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The crystal cage -- the ultimate wildlife adventure

By Paul Sussman for CNN

Crystal cage
Kim Maclean with her "crystal cage"

(CNN) -- Everybody has a slightly different notion of what constitutes a truly unforgettable wildlife encounter.

For each person who dreams of seeing a Bengal Tiger in its natural habitat, there will be another who wants to swim with dolphins; for every whale, elephant, wombat or turtle fanatic there will be someone else whose idea of bliss is to sit in an English country garden sipping lemonade and watching butterflies.

If nominating an "ultimate" wildlife experience thus involves a certain degree of subjectivity, there can be little doubt that the chance to observe and interact with a Great White shark -- a fish that has variously been described as "the perfect hunting machine" and "evolution's masterpiece" -- brings with it a sense of awe and wonder that few, if any other animal encounters can possibly match.

And if getting close to a great white shark is one of life's magical experiences, it is doubly so when conducted from the interior of the so-called "Crystal Cage."

Perfect View

The cage is the brainchild of South African Kim "Shark Lady" Maclean, an oceanographic expert widely credited with introducing the practice of recreational cage-diving to South African waters in the early 1990s.

In traditional cage diving sharks are attracted to an area of ocean by "chumming" -- pouring a mixture of blood and fish guts into the water -- whereupon scuba divers are lowered into the water in a large steel cage and are able to view the approaching sharks through the bars.

Although the "crystal cage" works on the same principal, it offers a much more naturalistic, less intrusive interaction with the great white, not least because the "cage" is not actually a cage at all.

Rather, it is a 2.2 meter high, 1.5 meter diameter tube made of Lexan, a transparent, high-resistance polycarbonate plastic with 250 times the impact strength of glass.

The crystal cage allows you to feel at one with the shark and its environment

Lowered into the water inside this protective sheath, the diver experiences a feeling of complete oneness with the shark's natural habitat, his view unhindered by bars or other obstructions.

More important, the transparent Lexan blends completely with the surrounding ocean, making the diver's presence in the water far less disruptive to the shark and its environment.

"For the diver it is an awesome experience," says Maclean. "You feel there is no barrier between you and the shark, that you are completely part of their world. It is the closest you can get to actually swimming free with them.

"At the same time it is a much more relaxing experience for the Great White. Sharks are incredibly sensitive to magnetic fields, and when you put a great big steel cage in the water you are creating a lot of electro-magnetic disturbance.

"Being made of Lexan the crystal cage doesn't do that. And because there are no metal bars or sharp edges to bash into there is less chance of the shark getting hurt in any way."

Like watching a Tyrannosaurus Rex

The technology for the crystal cage is still relatively new -- Maclean developed it in conjunction with aeronautical engineers -- and while it has been used by film crews, the submersible continues to undergo testing and will not be available to the general public until mid-2006 at the earliest.

When it is, however, those wealthy enough to try it -- a day of diving in the crystal cage costs $1,800 -- will get the chance to observe at close quarters, and with no visual obstruction, one of the most ancient, majestic and awe-inspiring creatures on the planet.

Shark 2
As a species sharks have been around for 400 million years

"As a species sharks have been around for 400 million years," says Dr. Robert Hueter, Director of the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory in Florida. "They are one of the last remaining groups of large predator, and the Great White is the largest predatory shark of them all.

"It is a hugely impressive animal, a marvelous swimming machine that exists right at the very top of the food pyramid.

"To have these animals still in the ocean and to be able to see them close up is the equivalent of still having dinosaurs on earth, of being able to watch a Tyrannosaurus Rex go after its prey. We should all be aware of how special that is."

Responsible Diving

While there are those who criticize the practice of diving with sharks, arguing that it is bringing sharks in too close to the coast and encouraging them to regard humans as prey, the expert view is that so long as it is done responsibly it can be beneficial both for the diver and the shark.

"As with anything, there is good and bad practice," says Ali Hood of the UK-based Shark Trust. "Where people behave in an appropriate manner, where the sharks are not whipped up into a frenzy, then it can be extremely beneficial.

Shark 3
The image of sharks as man-eating monsters is misplaced, conservationists say.

"It gives people a first-hand opportunity to witness sharks in their natural environment, to learn about them. At the same time it raises the economic value of the live shark, which is probably the strongest conservation tool you can have."

Education and conservation are two of the main drivers behind the crystal cage.

"The main reason I do this is because people are so misinformed about sharks," says Kim Maclean. "People have this idea that they are these man-eating monsters when the reality is just so different.

"I want people to see these amazing animals for what they really are. And being inside the crystal cage is probably the ultimate way of doing that."

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