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Marine wildlife guide

False Bay and Surrounds

Whether you're a nature enthusiast, student or simply curious about sharks, our informative guide provides everything you need to know about these incredible creatures and the underwater world they inhabit.


Shark Cage Diving - Great White Shark description - Marine wildlife - Apex Shark Expeditions

Great White Shark

Carcharodon Carcharias

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Seal Island is the largest island-based seal colony in Africa and is home to 60,000 Cape Fur Seals. This is the South African winter hunting ground of the Great White Shark who feed mostly off the young seal pups.

During a season we can observe up to 800 predatory events making it the most intense Great White Shark hunting area known on earth, which makes for excellent viewing.

In summer, baitfish attract migratory fish species such as Kabbeljou, Yellow Tail, Elf and Steenbras, which in turn attracts larger predators including a host of shark species.

All of these species make up the summer diet of the Great White Shark and are largely the result of the movement of the sharks from Seal Island to the inshore areas along False Bay’s coastline during the summer months.

Shark Cage Diving - Mako Shark description - Marine wildlife - Apex Shark Expeditions

The Mako Shark

Isurus Oxyrinchus

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Royal blue on top and silvery white below, the Mako Shark is one of the most striking animals on earth.

Like other mackerel sharks, the Mako has a homocercal (equal-lobed) tail and a horizontally flattened keel at the tail’s base. They are streamlined, with a conical snout, small second dorsal fins, and the aforementioned tail shape. Their dark eyes give them the bold, focused look of a predator. Mako Sharks start off feeding on baitfish but as they grow are capable of hunting large Tuna, Swordfish and even dolphin and seals.

Although capable of growing to over 4m (13ft), the Mako Sharks that we encounter are usually juveniles, averaging about 1.5m (5ft).

Shark Cage Diving - Blue Shark description - Marine wildlife - Apex Shark Expedition

Blue Shark

Prionace Glauca

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As the name suggests, these sharks are a beautiful shade of blue and have long pectoral fins for gliding in search of food. Blue Sharks adopt an up and down swim pattern searching water columns for food, as opposed to the traditional criss-crossing movement seen in other sharks.

Growing as long as 4m (13ft), the Blue Shark is the nomad of the open ocean. Blue sharks have an interesting adaptation in that they have papillose (finger-like) gill-rakers that stops very small food items such as krill from escaping out the gill slits.

The Blue Shark is one of the most fecund (giving birth to lots of young) of all large sharks and was once recorded giving birth to 135 40cm young. Most Blue Sharks we see are between 1.2m and 1.6m (4-7ft), but we have seen bigger.

shark photography shark cage diving

Marine mammals and bird life

Learn more about the range of other marine species that live along the South African coastline, here.

Shark Cage Diving - Southern Right Whale description - Marine wildlife - Apex Shark Expeditions

Southern Right Whale

Eubalaena Australis

Named after the unfortunate ease with which they were harpooned, these whales would float conveniently when dead, making them “the right” target for whalers. Boulders Beach (where the penguins are today) was a whaling station until the early 20th century and the old tethering rings for harpooned whales can still be seen today.

Boulders was also the scene of South Africa’s first fatal shark attack in 1902 as sharks were no doubt attracted by the regular supply of dead whales. Fortunately, today the whales are protected and are one of the good news conservation stories, recovering at an annual rate of 7%. They can be seen in False Bay between August and November and occasionally as early as May, using the waters in the bay to mate and calve.

It is believed this species may live up to 70 years of age. They have no dorsal fin, can be up to 18m long and have large callosities (patches of dry skin) on their heads. The double spouted blowhole is also indicative of the species. During late August, September and October you may be thrilled by the exciting occurrence of a breaching Southern Right Whale in the bay.

Shark Cage Diving - Humpback Whale description - Marine wildlife - Apex Shark Expeditions

Humpback Whales

Megaptera Novaeangliae

The Humpback Whale undertakes the longest migration of any mammal on earth, with some covering nearly 16 000km in a round trip. The scientific name literally translates into “big wing of England” and describes the whale’s long flippers, the longest of any whale.

Humpback Whales are well known for creating a net of bubbles to trap the fish on which they lunge feed.

Usually seen in family groups of 2 or more, we typically see these whales 5 to 10 times a year, to the east of Seal Island and regularly during our spring and early summer months off Cape Point.

