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South Africa, Predators Paradise!

written by Monique Fallows

Sharks and dolphins working a sardine bait ball.

Posted on Sunday, 8 July 2012

South Africa is home to the Big 5, incredible landscapes iconic landmarks and open space, and lying just offshore some truly remarkable marine mega fauna.


There can be few places, if any, where you can see the big 5 on land and the likes of Great White sharks, and many other shark species, mega pods 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, situated at the South Western tip of Africa offers just such an opportunity. False Bay is just 35 minutes’ drive from Cape Town city center and the opportunity for the marine nature lover to see world famous spectacles is easy, accessible and affordable.

During the months of March to June massive bait fish shoals of sardine and anchovy enter False Bay and with this influx of prey come a whole host of predators. Launching from the historical naval port of Simons town the opportunity to see mega pods of dolphins crashing shoals of bait fish whilst at the same time being attacked by kamikaze like squadrons of Cape Gannets is only 20 -30 minutes boat ride away. False Bay plays home to the start of the annual sardine run around March each year and over the past 5 years in particular the size of the dolphin schools has been astonishing. This influx of common dolphin has also brought a new predator to the bay and previously unheard of orca sightings have suddenly started to occur. The orcas along the Cape coast appear to be dolphin hunting specialists and the action, when it happens, is about as intense as you could ever wish to see. We have witnessed on numerous occasions pods of orca run down the schools of dolphin and then with a final dramatic breach into the fleeing masses stunning and killing their prey. 

By early June the schools of bait fish have moved up the East coast and the schools of dolphins, flocks of Gannets and pods of orca’s have for the most part moved on. But wait, as the TV adverts would say, there’s more.

Around late April False Bay’s legendary Flying great white sharks, as seen on Planet Earth , the Air Jaws series and more than 50 other nature documentaries, start arriving at Seal Island. Seal Island, situated in False Bay’s north central region is home to Africa’s largest island bound seal colony and numbers around 65 000 seals at its peak. By early June the young seals which are born in November /December have been weaned off their mom’s fat rich milk and now start going out to feed and fend for themselves. It is at this time that the action around Seal Island really ratchets up a few notches and unparalleled natural predatory action involving the oceans most famous fish takes center stage. In any given season around 600-800 predatory hunts are recorded by the Apex Shark Expeditions crew around this tiny island and nowhere else on earth offers the same chances of seeing this spectacular behavior. The sharks are successful in around 50% of all hunts and the size of the sharks averages around 11-12 feet.

For those needing to get their hair wet, cage diving, once the early morning’s predations slow down, offer the opportunity to get close to the sharks in their domain. Visibility ranges from 5-50feet with 15-20 feet being normal. Water temperatures range around the mid to late 50’s. 

The unique aspect of Seal Island as opposed to other great white shark dive locations is that you can have the chance to see the sharks hunting, breaching and also be able to cage dive all on the same trip although sightings obviously do vary based on weather conditions.

By late August seasonal shifts occur in the bay and the NW winds start shifting more into the SW and then SE. This results in a new mega visitor returning to the bay and the gentle giants, the Southern Right whales move into the bay to mate and calve. Boat based whale watching trips from Simons town take passengers within a stone’s throw of the whales and excellent land based whale watching can also be enjoyed. 

Local dive operators generally have the best reef diving conditions in the bay during winter, May-September, where numerous wrecks are dived and soft corals, nudibranchs and a host of temperate water fish add interest to most dives. One of the truly spectacular and easily accessible dives in the bay is with the large seven gill and endemic shark species that patrol the magnificent kelp forests which flank both the Eastern and Western sides of the bay. Pyramid rock, situated only 10 minutes boat ride from Simon’s town offers arguably the world’s best seven gill shark dive with generally good vis in the 15-50foot range and spectacular kelp forests through which these massive prehistoric sharks swim. The sharks are curious but docile, a good mix, and often closely inspect divers! If time allows or if you book in advance a double tank dive can be undertaken with the colony of Cape fur seals that are roughly a mile away from the shark dive. These ever playful seals 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 foot so it is an easy dive for even the most novice of divers.


