Twenty years ago, a 30 year old marine technician, Kim 'Shark Lady' MacLean borrowed a boat, had a sturdy cage built and rounded up a group of people, including Derek Watts, to see Great White Sharks from the cage. Kim believed that by enabling people to view great white sharks and get right up close to them, she could play a role in debunking the myths of them being feared monsters.
So on the 14 April 1992 they headed off to shark alley, dropped the cage over the side of the boat and went shark cage diving for the first time. Kim grins with delight when she remembers those early days. “Some people thought I was crazy and even I had no idea that this would be the beginning of one of the most successful tourism industries in the Western Cape. But more importantly that it would play such a large role in changing people's perceptions of sharks.”
For about four years the Shark Lady was the only operator offering commercial shark cage diving in Gansbaai. “It was a weekend-only business because I was working at the Two Oceans Aquarium at the same time. But the demand increased and I decided to move to Hermanus to manage the business more effectively.” In the meantime, Kim ensured she was the best qualified cage diving operator there was by qualifying as a skipper, rescue diver, radio operator, oxygen provider, scientific class IV diver, level three first aid, safety at sea and life raft proficiency, fire fighting certificate, Western Cape tourist guide and specialist underwater guide.
“At the end of the day its eco-tourism, conservation, awareness and education that are at the forefront of this business.”
By 1997 there were eight operators in Gansbaai and Kim opened the Shark Museum in the area to increase awareness and education about the preservation and protection of Great White Sharks. It was at this time that both Great White Sharks and the shark cage diving operators were getting a lot of bad press. “There was a lot of fighting amongst operators about the standards and methods being used; and headlines still referred to these magnificent creatures as Terrors of the Deep who savage human beings,” recalls Kim.
Determined to raise the bar with regard to standards in the industry, Kim bought her boat “Shark Lady” - a 38 foot state of the art luxury boat that could accommodate 10 passengers, five crew members and even had a sleeping cabin, TV and video. This attracted a lot of high profile people to Gansbaai to experience shark cage diving.
Over the years Sharklady Adventures gained a reputation for specializing in small exclusive tours and they have hosted the Lions rugby team, the Top Billing crew with Michelle Garforth, Ruby Wax, Richard E. Grant, Robbie Williams, The Springbok Sevens, The Stormers, the Going Nowhere Slowly crew, Vanilla Ice, Adrian Brody, Steffi Graf, Lou Diamond Phillips, David Hasselhof and a host of local and international film crews, including National Geographic. “High profile clients don’t only provide good press for the industry but also an opportunity to educate the public and put Gansbaai on the map as the Great White Shark capital of the world,” says Kim proudly.
Always innovative and wanting to push the envelope further, Kim launched her Perspex Crystal cages. These specially designed cages are ideal for filming and were first used by a crew making a documentary called “Celebrity Shark Bait.”
Sharklady Adventures went on to launch a new boat “Lady T” which takes 20 passengers and Kim also bought a shop in the Kleinbaai harbour. The space provided an opportunity to educate bigger groups more easily. That year Kim also rallied the community of Gansbaai together and held the Great White Shark Festival, which was a wonderful success.
“In 2010 the ill treatment of sharks became a problem and I felt like I needed to expose more people to sharks so that they can help stop the senseless slaughtering of these wonderful creatures,” said Kim, so she launched an exhibition of her own personal collection of photographs of Great White Sharks. “The idea is for the exhibition to move around the country to various hotel lobbies and libraries to encourage people to experience the sharks up close and to raise awareness.”
Last year was an iconic year for the cage diving industry as the first official five year permits were issued by the Department of Environmental Affairs. Previously permits were allocated according to an exemption system from year to year. “It’s like a coming of age for the industry,” Kim says, “It’s grown and finally being recognized as a professional industry - at the end of the day its eco-tourism, conservation, protection and awareness through education that are at the forefront of this business.”
SA’s very own Shark Lady has been at the helm of a great team and feels like the groundwork has been laid to strengthen environmental awareness regarding her beloved Great Whites. The conservation heroine looks forward to spearheading the next 20 years, fully charged and dedicated to her life’s greatest passion.