These 17m long giants are affectionately known as the ballerinas of the ocean as they twist and tumble in the open ocean.

Their typically white tail flukes which can be seen when they dive distinguish them from other whales.

Shark Cage Diving - Antarctic Minke Whale and Dwarf Minke Whale description - Marine wildlife - Apex Shark Expeditions

Antarctic Minke Whale & Dwarf Minke Whale

Balenoptera Bonaerensis & Balenoptera Acutorostrata

These whales are more likely to investigate a boat than the Brydes Whale and we have had a number of incredible interactions.

The Antarctic Minke grows to around 11m, while the Dwarf Minke grows to around 8m. Neither species have a visible blowhole and both only have a single ridge on the head.

Shark Cage Diving - Brydes Whale description - Marine wildlife - Apex Shark Expeditions

Brydes Whale

Balaenoptera Edeni

Although seen elsewhere, these 15m long whales are semi-resident to False Bay. They are most often seen where shoals of baitfish occur and are occasionally seen gulp feeding.

They are identified by a small curved dorsal fin two thirds of the way along the back of the whale. They are named after Johan Bryde – a Norwegian whaler who initiated a whaling operation in South Africa.

Humpback Dolphins

Sousa chinensis

Humpback Dolphin have only been seen a handful of times in False Bay and we have been lucky enough to see them twice – on both occasions they were seen close inshore. Sadly large levels of pollutants have been found in their tissue. They are between 2.5m to 2.8m and are characterised by an irregular hump-shaped dorsal fin. 

Shark Cage Diving - Bottlenose Dolphins description - Marine wildlife - Apex Shark Expeditions

Bottlenose Dolphins

Tursiops truncates & Tursiops aduncus

We have seen two species of Bottlenose Dolphins in False Bay. Mostly seen closer to Muizenberg and Strandfontein beaches, these 2.5m grey dolphins typically dive for lengthy periods and often swim in tight groupings. On very rare occasions these dolphins will swim right next to Seal Island. On several occasions, remains of Bottlenose Dolphin have been found inside the stomachs of Great White Sharks.

Shark Cage Diving - Dusky Dolphins description - Marine wildlife - Apex Shark Expeditions

Dusky Dolphin

Lagenorhynchus obscurus

These dolphins are only seen a handful of times each year. They are 1.5 to 1.8m in length and are mostly black and white. They are a lot smaller than Common Dolphins and typically occur in schools of 10 to 50 animals. The maximum age is believed to be around 35 years. The sighting of this species is often made more special by their playful acrobatic antics.

Shark Cage Diving - Common Dolphin description - Marine wildlife - Apex Shark Expeditions

Common Dolphin

Delphinus capensis & Delphinus delphis

These beautifully patterned dolphins are especially common in False Bay in April, but can also be seen all year round. These species of dolphin grow to around 2.5m, live close to 40 years and are often seen riding the bow wave.

Common dolphin are gregarious and can occur in mega schools of over 1000, but schools of 20 to 200 are more common. It is possible that larger groups are more effective at hunting in deep water. There may be a partial migration of this species further north in winter following Sardine shoals. The groups can present different formations, some with fixed structures. Others may represent temporary aggregations for the immediate solution of a problem, like more efficient hunting or avoiding danger.

Males are the larger gender and may reach 2.6m, with females reaching 2.3m. The calf is born 800mm long after an 11 month gestation period. Calving peaks in summer. Lactation may last up to one and half years. Females are sexually mature at about 2m long when they are 6 to 7 years old. Calving interval is 3 years. Some fighting in competition for females is assumed to occur between males.

There are 51 pairs of teeth in the upper jaw and a similar amount in the lower jaw. Teeth are conical and 3mm in diameter.


Bird Vision

Seabirds such as terns and gulls that feed both above and below water have red oil droplets in their eyes. This improves contrast and sharpens distance vision, especially in hazy conditions. Birds that have to look through an air / water interface have deeper coloured carotenoid pigments in the oil droplets than other species which helps them to locate shoals of fish.

Birds that pursue fish solely underwater have far fewer red oil droplets, and instead have special flexible lenses and use the nictitating membrane as an additional lens. This allows greater optical accommodation for good vision in air and water.


African Penguin

Spheniscus demersus

This is the only penguin species that regularly breeds in Africa. 

