From northern subtropical reefs to the chilly waters of the Cape, South Africa offers a diversity of marine life few nations can rival. SCOTT BENNETT goes back to the Republic by the sea to see what more he can find.
South Africa especially renowned as home to one of the world’s most biodiverse shark populations. Having visited South Africa several years earlier, I had the opportunity to dive with tiger and bull sharks near Durban. While exhilarating, there was one resident I had yet to meet face to face, the biggest and baddest of all predatory sharks: the great white.
It’s hard to believe that almost thirty years after the release of “Jaws”, the mere mention of sharks (and great whites in particular) still evokes an irrational fear in many people. In the vicinity of Cape Town, it’s a different story. False Bay is home to one of the highest great white population densities in the world. Sharks are big business, with a number of operators offering trips to see them.
Occupying a dramatic seaside location, Cape Town has made many a traveler’s most beautiful cities list and it’s easy to see why. Bordered by Table Bay, the City Bowl’s natural amphitheatre is defined by the mountains of Signal Hill, Lion’s Head, Table Mountain and Devil’s Peak. With precipitous cliffs ascending to a flat-topped summit over 1,000m, Table Mountain has recently been proclaimed one of the world’s 12 natural wonders. Arriving by air, the iconic scenery was instantly recognizable.
Waiting for me upon arrival was Dave Coxford, from Born in Africa Tours. Friendly and soft-spoken, he soon proved to be a wealth of information on the entire area. My arrival coincided with the southern hemisphere winter, although it was barely evident. While notorious for its cold and rainy winter weather, I arrived during a mini heat wave, with temperatures in the mid-twenties Celsius. If this was winter, I’ll take it!
My final destination was Simon’s Town, nestled alongside False Bay on the Cape Peninsula. An important naval base for more than two centuries, the town is rich in history, its main street flanked with charming Victorian architecture. My accommodation was the Quayside Hotel, with my balcony offering superb views of the harbour and coastline. A welcome drink of sherry was a far cry from the usual fruit juice at most resorts. The view from my balcony of the harbour and rugged coastline was spectacular.
After breakfast the next morning, a phone call from Dave prompted a change in the afternoon’s itinerary. “May I humbly suggest we do Table Mountain today instead of the Cape? The afternoon weather forecast calls for clear conditions, a high of 26 degrees and no wind.” As unsettled weather can shut down the cable car, we decided to go for it.
My morning free, I headed for Boulders Beach to view some distinctly un-African wildlife. A sheltered cove of white sand punctuated with granite boulders, it is home to a large colony of African penguins. From two breeding pairs in 1982, the population has since increased to three thousand. To protect both penguins and the environment, a wooden boardwalk has been erected along the beach. Photo opportunities abounded, with the birds sometimes only a metre away. Many nests were evident, with the juvenile birds virtually the size of their parents. The occasional powerful bray made it easy to see how they received the alternate name of jackass penguin.
Dave arrived after lunch and we set out for our afternoon excusrsion. Crossing the peninsula, we headed for Chapman’s Peak drive, regarded as the country’s most scenic.
From the lookout at Noordhoek, the impressive sweep of Long Beach stretched 6km to the 30m Slangkop Lighthouse, the highest on the South African coast. Hugging the vertiginous cliffs of the Constantia Mountains, the 9km road was constructed by convicts between 1915 –1922.
Approaching the city, we passed Clifton and Bantry Bay, home to some of the country’s most costly real estate. Signal Hill revealed outstanding views of the city, hugging the coast below and sprawling to the north and east behind Table Mountain.
A World Heritage Site, the Table Mountain National Park is part of the Cape Floristic Region, the smallest and richest of the world’s six floral kingdoms. Known as Fynbos (Fine bush), it occurs only in the Western Cape’s Mediterranean -style climate. Consisting of scrubland and heath, diversity is extraordinary, with over 9000 recognized plant species, around 6200 of which are endemic.
From the summit, the views were stupendous. To the south, the Cape Peninsula’s mountainous spine projected 40 kilometres into the chilly Atlantic before terminating at Cape Point. In the distance was the hazy silhouette of Robben Island, famous as the setting of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment. An amazing day was concluded with a spectacular sunset over Table Bay from north of the city.
Finally it was time to get wet. I would be diving with Shark Explorers, established in 2008 by Morne Hardenberg. With the motto “Change your perspective”, the company has been dedicated to provide visitors with a positive shark experience to offset media negativity. Along with the great white cage dives, excursions would be made to dive with fur seals and to kelp forests for sevengill sharks, also known as cow sharks. In addition to the sevengills, the kelp forests are home to a number of other shark species including pajama sharks, spotted gully sharks, puffadder cat sharks, dark shy sharks and leopard cat sharks.
