New Zealand is known for its extreme bucket list activities. Skydiving and bungee jumping often rank high on the list of things to do while you’re here, but what about cage diving with great white sharks in New Zealand? This was the number one thing we wanted to do while we were here and after several cancelled trips (2020, right?) In February 2021, at the start of shark season, we ventured out onto the Foveaux Strait in search of Great White Sharks. If you’re looking for an adrenaline fueled adventure while you’re travelling New Zealand, this might just be it.
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Jump to what you want to know about cage diving in NZ
Where can you cage dive with great white sharks in New Zealand?
Shark diving isn’t an activity that you’re going to be able to do anywhere in the country. In fact, there’s only one area that makes it possible for you to get up close and personal with a Great White Shark in the wild, and it isn’t Auckland. Diving with Sharks in New Zealand can only be done from the famous port town of Bluff, the most southerly town in the country.
The best time to go shark diving, New Zealand South Island
Great White Sharks are migratory animals. So not only are the locations limited, so are the months in which you’ll be able to see them.
Shark Experience runs tours between December – June, with March to May apparently being the best time to see the big females.
During these months, people have even seen sharks from the ferry that goes between Bluff and Stewart Island too!
The cage diving boat
How to get to Bluff
Bluff is the most southerly town in New Zealand, and getting here can be tricky. It’s one heck of a road trip from Auckland if you have a car, taking almost 24 hours of solid driving time.
Alternatively, if this part of the country isn’t on your itinerary beyond doing a shark dive (uuhh… why?) you can fly into Invercargill from any of the country’s other airports.
From Invercargill you would then need to hire a car and drive 30 minutes to Bluff.
What Sharks will I see on my cage dive?
Great White Sharks are obviously everyone’s number one when they do a cage dive in New Zealand, but you might see other sharks or even whales too!
Is it illegal to dive with great white sharks in New Zealand?
In short, NO! Diving with sharks in New Zealand is still perfectly legal to do, but here’s some information on why people think it is illegal.
Great White Sharks have been a protected species in New Zealand since 2007, and since then there has been a lot of debate about the ethical issues surrounding cage diving with Great White Sharks and the impact it has on shark behavior.
One of the biggest concerns with the cage diving industry was the use of chum/bait to lure the sharks closer to boats. Conservationists were worried that consistent exposure to this would ultimately train sharks to see boats as a source of food. So, in 2018 – 2019 the use of chum/bait was stopped. This didn’t seem to affect the numbers of sharks seen on tours, and in 2020 the rules were reversed again.
Now, in 2021, the cage diving industry in New Zealand carefully monitors their tours and works hand in hand with conservation efforts to track, monitor and report on shark activities in the area.
Shark Experience, Bluff, NZ
With an activity as dangerous as cage diving with sharks, it’s so important to make sure you’re going with a reputable company who has your safety (and the shark’s wellbeing) at the top of their priority list. We’ve all seen the film ‘47 meters down’, right?
In New Zealand there is currently only one shark diving company operating from Bluff: Shark Experience.
The crew at Shark Experience are incredible, with the skipper, Mike, having 25 years experience as a diver and a huge love for sharks that’s contagious from the moment you meet him.
The cage diving tours with shark experience are a full day affair. We arrived at the office at 6:45am, and got back on land at around 3pm. A light lunch is provided and there are toilets/changing spaces on board.
Is it safe to cage dive with Great White Sharks?
Umm, no. Not really. But when you choose a reputable company like Shark Experience, it’s about as safe as it’s going to get. Their diving set up is a lot different to what you see in the movies and honestly, that was a relief for me (Their cage is connected to the boat and not dropped deep into the ocean – so no chances of the chains snapping or sharks getting in through the top)
Once you’re in the water (I’ll talk more about my experience with this next) the number one thing you need to remember is DO NOT PUT YOUR HANDS OUTSIDE THE CAGE. That’s about the most dangerous thing you can do on one of these tours, besides jumping off the boat.
How much does it cost to dive with Great White Sharks in New Zealand?
This isn’t a budget friendly activity, but can you put a price on a once in a lifetime bucket list opportunity? Shark Experience offers two different types of tours; sightseeing & diving.
Their sightseeing tour (ran at the same time as the dives) allows you to see the sharks from the comfort of the boat while the brave (more stupid?) tourists head into the cage. At the time of our dive, tickets for this were NZ$299. The diving packages were NZ$570 and included diving training. Qualified divers could get a discounted rate.
Am I guaranteed to see Great White Sharks?
There are no guarantees with wildlife on tours like this. Much like our whale watching tour in Australia, we went into this knowing there’s a chance we might end the day without seeing a shark. Spoiler, we saw 5…
While Shark Experience have a high sighting rate on their tours, they do make allowances for this and if you’re unlucky enough to see no sharks on your tour, you receive a free return ticket (at the time of our tour)
My Experience Cage Diving With Great White Sharks in New Zealand
I’ve talked quite openly about my fear of the ocean in the past. Encouraged by my love of wildlife, I’ve never let it stop me from doing things I’ve wanted to do, but on the morning of the dive it’s safe to say my anxiety was at its peak. Not only was I getting onto a boat and heading off to sea, at some point, I would be expected to get off the boat and into a small cage where I would be suspended in the ocean unable to see what was below me. It makes me nauseous thinking about it even after the fact!
With the boat leaving at 7am, it was an early start for us and unsurprisingly I couldn’t stomach breakfast. Sweaty, itchy palms were just the start to how I was feeling as we drove down to the dock in the dark. After the safety briefing, we boarded the tiny boat and headed out onto the Foveaux Strait.
It would be 45 minutes before we reached the diving site, and it was far from smooth sailing. Several people got seasick, including a young girl who’s breakfast must have consisted of berries… a visual I will never forget.
