Great Whites have a terrifying reputation. Matt Warren met some up close, with just 12mm of steel for protection

Gladys goes in first. Sporting the scars of earlier encounters - a set of tooth marks and a missing flipper - the polystyrene seal is cast low across the waves, settling ten yards out in the gentle bob of shore-bound breakers.

Flocks of seabirds swirl above as a ragged Antarctic wind cuts keen and fast across the bay. On deck, colossal rotten tuna are being diced and sliced; huge eyeless heads are attached to ropes and lobbed into the water. Nets are filled with oily liver and hung overboard, sending a bloody slick north towards the shore. Up front, sandwiches are handed out. The crew are chattering and stamping warmth back into their legs. A seasick tourist is throwing up over the side.

The wait begins. Coleridge springs to mind: painted ships, painted oceans and only the seabirds, now peppering the deck with their droppings, for company. A clichéd Hollywood quiet hangs over the scene as twelve pairs of eyes scour the sea for movement. And then Gladys is hit - the shark comes from below, a dappled flash refracted in the dark water that erupts forth in an explosion of spume and teeth. It rolls, exposing a white belly, and sinks back under the waves.

One of the crew snatches at the leash, hauling the dummy seal back towards the boat. The shark follows, before cutting left and heading for the motors. Again it strikes, this time towards the propellers, but it is nudged gently away with a bamboo pole that it could smash like matchwood.

As the shark rises again, the skipper reaches down and strokes its battered, pock-marked muzzle, exposing the jaws that generations of movie-goers have come to dread. Seabirds scatter, there is a sharp intake of breath, and then the 16-foot Great White Shark slides backwards and is swallowed by the gloom.

"You see," shark expert Bryan McFarlane Junior says. "They are really quite gentle."

We are six nautical miles off Gansbaai, on South Africa's Cape coast. With 40,000 Cape Fur seals and a colony of Jackass penguins living on the adjoining islets of Dyer Island and Geyser Rock, this stretch of water is known as Shark Alley. It is the favoured hunting ground of one of the planet's most feared, and misunderstood, apex predators. For those who want to look a Great White in the eye, the area also offers the best cage diving in the world.

Gladys, all 24 matt black polystyrene inches of her, has survived the initial encounter. But she won't last long. Great White Sharks are surface feeders, ambushing seals and penguins from below. In this part of the world they are even known to breach, propelling themselves clean out of the water before

striking down on their prey from above. Gladys, scientifically designed to present a hungry shark with an irresistible silhouette, is not long for this world.

"Gladys is the last survivor from a huge stockpile," McFarlane continues. "We've lost count of how many we have gone through, but we just keep ordering more. The sharks love them. It's like showing a red rag to a bull."

The second shark, however, comes slowly and cautiously, flicking itself in on its huge rudder and exposing a nicked dorsal fin as it glides inches below the surface. As it circles the boat, it appears surprisingly sedate, even gentle. There are no hammering piano keys as it coasts in and out of view, just the gentle sloosh of water against the belly of our boat. This is the shark we will be diving with.

The smokey, dockside bars of Gaansbai and the nearby resort town of Hermanus are filled with shark stories: a batch of them for every beer consumed. For every Moby Dick, it seems, there are a hundred Ahabs. Andre Hartman, a former Springbok spear-fishing champion, fought off his first Great White in 1977, escaping into an undersea kelp forest as the five-metre shark pursued him.

Charming the cameras with a thick thatch of beard and his trademark camouflage wetsuit, he went on to become something of a media celebrity, doing the unthinkable by free-diving with Great Whites and helping to establish South Africa's cage diving industry.

Brian McFarlane Senior is another member of the Great White fraternity. Getting to know the sharks during his years as a diamond and abalone diver, he is now at the helm of one of the most respected diving outfits in the world.

His son, Bryan Junior, who encountered his first Great White aged nine, is now squeezing me into an icy-cold wetsuit. Bald, buff and eerily reminiscent of a young Hunter S Thompson, he has all the effortless, macho swagger of the sharks themselves. He wears wellies on deck, the type of boots that spill out alongside licence plates and putrefied fish when they dissect sharks on the Discovery Channel. With a Great White only feet off the bows, and the swell tossing the boat in unsteady waters, you have to trust the man lowering you into the cage.

Standing in the cage is like standing at the bottom of a well. The water is dark and cold and visibility is limited to just a few metres. Breaths come shallow and short; the crunch of a speeding pulse echoes in your ears. When the shark rips past us, it appears suddenly, like a speeding car. The 12mm galvanised steel mesh can theoretically withstand the impact of truck, but there are too many holes in it to feel entirely safe.

