Is the great white shark in danger? Few creatures provoke as much naked fear as man-eating sharks, yet they are at far more risk from humansAlex Duval Smith The Guardian, Thursday 18 February 2010 Mike Rutzen offers his hands as evidence that he knows what he is talking about. They have the texture of chopping-boards: 34 scars inflicted by the "sushi knife'' teeth of great white sharks, including a twice-severed index finger on his left hand. "We should not be worrying about sharks killing bathers but about humans killing great whites," says the former fisherman, who runs a cage-diving company at the southern tip of South Africa. "They are apex predators that are crucial to our biodiversity, yet humans continue, primitively, to hunt them for their fins and their $50,000 jaws."Lloyd Skinner cannot be consulted. Last month, on the sweltering summer afternoon of 12 January, this fit, 37-year-old tourist swam out from busy Fish Hoek beach, near Cape Town. Wearing goggles and trunks, the Zimbabwean was barely out of his depth – in about 7ft of water – when a great white charged him. The attack, which lasted three minutes, was watched by hundreds of horrified holidaymakers, including children playing bat-and-ball on the sand and bodyboarders only yards away. One witness tweeted in disbelief: "Holy shit. We just saw a gigantic shark eat what looked like a person in front of our house." And then: "We are dumbstruck, that was so surreal. That shark was HUGE. Like dinosaur huge."The 15ft shark reportedly returned five or six times to eat its prey. All that remained were Skinner's flip-flops, towel and the box for his goggles, left with his shirt on the beach.His death – the second in this spot in six years – reignited the debate about whether shark tourism, particularly cage diving from boats, is encouraging great whites to regard humans as a food source. The cage-dive operators, some of whom collaborate with conservationists to assemble valuable research data on the sharks, deny this vehemently. But the tension between tourism and conservation is complicated; shark nets that will protect surfers and swimmers can kill scores of dolphins, otters, seals and shark species that are harmless to humans."Our coastline is unique in the world because we have fish for the sharks to feed on," Rutzen explains. "Until 1994, apartheid closed our coastal waters and slowed seaside development, so this became a haven for sealife. We also have several large seal colonies close to the coast, which means we are the only place in the world where you can easily watch sharks breaching [jumping out of the water]. My business gives the great whites a value alive, whereas previously their only value was their fins and jaws."Rutzen's Shark Diving Unlimited has been going for 16 years – one of eight cage-diving companies in Gansbaai, a three-hour drive east of Cape Town. With the decline of fishing over the last 15 years, the tiny port has come to depend on shark tourism, and pays tribute to the predator via shop names such as Sharky's Pizzas and shark-shaped Christmas lights, which are still hanging in February.Around 32,000 people cage dive with great whites every year at Gansbaai and nearby Mossel Bay – a pursuit worth an estimated 48m rands (£4m), part of South Africa's growing marine eco-tourism industry that, including whale-watching and trips to seal colonies, is worth more than £10m per year. Prince Harry has paid his 1,350 rands (£110) to get into Rutzen's cage and, to judge from photographs in the shop, so have Matt Damon, Brad Pitt and Leonardo DiCaprio.Rutzen's first contact with great whites was as a fisherman catching yellowtail. "The sharks loved that fish so much that they would throw themselves on deck to try to eat our catch." Nowadays he is devoutly conservationist. Rutzen, 39, has dived without a cage with more great whites than any person in history (around 800 hours), and insists the animals find humans bony to eat. "They prefer fish and seal blubber," he announces as a dozen of us sign indemnity forms before heading out on his dive boat. "Humans are the slowest form of available protein. Given what an easy catch we are, they would eat us in large numbers if they were interested."We board the blue-hulled Barracuda, a 12-metre, purpose-built motorboat carrying an oblong cage made of thick wire woven into A4-size squares. I reassure myself that a great white's jaw must surely be wider than a piece of paper. Our 7ft-high, 16ft-wide cage is open-top, but at least there will be other specimens of slow protein in there with me to improve my odds.I have covered war zones all over Africa, but am no great fan of swimming; nor have I ever been brave enough to watch Jaws. My knowledge of great whites is Wikipedic: I know they possess a terrifying 240 serrated teeth, and have been around for 430 million years – long before the first dinosaur – yet still we know little about their social, hunting or migration habits. Estimates of the population left in the world's oceans vary from 2,600 to just 800; Rutzen puts the figure at 1,000, and claims it is falling unchecked as humans deplete the oceans."Now that we see factory ships in South African waters, I rarely see my old friends return from one season to the next," he says. "Compared to 1994, the situation is dire. We are lucky if we see five babies in a year.''Great whites are, none the less, difficult to love. No one has ever filmed these "killing machines" mating, but they are assumed to use an ocean form of date-rape called tonic immobility: the male knocks the female into a trance-like state then plunges his two sperm-delivery "claspers" into her. Gestation takes a year and, in some species, the strongest foetuses eat their weaker siblings in the womb.As we speed out to sea for about 20 minutes, the swell grows. Contrary to my expectations, none of the passengers – a German, a couple of Americans and a majority of South Africans – admits to a daredevil desire to push the boundaries of nature. In fact, most of them reveal that they will not be getting in the cage at all and have only come along to watch. "It's a surprise present from my father- in-law," says one.The outboard motors are cut, an anchor thrown. No sharks to be seen. "They are pretty shy, but they are also inquisitive. We saw five sharks at this spot yesterday," says Rutzen. His crew produce a