As the Southern hemisphere summer really advances so the opportunity to head offshore into the realm of the open ocean predators becomes a reality. Departing once again from Simons town pelagic shark trips are undertaken by Apex Shark Expeditions with the target being the spectacular mako and blue sharks  as well as a large emphasis being placed on general marine life such as pelagic birds, cetaceans and game fish all being sought after. Rounding the dramatic cliffs of Cape Point, one of the world’s great nautical landmarks, the next stop is the open ocean and this trip is about as adventurous as a naturalist can do in a day. The warm Agulhas current washes down the Cape East coast and rounds Cape Point usually 15-25 miles offshore. Bringing warm, clear and often blue water this really is a great chance for divers to experience a true open ocean experience. 

Dives here are primarily undertaken by drifting in a cage which floats roughly 10 yards astern of the vessel allowing sharks to easily circle divers inside. The use of the cage is not only to increase safety but also to compensate for the current which requires a lot of swimming and by being in the cage allows divers the chance to concentrate on the action and not on keeping up with the boat. On flat calm days, depending on skill level, divers may be allowed to drift and free dive whilst under constant supervision.

Water temperatures range between the high sixties to mid-high seventies and visibility is typically 30-60feet.  Yellow fin and albacore tuna, sunfish, occasional turtles, and even marlin are sighted on these remarkable trips. 

For guests interested in birdlife , this is one of the world’s best open ocean pelagic bird watching areas with the chance of seeing six or more species of albatross in a day and at least four species being commonly seen on most outings. 

Be warned though that these excursions are highly weather dependent and as such a few days should be allowed for this activity. The best months are typically December to April.   

If after the shark, whale, dolphin and seal action you felt like a more gentle pursuit, the Boulders beach penguin colony with over 2000 pairs of African penguins, offer the family, divers and non-divers alike, the chance to get close to these comical birds in a magical setting of large boulders and a beach filled with character.     


False Bay really has few, if any other places to match it in terms of sheer 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 the months of September to late November the wind can really blow and at this time of the year contingencies for land based activities such as wine tasting, visits to Cape Point nature reserve, Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch gardens or Robben Island ( Nelson Mandela’s prison) should be entertained. Excellent accommodation is available in Cape Town and many 5 and even 6 star hotels and in Simon’s town hotels and excellent B&B’s offer varying levels of accommodation.

This influx of common dolphin has also brought a new predator to the bay and previously unheard of orca sightings have suddenly started to occur.

If great white sharks are your main priority, Gansbaai, the “great white shark diving capitol of the world” should also be visited. Gansbaai is 2.5 hours from Cape Town by road and you travel through some beautiful areas including South Africa’s whale capitol of Hermanus where amongst the best land based whale watching in the world can be viewed.

Gansbaai is the commercial center of shark diving in South Africa and is a shining example of how a shark alive is so much more valuable than dead. Eight operations offer varying degrees of eco-friendly shark diving with large boats generally being the order of the day. Some of the operations in this area place a large emphasis on education and conservation and it is recommended that the services of these companies be sought out in order to get the most out of each encounter with these magnificent predators. On visits in early Spring and late Autumn you may find yourself cage diving near the preferred anchorage of Dyer Island which is a spectacular breeding and roosting area for seabirds. Nearby Geysor rock and shark alley is home to over 50 000 Cape fur seals. Inshore visibility is typically poor in the 3-15ft range but around Dyer Island it can be as good as 50feet during winter and spring.

Other options around the Gansbaai area include excellent boat based whale watching as well as diving on the famous Birkenhead wreck lying off Danger Point. The latter dive is for highly experienced divers only as swell and current are the order of the day but the incredible history of the wreck where the British troops stood at attention while the ship sank add to the mystique and intrigue of this wreck.


From a photographic point of view, for all surface shooting in False Bay with the hunting great whites, mega dolphin pods, gannet and seal action as well as most around the boat encounters I use a 70-200 F2.8 lens but the emphasis is on the weight and ease of use of the lens more than anything else. 

A tip for shooting beaches is to shoot from low and select your focus point below the middle center focus point. This elevates the shark further out of the water and has less negative space below the action. For natural predation, start by shooting slightly wider as this gives a lot more room for error and also allows you to get the feel of the action before going too tight.

