Despite this grisly and disturbing history, Compagno says great whites intentionally attack humans even less frequently than the statistics suggest. Compagno says many "incidents" (a term he prefers to "attacks") are "bite and release." He thinks the shark is trying to get a better look at the strange creature in the water. According to the International Shark Attack File, a record kept by marine biologist George Burgess at the Florida Museum of Natural History, great whites leave the area two-thirds of the time after the first bite. According to his records, over 80 percent of people supposedly attacked by great whites in the 1990s survived. "If the great whites really attacked the people listed on the file, hardly any would have survived," says Compagno.
One encounter that was widely referred to as an attack—but almost certainly wasn't—took place this past October in Australia. A tourist on a kayak claimed she'd beaten an attacking great white shark off with a paddle. She required four stitches. "If the great white attacked her, she'd be mincemeat," says Compagno. The wound was probably caused by the sharp scales on the shark's skin brushing against the woman's arm.
The hamlet of Gansbaai, 100 miles southeast of Cape Town, bills itself as the great white shark capital of the world. Mike Rutzen's family—including his mother, sister, brothers, niece and nephews—opened a cage-diving business here in 2001. Brad Pitt has taken the plunge with the Rutzens three times; Leonardo DiCaprio and Britain's Prince Harry have also taken to the Rutzen cages.
But there are only excited tourists, Rutzen, the crew and me aboard the Barracuda today. Rutzen is famous around Gansbaai for diving with great whites without a cage. "The first time I was really scared," he tells me as we head out through a mist, "I was right by the boat and she came close to me. I nervously prodded her away with a spear gun. She swam away a few yards, turned and surged back at me. She thrust her face at mine and opened wide her enormous mouth to show me her teeth, and swam away. She was saying, 'Don't do that again.'"
A film shot for an "Animal Planet" TV program shows Rutzen with eight curious-looking great whites circling him. He strokes the nose of one, prompting it to open its mouth wide just inches from his face. It is a reflex response, not a threat display. Then the sharks are apparently scared away by the arrival of a larger 15-foot female. The female swims around Rutzen a few times, seemingly checking him out. He grabs hold of her dorsal fin, and she tows him about 100 yards underwater.
I have no intention of joy riding on the back of a great white shark. But I do plan to offer myself at close range to see if the animals consider me prey. We drop anchor about a mile offshore from a popular beach. Six other dive boats idle nearby, and within 30 minutes every one of them has a curious great white hovering around it. Rutzen's nephew, Morné Hardenberg, throws out a tuna head attached to a rope while two crew members pour scoops of chum into the water. "Shark!" Rutzen cries as a huge triangular fin breaks the water about ten yards from the boat. The great white makes straight for the tuna, and Hardenberg draws the shark up to the boat before pulling the bait on board.
Feeding wild sharks is illegal in the United States, and conservationists are pushing to ban the practice in South Africa. "Sharks are trainable animals," says Florida marine biologist Burgess. "They learn to associate the humans and the sound of boat engines with food, just like Pavlov's dog and the bell. So what we really have then is an underwater circus." An Austrian tourist diving—without a cage—in chummed waters in the Bahamas was bitten on the leg by a bull shark this past February. He died of blood loss the next day, the first death Burgess says can be attributed to shark feeding.
Rutzen says that his crew members never actually feed sharks: they always pull their tuna-head bait into the boat before a shark can get it, and he says the small bits of flesh in the chum fall to the seafloor. But there's no question that the prospect of food whets a shark's appetite.
I scramble into the dive cage with three other shark watchers. We duck our heads underwater to watch the shark as it chases the bait. As it swims by us, its snout bumps against the cage. I stand up on a bar across the middle of the cage, my body halfway out of the water. Rutzen yells "Shark!" and a great white breaks the surface with its snout and looks directly at me. For a few moments I feel real terror. Hardenberg flings the bait again, and the shark follows it to the boat, coming so close that I can reach down and touch its rough skin. The shark doesn't notice; it's focused on the tuna. Three more great whites arrive, attracted by the chum. They follow the bait, ignoring the bigger and tastier meal—me—just inches from their giant jaws.
One shark bucks the system. For the fifth time it follows the tuna head toward the boat. When Hardenberg yanks the tuna aboard, the shark body-slams the small cage, almost knocking me off my perch. As I cling to the bars, it swats at me with its enormous tail, barely missing my head.