Swimming With Sharks

Shark Tourism Is A Booming Industry, <B>Bob Simon</b> Reports.

This story was first published on Dec. 11, 2005. It was updated on Aug. 6, 2009.

There may be no single fear as intense and as widespread as the fear of meeting up with a shark. Sharks even inhabit the nightmares of people who don't swim. What a surprise, then, to learn that these days, more and more people are seeking them out, spending millions of dollars to get as close as they can to sharks.

But here's the rub: right where sharks are most visible, they're becoming more dangerous.

As we first reported a few years ago, shark attacks are on the rise. And many blame these attacks on shark tourism, in a place which is called "Shark Central."

Correspondent Bob Simon traveled to South Africa to get a first-hand look at the growing trend of shark tourism and the controversy that surrounds it.

More than 35,000 tourists, Americans and Europeans mainly, come to the tip of South Africa every year. It's where two oceans meet, and many come with the hope of seeing a great white going after a seal, exploding out of the ocean like a cruise missile.

"This is the best place in the world to learn about the secret lives of these animals. So that's what attracts me here," says Aidan Martin, an Australian scientist.

Their lives are so secret, says Martin, that very little is known about great white sharks. We don't know how many there are or how long they live, and we've never seen them mate, or give birth.

How do these enormous sharks manage to propel themselves above the waterline?

"It's essentially projectile, and it has sacrificed maneuverability for speed. So it's a little bit like having a truck trying to run down one of those bicycle couriers. I know we've all had fantasies about that," says Martin.

And then there are the seals. They are a remarkable sight for humans but for sharks they're breakfast; seals are their favorite food.

And the sharks linger around Seal Island, population 50,000.

When shark tourism operator Chris Fallows sees a shark going for a seal, he says he actually roots for the seal. "It's a Catch 22. Unfortunately for the seals, they need to go out and feed, and at this island, they've got a very good chance of being eaten by a white shark."

After watching a shark have a meal, a lot of tourists feel the same way and go back to shore. But some stick around, tempted to leave our world, if ever so briefly, and go underwater. It's the thing to do these days for seekers of adventure and adrenaline. You do it, of course, from the safety of a cage.

But a safety cage is not a 100 percent guarantee. Not far from where 60 Minutes shot this story, a shark actually got into the cage. If the shark hadn't lost his bearings and turned upside down, the tourists would have been toast.

But Chris Fallows assured us that this hardly ever happens and that thousands have gone down in cages here and lived to talk about it.

So Simon decided to give it a try.