There are also many opportunities to shoot wide and as such a 16-35 or similar lens is also a good idea. For underwater shooting from the cage consideration must be taken that the ports on the cages used throughout South Africa are narrower than 400mm so strobes, unless compact or on short arms can be cumbersome. The cage also floats right on the surface so ambient light is in full supply. For the pelagic sharks and seven gills, generally housings which allow for wide angle lenses 8-20mm are recommended as in most cases subjects come very close to divers and especially with the seven gills the kelp forests offer a beautiful backdrop which is great to include.


The “Greatest Shoal on Earth” is how sardine run pioneer Peter Lamberti termed the annual movement of billions of sardines along the South African south and east coast. Starting in April off Port Elizabeth huge shoals of sardines move close to the coast as sea temperatures cool to around 19-20c, the preferred swimming environment for these filter feeding bait fish. With the huge shoals come an equally impressive suite of predators. Starting with the aerial assault, amazingly well adapted Cape gannets plunge feed Kamikaze style 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 1000 individuals. As the dolphins start feeding on the fish the sharks in the form of Dusky’s, Bronze whalers and Black tips also join in the feeding frenzy. Finally, and most impressively completing the cast of sardine assassins are the 15 meter long Brydes whales which with their cavernous mouths plough through the bait balls like a giant ice cream scooper.


The sardine run is undoubtedly one of the underwater world’s greatest events to witness.

The action when hot is supercharged like no other event but you do need to put in the time to be lucky and a stay of at least 5-7 days is recommended to give you a realistic chance to see some real action. The bait balls themselves whilst undoubtedly the pinnacle of the show are certainly not all that is worth seeing. The migration of humpbacks along the coast coincides with the run and on most days a chance to dive with or shoot breaching humpbacks exists. Watching and photographing gannets raining into bait fish is also spectacular from above the surface and coupled with massive schools of dolphin racing alongside the boat makes for exciting opportunities to get great shots.

Underwater when the action is hot it can be dangerous and particular attention should be paid to Dive Masters or guides and it is definitely worth doing your homework to make sure the company you choose has experience in these situations. The bait ball is dynamic and as such shifts like a willow tree blowing in the wind. Whilst you want to be close to the action you do not want to be caught up in the ball as not only will this potentially dissipate the action but you could literally do a “Jonah and the whale” as Brydes whales can race through bait balls , mouths agape. If you are in their path the results could be unpleasant to say the least. Also be sure, when shooting with other photographers to have some sort of understanding so as to not be shooting towards each other and getting in one another’s shot all the time, unless that’s what you want of course.


Generally the key to a great day on the run is water clearer than 15ft, and good focused gannet action, if this occurs it is likely that the other role players will turn up and with the good vis  your chances of seeing something special are high. Shooting wise, being mobile is a good idea. You will generally be shooting off  25ft Rubber Inflatable Boat’s ( RIB) and it is wise to have your gear very well organized because when you chance upon action the sooner you can get in amongst it and not struggling to find your gear when everyone is frantically grabbing theirs,  so much the better. 

Shorter strobe arms allow greater maneuverability and generally wide to medium wide lenses are recommended. To capture the full chaotic scene Dual strobes to offer good balance of lighting are an asset but acceptable shots can certainly be achieved with one or even no strobes especially when the action is close to the surface. Typically the action is between 5-25 feet and water temperatures are around the high 60’s.

Scuba, especially for shooting is the preferred option but guests more comfortable on snorkel can also have a great time. 

A shooting tip with the sharks is to let them come to you and do not chase after them. Position yourself next to the action and for a few minutes simply observe what is going on. By doing this you will pick up patterns in how the dolphins sweep into the shoals in well-orchestrated attacks, where the sharks are spending most of their time in the ball and finally how the light is allowing different shooting opportunities. By simply spending just a little time observing, the chances of predicting where the action will be next, will exponentially improve your shooting results and chances. It is also a good idea to have a vigilant dive buddy because when the action heats up the sharks can become very friendly and a gentle push away can be required. 

The peak time for sardine run activity is May to July with Port Elizabeth, East London, Coffee Bay and Port St Johns, in that order being the sequence 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 on bad weather days and general down time options when booking one of these trips. Our company Apex Shark Expeditions runs two 8 day trips limited to a maximum of 8 guests out of East London in June each year but various other options exist further up the coast later in the run which can also be excellent.




Marine Life, Great White Shark, Great White Shark Breaching, Great White Shark Predation

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