The Great Whites of False Bay, Cape Town, South Africa
Updated: Oct 5, 2019
This is an extract of an article I published in Country Life magazine about a decade ago, called 'Close Encounters With the Great White". At the time, conservationists, scientists, and shark cage diving operators were already concerned by the ever decreasing numbers of sharks around the tip of Africa. At this very moment, the great whites have disappeared from False Bay and when I reread my article I cannot help but feel a great sense of loss.
Seal Island is situated in False Bay, between Gordon's Bay and Simon's Town, and is arguably the best spot in the world to witness this extraordinary predator in action. The island is home to a colony of an estimated 50,000 cape fur seals, but it's the island's unique topography that contributes to the high occurrence of breaching and predation in this area. In a mere 50 metres on the south and to the west of the island, its sides slope down to a steep 30 metres enabling the sharks to shoot up from the bottom and gain momentum to surprise their unsuspecting victims. As opposed to other areas, the seals at Seal Island have no kelp forests in which to seek refuge.
The best time for breaching is 20 minutes before and after sunrise, when the light is too dim for the seals to detect the shark's dark back as it hovers at the bottom. Pinnipeds are a great white's favourite food; when the seals leave the island to feed, they look for safety in numbers and by swimming like porpoises, diving up and down, they make sure to have eyes in and out the water at all times. But when suddenly the seals scatter and a shark explodes in their midst, the hunt is on. The shark forcefully hits its prey and if the seal gets away, the shark will pursue the chosen one. The chase can last anything from a few seconds to 2-3 minutes, offering a spectacle of unbelievable aerial acrobatics where seals change direction in mid-air and great whites fly up to 2.5 metres over the waves!
The show is over when the water starts bubbling... red.
The seal's acrobatics make it hard work; only 1 out of 10 predations is successful. Quite often the spectators on the boat stand up and cheer. Understandably, sharks prefer young seals that are easier to catch than the adults, or will scavenge dead prey to minimise energy. "This is why a decoy seal behind the boat often works wonders to get the great whites to breach, especially the younger ones who are less experienced," says Essie, one of the shark cage operators. "They perceive our foam seal as an isolated seal, one that is not protected by numbers. The result is an impressive breach within 30 metres of the boat and this will always leave me gasping for air!"
I am mesmerized by Essie's tales. He also tells me how he releases a liquid mixture of sardines and pilchards into the water to leave a light scent trail. "It attracts sharks who come to investigate the source of the distinct smell. But they mostly loose interest after a while. Again, mature sharks are not likely to waste their energy on phonies..." But as soon as Essie mentions the word 'bait' I become wary. His great respect and admiration for sharks is contagious, so I really don't want to feel disappointed by the use of eco-unfriendly practices. "I thought you didn't use meat?" I point out. "We only use a fish head on a rope to lure and keep the shark around the boat. It's certainly not meant to feed it, but sometimes the shark does get away with it and then I have to go to the trouble of getting myself new bait!"
Essie isn't worried about conditioning the sharks and influencing their behaviour. "They're migrating animals and only stay here for a short while, so the interaction is very limited. And remember, sharks only feed when they're hungry. If they're not, they're just not going to be interested in any lure." I wish my brain worked the same way with chocolate...
In his book 'Sharks, The Perfect Predators', Alessandro De Maddalena – a leading shark expert and author of numerous shark publications– confirms that sharks are not voracious monsters that attack anything anytime. In fact, sharks don't even eat all the time, he says, and when they do eat, they only consume small amounts of food, representing no more than 2-3 % of their body weight. "A shark's stomach comprises of two compartments: one for storage and the other for digestion. Some sharks have even been known to survive without eating for up to a month and a half!"
When I tell Essie I'm perfectly happy with surface viewing and don't feel the need to immerse myself in cold water of 16 degree to get a view from a cage, it looks like he's thinking 'this too, shall pass.' "Many people only want to watch at first and not go in," he replies, "but once they see the others take the plunge, they change their minds and also want to get into the water. And afterwards they're incredibly grateful for the mind-blowing experience that they have had. Personally, what I enjoy the most about the cage is that I can just sit back and relax and admire the magnificence of the sharks. They're so beautiful, I just want to touch them... without having to watch my back." I like this guy, he's not an adrenaline-driven macho. He tells me that some people stay as long as half an hour in the cage, and that if a shark bites the cage, it's merely to investigate the metal that attracts them. Honestly, who wouldn't want this to happen? "It's a rare and exhilarating occurrence indeed," Essie says. "Sharks feel and leave; not once have they attacked the cage."
Most people stay calm and say the experience positively changed their perception of sharks, and how special the experience was. But, for some people the first sight of a dorsal fin is enough to make them run as fast as lighting to the middle of the boat or climb up to its highest point. And yes, some do hyperventilate in the cage and want to get out NOW, while others remain silent with a big smile on their faces.
"What worries me," says Essie, "is that each year we see fewer and fewer sharks." And he's right, sharks are becoming threatened with extinction due to overfishing, unfounded curative beliefs, and greed.
"In less than half a century humans are about to wipe out a species that evolved long before dinosaurs," says Alessandro De Maddalena when I meet him at a talk on sharks. According to 'The Save Our Seas Foundation', over 100 million sharks are being purged from the oceans each year by increased fishing.
Half the world's shark catch is accidental due to longline fishing for tuna or swordfish. "These single-stranded fishing lines are 18 to 72 km long, with an average of 1500 baited hooks, and in some areas sharks make up 90% of the total catch," explains Alessandro.
"China is one of the biggest consumers of shark meat," he continues. "Shark fins are high-priced and as a result excessive numbers of sharks are being caught to have their fins cut off, alive. The bodies are thrown back into the water and the sharks die because they can no longer swim. This cruelty is beyond belief."
Sharks have the reputation of being merciless killers roaming the coasts for a human snack, but as it turns out, more sharks are being killed by humans and in ways that leave a bitter taste. Without sharks, our marine ecosystems will take a knock, resulting in great distress for the millions of people who depend on the oceans for food.
DID YOU KNOW?
Sharks are older than dinosaurs; sharks existed some 400 million years ago and have remained unchanged for the past 100 million years ago.
The largest great white shark (Carcharodon carcharia) recorded measured 6.6 m
Sharks live 20-30 years on average with a maximum lifespan of 70 years for some species
Some species can dive as deep as 2800 metres and an unknown species has been recorded at a depth of 3962 metres
Depending on the species, sharks may shed 10 000 to 50 000 teeth in a lifetime
'Sharks the perfect predators' by Alessandro De Maddalena, published in RSA by Jacana Media.