Hunting parties numbering 5 to 50 penguins are regularly seen close to the Arc Rock and Roman Rock area (Roman Rock was South Africa’s first automated light house). These birds are mostly from Boulders Beach Penguin Colony which presently holds around 2500 birds.

Seal Island also has a small breeding population which can be most easily seen mid-way up the eastern side of the island.These penguins can travel more than 50km to feed and are occasionally killed by Great White Sharks.

Cape Gannet

Cape Gannets

Sula capensis

As youngsters these birds are mostly a grey-black, but adulthood sees them turn a brilliant white. They have yellowish wings and spectacularly blue-ringed eyes and are always special to see should you get close enough. 

Known in Afrikaans as “malgans” (mad goose), they are often seen diving kamikaze-style from prodigious heights into the sea to catch fish. They enter the water at speeds up to 145 km/hr and can reach depths of 30m, resurfacing up to 20 seconds later. With almost-front facing eyes, they can see forward better than most other birds with near binocular vision.

In part due to this amazing binocular vision, most eventually die blind and from starvation. The lifetime of repeated high-speed impact with the water eventually takes its toll on their eyesight.

The Cape Cormorant

Phalacrocorax capensis

This species is abundant and can often be seen in a swirling mass numbering in the thousands. These birds can easily be identified by a yellow patch on their throat and their smaller relative size. 


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The White Breasted Cormorants

Phalacrocorax carbo

This is South Africa’s largest cormorant and is characterised by a large white breast. Closer inspection reveals two beautiful dark green eyes.

Numerically this cormorant is the least abundant on Seal Island and also the only species which feeds mostly around the island. Not surprisingly then, it is also the bird most commonly attacked by Great Whites which usually discard it as an unwanted meal after tasting it.

The Bank Cormorant

Phalacrocorax neglectus

This is a threatened species and there are reportedly only 6000 birds remaining in their range. Interestingly they make their nests from fine seaweed which is glued together with their own excrement. The plumage of breeding birds can be identified by a bold white spot on their backs.

Black Backed Kelp Gulls

Black Backed Kelp Gulls

Larus dominicanus

These gangsters of Seal Island will often be seen scavenging on or around the island. During the months of May to August, large numbers congregate on the south western end of the island. This area has been dubbed “The Gallery” as it is the best vantage point for the gulls to watch for predatory events.

Mature birds are characterised by a red dot on their beaks. The chicks peck this dot, prompting the adults to regurgitate food for them.

In January of 2009 we found a sick adult bird drifting close to shore. The ring on the bird’s leg revealed that it was 22 years old and ringed only two kilometres away from where we found it.            

Pelagic Birds

Pelagic Birds

The waters off Cape Point rank as some of the best on earth to see the great open ocean birds and you will have an excellent opportunity to see many of these birds up close. They offer the chance to see no less than 7 species of Albatross on a single outing, including the Wandering, Northern and Southern Albatross. The greatest of them all is the Wandering Albatross with a wingspan that may reach a staggering 3.6m (11ft).

During our daily excursions we often investigate the wakes of commercial trawlers which ply their trade in these waters. It is in the wash of these boats that many seabirds gather - Albatross, Petrels, Shearwaters, Prions, Gulls, Skuas, Terns and Gannets up to 8000 at a time.

The variation in species diversity depends heavily on seasons so be sure to ask beforehand, which is the best time of year to see your special bird. The birds are often less than a few metres away and this is an excellent opportunity to see their amazing adaptations to this extreme environment up close.

seal island

Seal Island

Seal Island is 400m long and 80m wide and lies in a roughly north-south orientation. This island is home to Africa's largest island-bound seal colony numbering around 64 000 Cape fur Seals.

Cape Fur Seal

Cape Fur Seals

Arctocephalus pusillus

The seals use this island as a breeding ground and each year around 12 000 pups are born. The pups are suckled for nine months or more, but will start feeding on their own from as early as 5 months.

Adult males, or bull seals, return to the island in large numbers to mate and set up territories around September / October each year and then leave shortly after the bulk of pupping.
The bulls can weigh over 300kg, while a large female may weigh upwards of 75kg.

Ironically this largest of all fur seals was given the scientific name pusillus as it was first described from a pup. Pusillus means small. At birth they weigh around 5kg. Males can live for 18 years and females up to 21 years. They are typically seen in False Bay in groups ranging from 1 to 5 animals but can be in large pods numbering over 100 when feeding. They often depart from the southern end of Seal Island in well organised groups.