plastic box full of huge, stinking tuna heads – the controversial "chum". A head is attached to a cork floater and thrown into the ocean on the end of an orange nylon rope. A man in the aft ladles fish blood into the ocean. Wetsuits, booties, masks and weights are handed out, along with cans of ginger beer for those, like me, who are about to revisit their breakfast. I remember thinking how pale DiCaprio looked in the photo, and realise this probably had less to do with coming cheek-to-gill with a great white than with seasickness.A shoal of mullet circles us, attracted by the fish blood. "They are of no interest to the great whites," says Rutzen. Those of us now dressed in black wetsuits – a more than passable seal disguise – take that to mean we are of greater interest. A lone, grey dorsal fin accompanied by a long dark shadow beneath the surface has begun circling the boat; it moves slowly and assuredly. We are to perch like frogs in the top of the cage, our heads above water and knees resting on a horizontal cross bar, until given the order to hold our breath and dip down. Oh, and no touching the animal."Shark!" comes the shout and down we go, to be treated to a flash of the great white's gills, swimming from right to left in front of us. It seems large but, perhaps because the belly is white, less threatening than when glimpsed from above. We don't see its teeth, and it is gone in a jiffy. We repeat the exercise five or six times before the 16C water becomes too cold. The experience is brief, undramatic and, for me, dominated by queasiness caused by the swell and the stench of chum, not the fear of sharks.The baiting aspect of cage diving has been said to habituate the great whites to humans. Rutzen denies this emphatically and is supported by most scientists, including Leonard Compagno, one of the world's leading shark experts. "Fishermen have been baiting sharks for generations, and sharks regularly break open trawler nets," he says. "I don't see that chumming for cage-diving is a particular culprit. There are far more serious concerns, such as man depleting the fish stocks that sharks feed on, and marine pollution.''Compagno, 67, is a Californian marine biologist who advised Steven Spielberg on Jaws – the film that sealed the great white's place as the ultimate bad guy – before marrying a South African expert on giant squid and settling in Cape Town in 1982. "When we made that film, we did not realise how gentle great whites are. Now we know that you can hand-feed them. In evolutionary terms, they are the most successful of marine animals, dating back to the beginning of the Devonian period. But the film turned the great white into a demonic man-eater, and the image has stayed with us."Since 1991, after a campaign led by Compagno, great white sharks have been listed among 5,000 endangered animal species by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. They are prized mainly for their jaw bones, which can fetch between $50,000 and $100,000 (up to £60,000). At any one time, Compagno says there may be 200 great whites in False Bay, where Fish Hoek is situated. "Most of the time they are just eating tuna, yellowtail and rays. They are unpredictable. But so are humans, who can turn round and punch you. What is worse, being bitten by a cobra, hit by a car or eaten by shark? The shark is just messier."Shark nets are used to protect swimmers and surfers in Australia and along 38km of South Africa's Indian Ocean coast. But Rutzen calls them "protection through extermination", and Geremy Cliff, head of research at the KwaZulu Natal Sharks Board in Durban, admits they are cruel. "Our nets kill up to 600 sharks, dolphins, otters, turtles and rays every year. We are trying different methods to reduce fatalities, such as underwater sirens, because we cannot defend nets in ecological terms. Putting down shark nets – or the exclusion nets that are used in Hong Kong to create pools in the sea – is an economic decision based on the value of beach tourism."More than 700,000 tourists visit Cape Town each year, but due to the cold water conditions of the Atlantic Ocean they are not, in the main, beach tourists, says the city's head of environmental policy and strategy, Gregg Oelofse. "Our 300km coastline, including Cape Point, is a marine protected area. Imagine the outcry if we put down nets and a southern right whale died in them.''After swimmer Tyna Webb died in a great white attack at Fish Hoek beach in November 2004, the city employed 19 shark spotters and increased signage in False Bay. Since then, more than 570 sightings of great whites have been recorded, and an enhanced system of flags and sirens put in place to warn beach users. No siren was sounded ahead of the attack on Skinner, but a Cape Town City investigation concluded that the spotters were blameless. It said the attack was "sudden and explosive"; that "the shark emerged from deep water and was not visible prior to the attack".The family of Skinner, an engineer who was on holiday, have since laid a wreath in the water at Fish Hoek and thanked the spotters for their vain efforts to recover the body. The beach was closed for two days after the attack, and local tourism officials say bookings were not affected, perhaps principally because the killing happened at the end of the Christmas holiday season.Oelofse concludes that the attack was a "regrettable but random" event, probably caused by the fact that the shark was in predatory mode and that Skinner had the misfortune to be swimming between it and a shoal of fish: "The shark saw him as prey, or as a rival predator." His view is supported by Compagno and Rutzen.Defenders of great whites point out that attacks are rarer than electrocutions by toasters, deaths from falling vending machines and lightning strikes. The reason we fear them, Spielberg aside, is because we have not yet mastered the oceans. Humans keep rhinoceroses and lions "in the wild", but even gameparks the size of small countries, such as South Africa's Kruger National Park, have fences around them.In our collective imagination, sharks remain dragons of the deep. The fact that they are older than the dinosaurs only makes them scarier. "People think it is shocking that you can still be eaten alive in a city," says Oelofse. But if you ask Rutzen and Compagno, it is the great whites who have much more to fear.