Posted on Thursday, 18 June 2020
The 22nd of August 1996 was a significant day for Great white shark eco-tourism in False Bay.
This was the day the first ever great white shark breach was observed and recorded at Seal Island and also the start of the World’s fascination with breaching great white sharks.
Chris Fallows from Apex Shark Expeditions shares the moment as well as his idea of towing a life-jacket behind his tiny rubber inflatable boat …
“Up until that point we had no idea that sharks breached at this tiny island in the Northern half of False Bay.
I got the idea of towing the decoy from watching Scott Anderson cast a surfboard off the rocks at the Farralon Islands off San Francisco, which when retrieved, resulted in a spectacular breach by a 20 foot long great white shark famously known as Stumpy.
I remember our day well. Along with three friends, we launched from the beach through the surf, roughly 7km from Seal Island.
This was illegal, as we were heading more than a mile offshore, and probably reckless, but when you are 23 years old bullets can’t hurt you!
Not expecting anything, we put the lifejacket out, 15 meters behind the inflatable and began our tow. At 11h15 within just 30 seconds of deployment a small 2.5m Great white shark launched into the air. We all stared at each other in disbelief! The small shark quickly spat out the unexpected taste of a lifejacket, which with much hollering, we duly retrieved.
With some reservation on the part of my companions, we once again put the yellow decoy out. Thinking it may have been an incredible once off we watched transfixed as a far larger 3.5 shark catapulted into the air after just a further 5 minutes of towing.
Like its smaller relative, it too spat out the decoy, but instead of diving, it swam up to the air-filled boat and circled us. It was the first and only time I have ever been in a boat where the famous words of Jaws rung true, we genuinely did need a bigger boat as the shark was indeed longer than the one we were in!
Little did we know back then what we had truly discovered and what a world-renowned phenomenon Seal Island’s flying sharks would become.”
Shark cage diving in Simon's Town
Up to this point, Great white sharks had a long history in False Bay.
The first Great white shark attack took place at Windmill Beach in 1901 and traditional fishermen had many sightings and interactions, including a number of occasions when white sharks jumped into fishing boats (as a product of chasing fish up to the boat that had been caught).
Post the Oscar winning movie, Jaws, False Bay became a hot spot for fishing for Great white sharks the 1970’s. These apex predators were targeted as being a danger to humans, and of course the thrill of catching and killing a one ton predator had its own allure. Approximately 100Great white sharks were caught and killed by sport fishermen between 1975 and 1990.
In days gone by, it was incorrectly believed that Great white sharks preferred warm waters and as such Seal Island was always thought to be absent of Great white sharks during the colder water months of winter. The South African spearfishing championships was even held here on a number of occasions, always during winter! A shark attack on a spearfishermen here in August 1983 put an end to the activity. Of course hindsight now has us wondering how on earth they could have considered this … winter being prime time for Great white sharks and all!
The first shark diving operation was started in False Bay in 1988 by George Askew and PJ van der Walt. They strongly believed they would find great whites at Seal Island in the summer months due to the warmer water and hundreds of seal pups that littered the waters around the seal colony. They were unsuccessful in their attempts.
In fact, 22 August 1996 was the first successful attempt to find great white sharks at Seal Island by a group that was actively looking for sharks. This find led to Chris Fallows and Rob Lawrence establishing African Shark Eco Charters, the first successful shark diving company in False Bay.
Many tourists come for a shark cage diving experience in Simon's Town.
Today there are now three permitted operations namely, Apex Shark Expeditions (formed by Chris & Monique Fallows), African Shark Eco Charters and Shark Explorers. All three shark diving boats operate out of the Naval town of Simonstown and it is a short 30 minute boat ride to the permitted shark diving area of Seal Island.
What set Seal Island apart from any other great white shark location in the world was the predatory behaviour between Great white sharks and cape fur seals.
As no one had ever worked with great whites at Seal Island before, nor studied them here, the early years were a learning process.
“In the early years we would observe a splash or two, occasionally observe some slashing on the surface and wonder what the gulls were doing hovering above these seemingly random events. As our teams skill in understanding what was actually going on increased we quickly became aware that this island was truly amazing and that the intensity of predation seen here was unsurpassed anywhere in the world.”
