South Africa is well known for its terrestrial big five, the iconic game found in the country’s savannah that include the lion, leopard, elephant, Cape buffalo and rhino. Yet just offshore swim equally compelling marine predators, most notably, of course, the great white shark. In addition there are many other shark species, megapods of dolphin, various species of whales, flocks of penguins and a huge diversity of other marine life — all within a few hours’ drive of each other.
Cape Town, South Africa’s mother city, is situated at the southwestern tip of Africa, and it’s the region’s hub for expedition travel. False Bay is only a 35-minute drive from Cape Town’s city center. From March to June massive shoals of sardines and anchovies enter False Bay, and this influx of prey attracts a host of predators. Massive schools of dolphins crash through the shoals of bait fish, which are simultaneously attacked by squadrons of diving Cape gannets. The annual sardine run starts in False Bay around March each year, and the size of the dolphin schools is astonishing.
This influx of common dolphins has brought a new predator into the bay: Orcas are now being spotted here for the first time. The orcas along the Cape coast appear to be dolphin-hunting specialists, and the action is intense. On numerous occasions we have witnessed pods of orcas running down schools of dolphins, stunning and killing their prey with dramatic breaches into the fleeing masses.
By early June the schools of baitfish have moved up the east coast, and the schools of dolphins, flocks of gannets and pods of orcas have for the most part moved on. The next wave of seasonal predators will have begun arriving in False Bay around late April. That’s when the area’s legendary flying great white sharks (as seen in Planet Earth, Air Jaws and more than 50 other nature documentaries) start showing up at Seal Island. The aptly named island is home to Africa’s largest island-bound seal colony, which numbers around 65,000 at its peak. By early June the young seals have been weaned off their mothers’ fat-rich milk and start heading out to feed and fend for themselves. That’s when the energy around Seal Island really ratchets up, and unbridled action involving the ocean’s most famous fish takes center stage.
In any given season, the Apex Shark Expeditions crew records around 600 to 800 predatory events around this tiny island. Nowhere else on earth offers such a good chance of seeing this spectacular behavior. The sharks are successful in about 50 percent of all hunts; their average length is about 11 or 12 feet.
For those who need to get their hair wet, cage diving offers an opportunity — once the early morning’s predations slow down — to get close to the sharks in their domain. Fifteen- to 20-foot visibility is normal, and water temperatures are generally brisk (in the upper 50s°F).
Seal Island is unique among great white shark diving destinations in that it offers visitors the opportunity to watch the sharks hunting and breaching as well as a chance to cage dive — all on the same trip (weather permitting, of course).
By late August seasonal changes occur in the bay; winds out of the northwest begin shifting to come out of the southwest and then the southeast. This brings another sizable, seasonal visitor into the bay: Southern right whales move in to mate and calve. Boat-based whale-watching trips from Simon’s Town take passengers within a stone’s throw of the whales; people can also enjoy excellent land-based whale watching.
Local dive operators generally report the best reef-diving conditions in the bay during winter (May through September). Wrecks and soft corals abound, and nudibranchs and a host of temperate-water fish add interest to most dives. One of the truly spectacular — and very accessible — dives in the bay is with the large, endemic sevengill sharks, which patrol the magnificent kelp forests that flank both the eastern and western sides of the bay. Pyramid Rock, only a 10-minute boat ride from Simon’s Town, offers what is probably the world’s best sevengill shark dive. The visibility is generally good (in the 15- to 50-foot range), and the kelp forests these massive prehistoric predators patrol are spectacular. The sharks are curious but docile — a good mix — and they often closely inspect divers. If you book in advance, a two-tank dive can permit a visit to a colony of Cape fur seals roughly a mile away from the shark dive. These ever-playful seals never hesitate to show off their agility and cavort and play with gay abandon around any divers willing to be their playmates. Depth in both these areas is generally around 30 feet, and the conditions are generally appropriate even for novice divers.
