want the relevant authorities of Bali and Indonesia to know that people from all over the world are focusing on Balis sea turtles, and to stop the slaughter forever.
    Indonesia and Bali are currently struggling for every tourist they can get. Tourism is very important for their economies, so anything that may harm their image is taken seriously, but this time we intend to use more pressure and less diplomacy.
    SOS-Seaturtles is a non-profit-making organisation. All our campaigns and the support of ProFauna and turtle-breeding projects in Bali are financed by private sponsorship, but everyone can help.
    With the Internet replacing brochures and petition sheets, we can engage far more people. Instant information about our campaign is available around the world through one mouse click, and you can sign petitions and email pre-printed statements straight to government organisations.
    Attitudes are changing. Last year marine police in Bali seized a boat loaded with 158 green turtles at Sanur Beach, acting on information from a fisherman.
    Balis Chief of Police (above) attended the action in person and instructed that the turtles should be released back into the wild, while the boat was confiscated and taken to Benoa Port for examination.
    After being examined, measured and tagged, the turtles were released in Kuta Beach by the Chief of Police, other officials and representatives of ProFauna Indonesia, watched by hundreds of Kuta villagers and tourists.
  • To find out more or to put your name to the SOS-Seaturtles campaign, visit www.sos-seaturtles.ch

  • Driver
    Driver Kurt Amsler and navigator Andre Hartmann prepare to dive
    Cape
    Cape fur seals are vulnerable to the predation of sharks
    A
    A great white shark at the surface
    under
    under water one takes a keen interest in the SOV
    Divernet Divernet
    The
    The Shark sub Expedition team
    Divernet