As of 2018, just over 10,000 predatory events were recorded at Seal Island by Chris and Monique Fallows and the Apex Team. There is no other white shark predatory event data base of its kind like this the world; and no less than 12 scientific papers have been peer reviewed and published from the data collected. These non-invasive natural observations have led to a tremendous understanding of the predatory dynamics that exist between shark and seal and th conditions that are conducive to it.
The breaching and predation behaviour at Seal Islands is what has made the great whites and this location famous, but Seal Island was also one of the best locations in the world to cage dive with these majestic predators.
When witnessing a predator during shark cage diving in Simon's Town in full hunting mode, one is left in doubt as to the power and ferocity is possesses. However, once the early morning hours pass and prime hunting time is over, the great white becomes a different animal. Slowing down to conserve energy, we had the privileged for so many years of watching them gently cruise around the boat and up to the shark cage.
False Bay was home to the largest average size of Great white sharks in South Africa and the average size of shark was 3.5 meters in length. A large great white shark is a truly impressive animal and a life highlight to see. For many guests, seeing such a huge animal underwater was a shark diving highlight.
Sadly, in the past 4 years there has been a dramatic decline in Great white shark numbers and sightings across all three of the great white shark hotspots inSouth African. This is due to a combination of factors such as climate change and threat of orca predation, but is most likely linked to a loss in the food source of the Great white shark.
Great white sharks only feed on seals during the months April to September, and for the rest of the year, they rely on smaller shark species as their main prey diet. In fact, a great white only feeds on seals once it reaches approximately 6-7 foot in length and 4-5 years or more of age,and up to this point, again it is the smaller shark species that are key to their diet. Take way this food source, and massive consequences take place.
The fishery for Smoothhound and soupfin shark has been unsustainably managed by Government to a state where both these shark populations are in collapse. Despite the dire situation, the Demersal shark longline fishery (for the above species) continues to fish with no restrictions on total catch or size.
The shopping centres for Great white sharks have effectively closed, leaving us wondering where all the patrons have gone.
Nature has a way of adapting very quickly. With the almost complete departure of great white sharks from Seal Island, a niche opened and we recorded the first arrivals on Sevengill sharks to Seal Island in 2018.
Sevengill shark numbers increased steadily and we are now seeing this incredible shark species that outlived the dinosaurs, almost year round at Seal Island. They are primarily scavengers and we think their presence is to due food availability in the form of seal carcasses around the Island.
They are highly interactive and spend long periods of time around our boat and cage. Those looking for an up close encounter with a shark are loving and appreciating this strange looking shark.
In the summer months when the water temperatures increase, we are also viewing and diving with Bronze whaler, also known as Copper sharks. They too have accepted the open invitation to Seal Island.
Simonstown is just 45 minutes from Cape Town making it the closest shark diving venue to South Africa’s most visited city. And for those Cape Town locals looking to do something post lockdown, Simonstown falls within that all important 100km radius!
For visitors pressed for time, Simonstown is conveniently located along the same route as The Boulders Beach Penguin Colony and Cape Point Nature Reserve. This means you can enjoy your shark diving experience on the same day as the “must do’s” in Cape Town.
Seal Island often has good underwater visibility so viewing-wise for a cage diving activity, it is the best in South Africa. Due to the sensitive behaviour at Seal Island the shark diving operations here have always been smaller and Apex now has the smallest group size in the industry. We are proud to offer the most exclusive shark experience in South Africa!
False Bay as a location has so much more to offer than just a shark dive. 64,000 cape fur seals crowd Seal Island, the rock that they call home. It is the largest island based seal colony in Africa and as it is a breeding colony, the different cycles during the year are fascinating to observe. All types of seal behaviour such as breeding, pupping, parental care, playing and surfing can be enjoyed.
The Bay itself to home to a plethora of marine wildlife.
Baitfish in the form of sardine and anchovy is the calling card to other members of the ecosystem. Mega Pods of common dolphin, numbering up to 2000 members strong in the school, are often present and can be observed feeding on mass. Huge flocks of Cape Gannets and thousands of Cape Cormorants also join in. Semi resident to False Bay, Brydes whales, are also part of the show.
And in the months of July to October migrating Southern Right whales make use of False Bay’s shallow bays to breed and give birth.
Humpback whales also fairly regularly put in a showing!
Just like conservation objectives, we don’t believe wildlife viewing should be species specific, and we believe taking your shark diving trip out of Simon’s Town will provide you with a rich and highly memorable all-round wildlife experience.