As the Southern Hemisphere’s summer unfolds, so does the opportunity to head offshore into the realm of the open-ocean predators. Simon’s Town is the point of departure for pelagic shark trips, which showcase spectacular mako and blue sharks. Rounding the dramatic cliffs of Cape Point — one of the world’s great nautical landmarks — the next stop is the open sea, and this trip is about as adventurous as any you can do in a single day.
The warm Agulhas Current washes down the cape’s east coast and rounds Cape Point about 15 to 25 miles offshore. The water here is warm, clear and often quite blue. Dives here are primarily undertaken by drifting in a cage that floats some 10 yards behind the boat, allowing sharks to easily circle the divers within. The use of the cage is not only to increase safety, but also to compensate for the current. Being in the cage allows divers the chance to concentrate on the action rather than keeping up with the boat. On flat, calm days divers may be allowed to drift and free dive, depending on their skill level. Water temperatures range from the high 60s to mid-70s, and visibility is typically 30 to 60 feet. Yellowfin and albacore tuna, sunfish, turtles and even marlin are seen on these remarkable trips. Be warned, though, that these excursions are highly weather dependent, so a few days should be set aside to accommodate this excursion. The best months are typically December through April.
If after the shark, whale, dolphin and seal action you feel a more relaxing expedition might be in order, the Boulders Beach penguin colony has more than 2,000 pairs of African penguins and offers a chance to get close to these comical birds in a magical setting of large boulders by a pristine sea.
There are few, if any, places that can match False Bay in terms of diversity of predators, ease with which they can be seen and year-round options for activities that range from very mild to pretty wild. Be warned that during September, October and November the wind can really blow; divers should consider contingency plans for land-based activities such as wine tasting or visits to Cape Point Nature Reserve, Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden or Robben Island (where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned).
If great white sharks are your priority, you should visit Gansbaai, the “great white shark diving capital of the world.” Gansbaai is 2.5 hours from Cape Town by road; you travel through some beautiful areas, including Hermanus, which is home to some of the best land-based whale watching in the world.
Gansbaai is the commercial center of shark diving in South Africa and a shining example of how living sharks are so much more valuable than dead ones. Eight operations offer varying degrees of eco-friendly shark diving, and large boats are generally the order of the day. Some operations emphasize education and conservation; I recommend seeking out one of these companies to get the most out of your encounters with these magnificent predators. On visits in early spring and late autumn, cage diving occurs near the preferred anchorage of Dyer Island, a spectacular breeding and roosting area for seabirds. Shark Alley is the name given to the channel between Dyer Island and nearby Geyser Rock, which is home to more than 50,000 Cape fur seals. Inshore visibility is typically poor (in the 3- to 15-foot range), but around Dyer Island it can be as good as 50 feet in the winter and spring.
For all surface photography in False Bay, which includes great whites hunting, the enormous schools of dolphins and gannet or seal action, I use a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens. When shooting breaches I like to get low and choose a focal point that’s below the center of the frame. This elevates the shark farther out of the water and creates less negative space below the action. For natural predation, start by shooting slightly wide, as this provides more room for error and allows you to get a feel for the action before you go tighter. There are also many opportunities to shoot wide-angle, so a 16-35mm or similar lens is also a good idea.
For underwater shooting from the cage, divers should be aware that the ports of the cages used throughout South Africa are narrow. Strobes, unless compact or on short arms, can be cumbersome. The cage also floats right on the surface, so ambient light will be in full supply. For the pelagic and sevengill sharks I recommend camera housings that allow for wide-angle lenses (8-20mm). The subjects often come very close to divers, and the kelp forests offer a beautiful backdrop.
The “greatest shoal on earth” is what sardine-run pioneer Peter Lamberti termed the annual movement of billions of sardines along the South African south and east coasts. Starting in April off Port Elizabeth, huge shoals of sardines move close to the coast as sea temperatures cool to around 67°F — the preferred swimming conditions for these planktivorous bait fish. With the huge shoals comes an equally impressive suite of predators. Starting with the aerial assault, amazingly well-adapted Cape gannets plunge-feed into the fish using air pockets in their wings to absorb the tremendous shock as they strike the water. The force with which they hit the water quickly attracts the attention of massive schools of dolphin, which can easily number in excess of 1,000 individuals. As the dolphins begin feeding on the fish, the sharks (duskys, bronze whalers and blacktips) arrive to join in the feeding frenzy. The final and most impressive sardine assassins are the 50-foot-long Bryde’s whales, which soon appear and plow open-mouthed through the baitballs like giant ice cream scoops.