Views from the boat as we left Bluff
After dropping anchor, we gathered for the final briefing before it was time to look out for sharks. Mike, the skipper, stood next to the big screen that was hooked up to an underwater camera and explained how sometimes it could take up to an hour before any sharks appeared. That was when we saw it.
Our first shark.
With commercial timing, just as Mike advised of a long wait, it flashed across the screen. Waiting for us.
And that’s when my nerves briefly turned into sheer excitement. I was on a boat, and a Great White Shark was right there. I just had one more hurdle to face before being able to see it in person for myself and that was getting into the water with dive gear on.
Having never used diving equipment before, Makka, one of the dive team, came into the cage with me to hold my hand and walk me through how to use it safely. I don’t think he knew he would be doing that quite so literally. The problem with Makka coming with me was it meant I had to leave Dec on the boat. I was going in first and, well, I hadn’t accounted for that.
As I lowered myself down the ladder, all I could focus on was the pounding of my heart in my ears and the jelly-like feeling in my legs. Could I do this?
I knew I wasn’t going deep. Once you’re in the cage with your feet hooked onto the bottom, you’re only a few feet down. Three steps on a ladder and you’re out. But fear isn’t rational, is it. To me, it felt like I was lowering myself down into the abyss.
Holding onto the railings I look Makka in the eyes as he shows me how to take the mask off, and put it back on again. Something we needed to know how to do in case anything went wrong. Something I hadn’t realized we’d have to do.
Three. Deep. Breaths & the mask was off.
I was under water, in a cage, without my breathing mask on, and a shark somewhere nearby. Heart pounding in my chest I pulled myself back above water.
I couldn’t do it. I had to do it.
Dec waiting to get in the cage… can you see the shark waiting for him?
Back under with Makka. Knowing Dec was just at the top of the cage. I take three more deep breaths, cling onto Makka and take my mask off and back on again.
I did it… and with that, Makka was gone. Replaced by Dec, it was time to look for sharks.
Was I calm? No. Not in the slightest. My ears were pounding with the sound of my heart as I tried to focus on my breathing. Slower. Slower. Calmer. The waves rocked the boat, which rocked the cage, which rocked us. The hardest part was holding on and not putting my hands near the bars.
And then I saw it and in that moment everything went in slow motion, the pounding of my heart and the rocking of the boat stopped as a Great White Shark swam straight past me.
It was then that I realized I really was more scared of the water than I was of the animal whose home I was in and it became marginally easier.
As it did a double pass, I noticed how calm and graceful it was. Not bothered by the boat or the cage at all. A whole world away from the vicious shark encounter I was expecting – you know the type; shark thrashing in the water swimming fast head on to the cage.
When the shark swam off into the dark, I took the opportunity to turn and escape the cage, only to see one passing behind us too. It had felt like a lifetime, but I’d only been in the cage 10 minutes and seen two great white sharks.
Getting out of the cage, I remember muttering to myself ‘that’ll do’. I’d achieved what I came here to do, and honestly that first dive could have been my last. I was happy with that and really needed a nap to get over all the adrenaline and excitement.
It wasn’t the last though.
As I stood on the deck, watching albatross flying above us and other divers coming and going from the cage, I was surprised to feel myself wanting to get back in.
Over the course of the day, I got in the cage four more times. Each time feeling more and more confident in the water.
Jaws himself. Close enough to touch.
We saw a total of 5 sharks that day and as the boat headed back towards dry land I knew that I would never forget that feeling, and if the GoPro only captured ½ of what we saw, I wouldn’t be disappointed.
The journey home was rougher than before, but this time the young girl managed to keep it together and shared her stories from the day with us. She hadn’t dived, but she’d been able to spot the sharks from the safety of the deck while her brothers & dad headed into the cage. I don’t remember much else from the trip back, I slept for most of it.
What I do remember though, is at some point that night telling Dec I’d do it again. And you know what, I think I would. Despite the sickness I still feel when I think about getting in the cage for the first time, it’s something I would definitely do again.
What Should I Pack for Cage Diving With Great White Sharks in Bluff, New Zealand?
- Sacks! Shark Experience provides a light lunch (because who wants a heavy meal while you’re at sea?) but I was glad to have some chocolate at hand for the trip back.
- Sun cream; It can be blistering hot out on the water. Pack sun cream to make sure you’re protected. Eco-friendly sun cream would be great if you’re getting into water.
- Warm clothes; it was a fairly nice day when we were on the water but I definitely felt the cold on the way back.
- GoPro; These can be hired from Shark Experience, but if you do take one, make sure it doesn’t distract you from your cage diving experience. We took ours, but beyond switching it on we barely looked at it (hence why we don’t have much ‘great’ footage to share)
- Sunglasses; For similar reasons to the sun cream. It can be bright out there, without any real shade on the deck, sunglasses helped to break the glare from the water.
Where can I stay before my shark cage dive in Bluff?
There are quite a few accommodation options in Bluff. Since this is the launching point for Stewart Island too, there’s something for all budgets.
Our cage dive was done as my 30th birthday gift to Dec, so we chose to splash out a little bit and stay at the Lands End Boutique hotel, close to the Bluff sign. You get some stunning views at sunset from here and the rooms are really comfy too.
If you want something more budget friendly, the Eagle Hotel offers backpacker style accommodation or you could stay somewhere in Invercargill and drive down the morning of your dive.
Sunset from our Bluff accommodation
Is cage diving with sharks on your New Zealand bucket list? It’s something we’ve been wanting to do for years, but with so few diving locations on this side of the world – South Australia is the only other location in Oceana! – it’s taken us a while to finally get around to doing it. Stay tuned for more posts about things to do around Bluff & other areas in New Zealand’s Southland!
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