As the shark snaps at the bait suspended inches in front of us, and the current drags and sucks against the lines securing the cage to the boat, it feels like we are standing at the nose of an artillery bombardment. But the shark's inky, sleepless eye views us with disinterest. Floating past in the choppy waters it appears more inquisitive than ferocious, and a sudden blast of air from the Scuba equipment sends it fleeing backk into the deep.

More sharks come later. From our vantage point on top of the cage, we cannot see them approaching. Only a circle of gulls, spiralling above, signals their presence. The waves churn and break over us and when the fin comes into view, it is often only feet away. Plunging back into the cage in a flurry of waving arms, camera flashes and fevered breathing, the first view is of a shoal of smaller fish scattering, their silver scales cutting strips in the dark. And then the shark: jaws agape, eyes rolled back, teeth bared.

Since Jaws, the Great White Shark (Carcharadon cacharias) has been the very symbol of dread, a creature to replace the sea monsters of old. It spins out of the deep to devour anything from buoys to propeller shafts, seals to surfers. Or so the myth goes.

"In fact, Great Whites just don't like the taste of us," says McFarlane. "We just aren't fatty enough for them. If someone is attacked, it is because they are mistaken for a seal. Unfortunately, the only way for a shark to be absolutely sure is with its mouth."

In September 2003, this is exactly what happened to a 19-year-old surfer. He was attacked off Noordhoek, a popular surfing spot near Cape Town, and although the shark retreated after one bite, he later died from the injuries.

Tragic as his death was, the attack was the exception to the rule. There have been 46 attacks on humans by Great Whites in South Africa since 1960, and only seven fatalities. In real terms, that makes the sharks considerably less dangerous than hippos, step ladders, lightning and falling coconuts.

Past scaremongering has cost the sharks dear. Demonised in the press, the giant fish were repeatedly caught and shot before being hauled ashore and paraded like trophies of war. But recently attitudes have changed. Media stories following the recent surfer's death had a tone of remorse rather than revenge, and many in the area who once fished Great Whites now regret it.

Protected by law in South Africa since 1991, the Great White is making something of a comeback. Six hundred have been unofficially recorded visiting this area off Gaansbai and, on the day of our dive, 13 different sharks come to the boat. In May last year, peak season for Great Whites, 26 sharks surrounded McFarlane's catamaran, Predator II. The largest, at five and a half metres, was more than half the length of the boat. "They were all around [us] like worms," says McFarlane as we buzz back past Dyer Island.

Dyer Island was first inhabited by Sampson Dyers, an entrepreneurial Afro-American who moved to the island at the beginning of the 19th century to hunt seals for their pelts. More settlers followed, with a secondary industry growing out of the harvesting of the island's "guano", a natural fertiliser formed out of penguin droppings that had accumulated over hundreds of years.

In fact, so many itinerant workers moved here that a local woman, Black Sophie, tapped into the market and set up a shop in which to "service" them. A rock on the way out of the harbour is named in her memory.

The seals and the penguins are now protected and money flows into Gansbaai with the tourists who flock here to dive with one of the world's great predators. In light of the success of this new industry, perhaps it is now time to spare a thought for one of the region's great, unsung heroes, without whom none of this would be possible. It's time to name a rock after Gladys.

TRAVEL GUIDE

GETTING THERE

You can fly non-stop from Heathrow to Cape Town on British Airways (0870 850 9 850, www.ba.com), South African Airways (0870 747 1111, www.flysaa.com) or Virgin Atlantic (0870 380 2007, www.virgin-atlantic.com). Expect to pay around £650, although lower fares are likely to be available through discount agents. From airports outside London and the south east, the lowest fares and easiest connections are likely to be via Amsterdam or Frankfurt.

Gaansbai is 160km from Cape Town. The nearby resort town of Hermanus, also known for its whale-watching, is the best place to stay.

WHERE TO STAY

In Hermanus: excellent budget accommodation is available at Moby's Traveller's Lodge (00 27 28 313 2361; www.mobys.co.za) at 9, Mitchell St. An en-suite double costs R200 (£15) per night including breakfast.

At the top end, The Marine Hermanus (00 27 28 313 1000; www.marine-hermanus.com) on Marine Drive is one of the coastline's most exclusive offerings, with double rooms starting at R2,500 (£200) including breakfast.

DIVING

Brian McFarlane (00 27 83 300 2138; www.sharkcagediving.net) in Kleinbaai harbour offers shark-diving trips for £70 per person. Trips depart from Kleinbaai, 2km from Gansbaai, daily at around 10am and last six hours. The high season for sightings lasts from May-October.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

South African Tourism (0870 155 0044, www.southafrica.net )

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