When the action is hot, it’s on fire, but you do need to allow yourself time to get lucky; a stay of at least five to seven days provides a realistic chance of seeing some good action. The baitballs are undoubtedly the pinnacle of the show, but there is also a migration of humpback whales along the coast that coincides with the run. Most days provide a chance to shoot breaching humpbacks.
It can get dangerous underwater when the frenzy is in full swing, so pay close attention to divemasters. It is definitely worth doing your homework to make sure the company you choose has experience with high-action baitball situations. Baitballs are dynamic and, as such, shift like willow trees blowing in the wind. While you want to be close to the action, you do not want to get caught up in the ball. Not only can that dissipate the action, but you could literally do a “Jonah and the whale” as Bryde’s whales tend to race through baitballs, mouths agape. If you are in their path the results could be unpleasant, to say the least.
Generally the key to a great day on the run is visibility of at least 15 feet and focused gannet action. When the gannets are diving with a purpose it is likely that the other players will turn up, and good visibility means your chances of seeing something special are high. You will probably be diving from 25-foot rigid inflatable boats (RIBs), and it’s wise to have your gear well organized. When you chance upon action, the sooner you can get in the water the better. Typically the activity will occur in 5 to 25 feet of water, and the water temperature will be in the high 60s.
When photographing sharks, let them come to you instead of chasing them. Position yourself next to the action, and for a few minutes simply watch what’s going on. By doing this you will begin to see patterns in how the dolphins sweep into the shoals in well-orchestrated attacks, and you’ll learn where the sharks spend most of their time in the ball. Finally, you’ll pick up on how the light allows different shooting opportunities. By spending just a little time observing you’ll be better at predicting where the action will be next, and that will definitely improve your results. It is also a good idea to have a vigilant dive buddy — when the action heats up the sharks can become very “friendly,” and a gentle push away may be required.
The peak time for sardine-run activity is May through July. Port Elizabeth, East London, Coffee Bay and Port St. Johns (in that order) are the towns that people who follow the run use as bases to access the shoals as they move up the coast. Be sure to check on travel logistics, cancellation fees for bad-weather days and available down-time options when booking one of these trips.
Aliwal Shoal and Protea Banks
By Pam Le Noury
The KwaZulu-Natal coast of South Africa is pleasantly affected by the warm waters of the Agulhas Current, which run down from the equator and make the country’s east coast warm and tropical. Even at 30° south divers will experience balmy waters (72°F to 77°F in summer and 60°F to 70°F in winter) and a smorgasbord of tropical and temperate species vying for space on the fabulous and far-out rocky reefs of Aliwal Shoal and Protea Banks.
Aliwal Shoal and Protea Banks are home to a great diversity of hard and soft corals, sponges, reefs fish (more than 1,200 species), turtles, invertebrates and sharks. In the summer months you might see whale sharks, manta rays, guitarfish and tiger sharks. Protea also gets hammerheads and Zambezi (bull) sharks. In the winter months you can dive with congregations of ragged-tooth sharks (also known as sand tiger or grey nurse sharks), and you can listen for the eerie calls of humpback whales as they head north to breed. Year-round you can experience some of the best shark encounters on earth with as many as 80 blacktips circling around a baited dive in midwater near either of these reefs.
Aliwal Shoal is three miles offshore and partially in a marine protected area. It is serviced by several dive-charter operators in the small town of Umkomaas, which has grown into an interesting little dive-bum mecca. The charter boats are mostly RIBs, and they usually launch from the Umkomaas River. Boarding the RIB, which accommodates 10 divers and a divemaster, is quite easy in the river, but you’ll have to hold on tight as the skipper powers under the bridge and out into the surf. This often involves some fast turns or punching through waves — it’s all quite thrilling. If the tide is too low the boats will launch from the beach, and that involves pushing the boat out into the sea and only jumping into the boat once the engines are in sufficiently deep water. Diving at Aliwal is not for wimps.
