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Shark Bytes

May 2004 Shark Bytes

written by Monique Fallows

Posted on Monday, 31 May 2004

Dear Readers


Just after 1am on Monday morning we received a phone call that our boat, White Pointer, was on fire. We immediately raced through to Simonstown where She is moored, trying not to think the worst. To be honest I had thought to myself that there had probably been only a small fire but that it was still necessary to call us. Before we had even got to the boat we could smell the burning smell and at that point we started to think that something was seriously wrong. The smell had not prepared us for the sight of our charred vessel that had been completely burnt down to water level and was quite obviously a complete write-off. 

The shock that someone can actually follow through with something like this is so great. White Pointer was an incredible sea boat and we experienced so many great encounters and adventures with sharks with Her. 

The next morning the Forensic Science Unit as well as the Bomb Squad inspected the boat and as we had presumed their opinion was that an arsonist started the fire. 

A police investigation is under way. Whatever the outcome the wrong shark diving operation has been targeted as we are undoubtedly the people who are the most concerned about the environment and make huge efforts to operate in the most eco-friendly way. Because we so vehemently campaign for sharks Chris is always asked to quote in the media as well as having being involved in 30 film documentaries. We feel many in the general public think that Chris is the only operator in South Africa as his is the name many know.

The good news is that we have already secured another vessel to hire for the remainder of the white shark season at Seal Island so the perpetrators have not stopped us doing what we love.

Up until this point we had been having a very good month for various shark species and have even managed to dive with a shark that we personally had not seen before. To dive with new sharks is getting harder and harder and this one came completely by surprise.


For two weeks we hosted a group of 3 students for a new programme that we have started with a company called Bio Experience. Bio Experience runs programmes whereby students get to be involved with people working with the environment. We wanted to start this programme to give students the opportunity to experience working with sharks as well as to learn more about sharks. The programme not only involves white sharks and pelagic sharks, but the opportunity to see small endemic catsharks that occur in our area. On the last of these dives I was in the water with two of the students and Chris and the third student had finished their dive. We had seen a couple of striped catsharks and a few puffadder shy sharks. None of these are larger than 80cm. As I was drifting around one of the students gently tugged my arm and I turned around to find a 2.5 meter spotted sevengill cow shark about half a meter away from me! The cow shark that was swimming straight towards me veered off and then turned back around. As she was coming closer I was trying to decide at what point I needed to fend her off. When she got to the point where I had to do something she turned around and I was able to run my hand down the length of her body. It was an incredible experience and I was so excited. Chris & I had wanted to dive with these sharks for so long but had never found them. When we shouted to Chris about what we had just seen he did not believe us! I thought the shark was a once-off sighting but then about ten minutes later she returned and this time with a friend equally as big! This time I made sure that Chris believed me and he managed to get in the water in time to see them.

We still believed that this was just pure luck that we had seen them, but have now seen them on three out of three dives!

We think that there must be a healthy population in this particular area and have positively identified eleven different individuals.

The spotted sevengill cow shark is from the Hexanchidae  Family that is one of the oldest orders of all sharks. They actually look fairly prehistoric and have an extremely broad head and long tails as well as seven gills. They inhabit kelp forests and are definitely the apex predator of this environment. They can get very large, up to three meters total length and it is quite a site seeing this huge shark coming towards you through the kelp! We have found their behaviour to be very different on all three dives. On one occasion they were very bold and we had to constantly kick them away with our fins and other times they were very tolerant of us being with them. We are most certainly looking forward to many more dives with them in the future!

May has also seen us undertake the last of our pelagic trips. It is not so much that the mako and blue sharks cannot be found in the winter months, it is just so much harder to get out there with the prevailing winter winds as well as the fact that the warm currents where we find these sharks push further out, to sometimes a hundred miles and more.

We have had our best month with these sharks and have dived with sharks on all our trips. The wait period has also been fairly short and the good news is that we have been seeing a lot of blue sharks. On two different trips we had approximately 15 blue sharks around the boat. This is what we had been seeing in past seasons, but this year we were seeing more mako’s than blue sharks. This should not be the case and we believe that over fishing has been the cause. Worldwide 40 million blue sharks are caught and killed annually. We have been told that longline fishing vessels in Port Elizabeth, which is 800 kilometres from Cape Town up the East coast of South Africa, are bringing in 60 tonnes of blue sharks from three-week fishing trips.

It is now more important than ever to keep telling people of what is going on out there as we believe that the pelagic sharks stocks cannot sustain these fishing pressures.

On a positive note Marine and Coastal Management have indicated to us that steps are going to be taken in the future to minimize shark fishing and they have scientists now dedicated to protecting pelagic shark stocks. Hopefully these efforts will be implemented in time.

Each year May usually signals the start of the great white shark season at Seal Island in False Bay. I know that I repeat this each year, but there have been a lot of new subscribers since I last explained how everything works at Seal Island. Basically there is a very definite time to see the white sharks at Seal Island and this is dependant on what food is available for them. White sharks seem to prefer to feed on fish species as they will pose less of a threat to them. Seals will most times bite and claw the sharks if they are able to. This can be potentially very dangerous for sharks especially should the shark lose an eye for example. Therefore when the summer fish migrate out of False Bay to find warmer water, the sharks have to go the Seal Island to feed on the seals.

The shark activity has been up and down and we are starting to think that we are going to have a late season as we did last year. Ironically the last day that White Pointer went to Seal Island we saw a total of 10 predatory events, the most we have seen in one day this year. According to the long-range weather forecast there are a couple of cold fronts approaching which for Seal Island usually signals intense predatory behaviour. 

To end this month we would like to thank everyone who has contacted us regarding White Pointer. Not only have we heard from friends, but people that we do not even know and from all over the world. I am sure that most people know the story by now about how Chris saw the first white shark breach at Seal Island. He had taken his 3.5-meter inflatable out to Seal Island in an attempt to find white sharks. He decided to tow a lifejacket behind the rubber-duck and within a few minutes a small white shark had breached completely out of the air with the lifejacket in its mouth. We have always kept this lifejacket on the boat as a talisman. When we saw our burnt out vessel one of the saddest thoughts we had was that the lifejacket had burned too. The next day we found it to be one of the only things not to have been destroyed!

So, we figure that all of this will have a good ending!

On “Photo’s of the month” we have put up some images of the cow sharks as well as the burnt out White Pointer. 


Best wishes

Monique Fallows




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