Arriving at the shop, I was surprised to see a familiar face; my friend Linda Ferwerda from the Netherlands. Unfortunately, Morne was still at the Sardine Run, but I did meet his niece Monique. Also on hand was divemaster Ernest Salima, who hails from Malawi (my next stop after South Africa). With gear sorted, it was time to head to the jetty.
False Bay is one of the few places in the world where it is possible to dive with sevengill sharks. Attaining lengths of 3m and weighing up to 335kg, this ancient species is highly opportunistic, preying on everything from rays, chimaeras and bony fishes to carrion and other sharks. They are especially formidable predators of Cape fur seals, which I was hopeful they could differentiate from wetsuit-clad divers! According to Stephen, it isn’t unusual to see more than 10 on one dive and being naturally curious, chum or bait isn’t necessary.
The boat trip to Millers Point was short but scenic, passing alongside the Cape Peninsula’s rugged coastline. The group was big, with a number of international students from an ocean studies course.
During the briefing, we were told visibility could range from 6-12m; so staying close to your dive buddy was crucial. As Linda would be my dive buddy, her camera set-up would be easy to spot, along with the vibrant orange weights on our belts.
Our destination was jammed with bobbing kelp, buoyed to the surface by gas-filled bladders. The largest and fastest growing of the world’s seaweeds, kelp thrives on nutrients churned up by the Cape’s cold, rich waters. Having never dived such an environment, I had unhappy visions of being entwined in a tangle of stems and fronds!
With Linda ready, we plunged in by giant stride. As one accustomed to the warm water of the tropics, the cold came as a bit of a shock! While not exactly Arctic conditions, the 15-degree water was nevertheless a jolt to my bare face. Fortunately, my 5mm suit combine with an outer shell proved surprisingly warm. Descending to a sandy patch at 18m, we waited for the others to assemble. Entanglement concerns were promptly replaced by wonder. Shafts of light filtered down from above, creating the impression of an undersea cathedral. Visibility was good, with the surface clearly visible. Captivated by this new and wondrous environment, the cold was all but forgotten.
It wasn’t necessary to look for the sharks; they soon found us. Approximately eight sevengills appeared, some coming to within touching distance. None showed aggression, only benign curiosity as they came ever closer. The upturned corners of their mouths gave the appearance of a goofy smile! Appearances aside, it is still somewhat unnerving to have a 3-m shark heading right in your direction only to veer off at the last second!
After spending 20 minutes with the sharks, the remainder of the dive was spent exploring the kelp forest. Fronds undulated in the surge while red Romans made striking photo subjects, their vivid colouration in stark contrast to the kelp’s muted yellow-green tones. A member of the seabream family endemic to Southern Africa, their numbers have been severely depleted due to excessive fishing.
Unfortunately, my dive was cut short when my weight belt slid off and I shot to the surface like a rocket. Fortunately, we hadn’t been deep, so no decompression problems arose. Minutes later, Linda surfaced with my weights in hand. Someone was the recipient of a well-earned beer!
Surface interval completed, a short boat ride brought us to Seal Island at Partridge Point. Many of the shivering students opted out, but I couldn’t wait to get back in the water! The dive would be very shallow, only 6m along the island’s drop-off. Before weighing anchor, a legion of brown, whiskered heads bobbed expectantly at the surface. “Don’t worry”, said Ernest with a chuckle. “They will come to you”.
He wasn’t kidding; upon entering the water, we were immediately surrounded. I assumed the seals would be too fast to photograph, but they proved unexpectedly cooperative. Although many zoomed past, others came in for a closer look, gaping curiously with big, brown eyes. I marveled at their agility, gliding effortlessly while we clumsy humans struggled in the relentless surge. Some were real characters; glancing up from my viewfinder, I caught one cheeky individual chewing on one of my strobes!
With the relentless seal action, it was easy to overlook the reef. Very different from the tropics, the rocky walls were ablaze with colour, jam-packed with starfish, clams and urchins. The later proved in particularly photogenic with hues of lavender, yellow and orange. Never having diving in a temperate environment before, it was quite a contrast to a coral reef. Enthralled by the array of shapes and textures, I lamented not having a macro lens on the camera.
The following morning was the main event: the great white cage dive! After my 5:30 wakeup call and a quick coffee, I grabbed my housed camera and headed down to the jetty. Along with 8 passengers, the boat had a full crew. Along with skipper Stephen Swanson at the helm, along for the ride were divemasters Ernest, Corne Ligtermoet and Nina Daniels.
