GANSBAAI, South Africa -- Submerged chest-deep in a cage, seven tourists clad in wet suits helplessly bobbed in the Atlantic Ocean's relentless swells. Many had traveled halfway around the world to South Africa, where they hoped to catch a glimpse of the ocean's most fierce and feared creature: the great white shark.
The cage was the only thing between the predator and them. Half-inch bars didn't seem thick enough or close enough together; a man's leg could slip through easily. And wet suits didn't keep the divers' lips from turning sickly shades of purple in the 50-degree water.
But soon enough, they forgot about the cage and the cold. A 15-foot great white appeared 10 feet away in the murky water. A crew member tossed a bait line to coax it in. The shark lurched toward the cage as it pursued the bait, its jaws wide open, revealing rows upon rows of teeth.
Then, as quickly as it appeared, the shark was gone. The tourists resurfaced, amazed by what they'd just seen.
These thrilling excursions are at the heart of a controversy flaring along the South African coast that pits the decade-old cage-diving industry against surfers and environmental activists. The critics charge that one of South Africa's most popular tourist attractions is contributing to an increase in shark attacks and fatalities because the bait tour operators use -- fish oils, blood, even tuna heads -- is conditioning the great whites to associate humans with easy meals.