Posted on Sunday, 12 June 2016
With Simon’s Town still sleeping beneath the wash of moonlight, myself and the crew guided the last of the guests onto White Pointer 2, untied her ropes then eased away from the harbour jetty. Our destination: Seal Island, the 800 x 50 meter island situated 8 nautical miles due east across False Bay. Our appointment: with Carcharodon Carcharias – the Great White Shark. We just hoped we would see one, as sightings during the past six weeks had been zero. Records show the peak months for shark activity around Seal Island to be July-September, but in the preceding months, sightings are normally still regular. So to see no sharks at all was a worry. Many theories existed, one in particular being the extended stay of a pod of Killer Whales in the same waters. But with them having now seemingly moved on, optimism couldn’t help but bubble.
With beanie hats on and fleece jackets zipped, everyone held firm as White Pointer 2 gained speed across the inky black waters. She’s a 36ft long, purpose built shark cage diving vessel, affording 360-degree views of the wonderful scenery and action as it unfolds. And for a guy used to navigating the nose-to-tail London rush hour traffic, this was literally an invigorating breath of fresh air, and also a return to the most wonderful memories gained in 2009. Back then, and unable to wait any longer to finally come face to face with a Great White Shark, I flew to Cape Town, South Africa for the first of four days out on Chris and Monique Fallow’s boat. Their operation – Apex Shark Expeditions has the most wonderful ethic: small groups, warm, personal attention and a highly educational, eco-friendly experience. Being a huge shark fan and conservationist, and having learnt of some operators’ less than shark-friendly practices, Apex ticked every box, and once at the island, we were blessed with much shark interaction. I recall spending most of my time in the cage, and yes, coming up close to the animal I’d longed to see since childhood. And now, to return as crew was a dream come true. I couldn’t thank Chris & Monique enough, and vowed to assist in giving their guests the most wonderful experience as I myself had enjoyed.
The dark orange sun was now beginning to peak above the distant mountains overlooking Strand and Macassar Beach. Never have I seen such a beautiful sunrise, and perhaps fifteen minutes into the twenty-five minutes journey we were joined by a school of circa four hundred common dolphins, who danced in and out of our bow waves. At times, we could hear their clicks and whistles, and their yellow flanks seemed to perfectly compliment the marmalade sky, such is the beauty of nature’s palate. We enjoyed their company for another five minutes at least, until finally we arrived at Seal Island.
For me, the Great White Shark is the most awe-inspiring animal I have ever seen.
The timing of our arrival was critical. Most predations (attacks by sharks on seals) occur in the half hour before sunrise to an hour and a half after. The reason: most Cape Fur seals are returning to the island from an evening’s feeding, and it’s approximately the last five hundred metres or so of this journey where the Great Whites wait, patrolling at depth, tracking a chosen seal until, with a flick of the tail and burst of acceleration, they launch themselves vertically to catch their prey, so fast they often breach completely out of the water. An airborne Great White Shark is a sight to behold, and its return to the sea I can only alike to a depth-charge going off, such is the splash and pattern of spray. And from here on the drama goes one of two ways. If the seal was clasped within the shark’s jaws, then it will be readily consumed. But if the seal somehow managed to evade the rows of razor-sharp teeth, then a nautical game of cat and mouse will ensure, with the seal often staying very close to the back of the shark’s head to evade those snapping jaws. The chase can ensue for quite some time, with sometimes the seal escaping, but sometimes sadly not. The success rate for the Great Whites is circa 50%, which is very high when compared to many other large predators.
There was one predation this morning, and it occurred so fast I think only two crew saw it. But undeterred, and with excitement growing at the knowledge a Great White was in the vicinity, the guests hurried into their wetsuits and into the cage. Lookouts on the fly-bridge scanned the surrounding waters, while others drummed a beat against the side of the boat (sharks are attracted by vibrations in the water) and I stood at the stern helping cast the decoy seal and bait lines. With such a plethora of stimulants, we hoped we wouldn’t have to wait long. And we didn’t! The shark came with five minutes, and was perhaps four metres long, very inquisitive and cunning in its attempts to seize the bait. At first we saw the dorsal and tail fins churning up the water, then, as it drew even closer, we were able to see it was a female (she didn’t have the two sausage-like projections between her anal fins, as males do). She stayed around the boat for about five minutes, providing incredible photo opportunities for those shark cage diving and on deck. And her pattern of movement seemed to repeat: circling and passing beneath us, almost in a figure of eight. And during my stint to ladle the oily trail off the back of the boat, she would often pass right beneath the platform to reveal her true size and bulk. In life, sometimes ‘wow!’ seems the only fitting word. For me, the Great White Shark is the most awe-inspiring animal I have ever seen. I can’t decide if it’s the grey-brown over brilliant white colours, the teeth, the intelligent black eye, or the sheer bulk and power. Perhaps it’s all those ingredients rolled into one. Perhaps it’s an indefinable quality which simply gives them their stature.
But for my adventures so far, there is one definite certainty - that I would sincerely like to thank Chris & Monique Fallows for affording me this once in a life time opportunity and for everyone at Apex Shark Expeditions for making me so welcome. I hope I will do you all proud in my time with you.
Best wishes and keep in touch