Departing the jetty at 6:30, we set out for Seal Island. Situated 8 nautical miles from Simon’s Town harbour, it is home to 70,000 furs seals, along with cape and bank cormorants and even a few penguins. The morning’s excursion would feature three distinct segments. First, we would search the bay for predations, as the majority occurs prior to sunrise. Next, a seal decoy would be towed behind the boat to entice a breach. The final stage was the cage dive.
Arriving just after 7:00, Stephen gave a briefing on shark hunting behaviour and what to expect. After weeks of feeding at sea, the seals head for home, exhausted and highly vulnerable. During the pre-dawn hours, the seals are unable to discern the sharks below, but are highly visible to the sharks, Rocketing to the surface to snatch their unsuspecting prey, predations can last anywhere from seconds to several minutes. While the sharks possess the brute force, agility is the seals’ trump card. On many occasions, the shark will miss its mark, with a wild chase ensuing at the surface. The seal will often out maneuver the shark, tiring it to the point of giving up.
With multiple crewmembers on the lookout, all directions were covered for potential shark action, specifically, “porpoising “ seals. Following them are seabirds, anticipating an attack’s blubbery leftovers. It didn’t take long before the first breach. Then the second. Then the third. I lost count of how many times I heard “ Predation, three o’clock” and turned to discover it was all over!
It was then time for stage two, as Ernest prepared “Frank”, a life-size seal mockup. Essentially, we would troll with a seal-sized lure. With Stephen, Ernest, Corne and Nina on the lookout, all directions were covered for potential shark action. “Come on Frank, give us joy!” enthused Steven. Somehow, I couldn’t imagine the seals echoing his enthusiasm.
At 9am, the guys started chumming to lure in the sharks. It was cage time! Suspended from the side of the boat side, it was much narrower than expected, holding 4 people lengthwise with barely room to turn around. A window below the surface provided an unobstructed viewpoint. Donning wetsuit, boots, gloves and hood, I clambered down, taking a position at the corner, the prime photography spot. No scuba was involved.
With everyone in position, Ernest lowered some hefty fish chunks into the water. To further entice the sharks, another decoy was deployed, this one was a flat seal silhouette called “Susie”. “OK, standby, standby…DOWN, DOWN,” commanded Stephen. Gulping a breath, I submerged to the window, frantically trying to position my camera. Glancing to the curtain of green, the unmistakable silhouette came into view: a great white!
Swooping in gracefully, the great mouth opened wide, swallowing the bait in one gulp. Seeing this magnificent predator up close was amazing! At least 7 individuals appeared, including one specimen over 5m long. Engrossed by the action, I stayed in the cage a full hour and didn’t even notice the cold.
Unfortunately, the next morning’s shark trip was cancelled due to rough conditions. Dave arrived after lunch and we headed for the Cape of Good Hope. Famous as Africa’s southernmost point and the convergence of Atlantic and Indian Oceans, in reality it’s neither. The actual meeting point fluctuates according to ocean currents, which doesn’t actually happen at the Cape. The continent’s actual southernmost point is Cape Agulhas, a peninsula some 150 kilometers to the southeast.
Entering the Cape National Park, the landscape was stark yet beautiful, windswept and carpeted by Fynbos vegetation. Along the coast, we encountered all four of the park’s ostriches. Normally associated with dry savanna, the birds made for an incongruous sight along the seashore. Stopping for a photo at the Cape of Good Hope, the wind actually knocked me off balance. With daylight waning, our final stop was Cape Point Lighthouse. From the lookout, the views were spectacular and winds even stronger. With surf pounding below, the “Cape of Storms” certainly lived up to its name.
During my final days in Simon’s Town, I managed additional seal and kelp dives along with a second shark trip that proved even more thrilling. Conditions were rougher, testing everyone’s seasickness threshold. This time I finally witnessed a full breach where the shark caught a seal. Despite having seen footage on BBC’s Planet Earth, it was no preparation for witnessing the event in person. The sheer force displayed as the sharks erupted from the surface was incredible. Stephen counted 15 predations and five seal fatalities. Although amazing to witness, I was left with distinctly mixed feelings; it was impossible not to sympathize with the seals.
During my weeklong stay in Simon’s Town, the wealth of experiences proved exhilarating. With so much more to explore, both under and over the water, I will definitely be back. Next time I must remember to use my macro lens!
KNOW AND GO
Scott traveled with a combination of airlines from North America. South African Airways serve the Republic from North America. As do their Star Alliance Partners Turkish Airlines and Ethiopian Airlines. Emirates, Qatar and British Airways also fly into South Africa.