It’s just a 15- or 20-minute boat ride out to the shoal, and boats often spot dolphins, whales (in winter), flying fish and seabirds on the way. Once at the site, divers gear up, and it’s “3-2-1-go” with a backward roll off a pontoon. Visibility is inconsistent, particularly in the summer, but it averages about 30 feet and peaks at around 80. A mild current and a little surge are typical, and stronger currents are common as well. The reef runs north to south for three miles, and there are many lovely spots of interesting topography between 30 and 90 feet. Most dives are no deeper than 60 feet.
A summer highlight is the presence of guitarfish and rays — including mantas that cruise overhead. In the winter the highlight is the ragged-tooth sharks (Carcharias taurus) that congregate there to breed. You can see 15 to 50 of them hovering in caves and scattered all across the reef — all totally undisturbed by divers. Whether you see sharks or not, make sure to look out for fallen shark teeth in the sand.
If Aliwal is not for wimps, Protea is restricted to mermaids and Neptune’s brethren — confident and experienced divers only. It’s well worth tuning up your skills (perhaps at Aliwal Shoal) before you dive Protea, as it seldom fails to deliver excellent sightings. Operators launch RIBs from Shelly Beach (50 miles south of Umkomaas), and divers push the boat into the shore-break for a wet launch through the surf. It’s a 15- to 20-minute ride out to the reef (which lies five miles out to sea), and before the plunge everyone deflates their BCDs fully so they can do “negative entries” — back rolls into the water followed by immediate finning toward the seafloor. This method offers dive groups the best chance of hitting sites accurately in the strong currents (strongest at the surface) common to the banks.
The reef lies between 90 and 130 feet; it’s a deep dive, so be prepared for the possibility of nitrogen narcosis. The reef is colorful with plenty of fish, good topography and interesting caves and swim-throughs. In winter the ragged-tooth sharks congregate here in large numbers, and year-round it’s possible to see Zambezi sharks — usually keeping an eye on you from a distance. Watch for manta rays, tiger sharks and large schools of scalloped hammerheads in summer. No-deco time is short, and the current pushes you along quite enjoyably, which allows you to cover a significant distance during your slow ascent. That’s the best time to listen for humpback whales (in the winter) and watch for … well, just about anything.
Both Aliwal and Protea feature opportunities for baited dives. These memorable experiences involve a chum bucket suspended from a buoy at about 30 feet. The chum bucket is a large, round, perforated ball filled with sardines — like a tea bag of shark food. The bucket drifts along, the divers drift with it (alongside it, not down-current of it), and sharks from all over the area pick up the scent and travel upcurrent to investigate. Many blacktip sharks (Carcharhinus limbatus) are now so habituated that they start circling as soon as the boat arrives. These days it’s common to get 20 blacktips, and divers may see as many as 80. They buzz around hungrily, zipping in and out. It’s intimidating at first, but soon you’ll begin to relax, and you might even feel like the sharks barely notice you.
That feeling of relaxation may be suddenly dashed when, in the summer, a tiger shark arrives on the scene, large and confident, gliding nonchalantly between divers to approach the bait and pick off escaped morsels. Soon enough you will close your gaping mouth and resume breathing to realize that you are hovering in midwater with a large ocean predator. If it’s interested in you at all, it won’t act in a threatening manner; regardless, it will be absolutely magnificent. New or unhabituated tiger sharks may loiter for a while, circling wide before they come closer. When they do approach, they’ll check you out with their big black eyes — an experience you may never forget. Before long there might be 30 sharks of three or four species around you, circling the bait as you hover there in awe. It’s a truly amazing experience. In terms of a topside South African safari, it would be like walking up to a lion kill and standing there among the lions, hyenas and vultures — just watching.
© Alert Diver — Q4 Fall 2013