Sharks of Southern Africa
Posted on Tuesday, 15 February 2011
1 - 12 February
Every couple of years Chris and I host a special expedition which focuses on finding and diving with as many different shark species that we can find in the Southern Cape. Most people associate Great White sharks with South Africa but there is such a variety of other sharks, both big and small. This trip is aimed towards the true shark and nature lover.
We started off by taking a four hour drive from Cape Town to spend the first five days with our long-time friends Tim and Hilary. In this area in the Southern Cape our aim was to dive with Smooth and Scalloped hammerhead pups, large Ragged Tooth sharks, Bronze Whaler or Copper sharks and a variety of small cat shark species. However, Mother Nature sometimes has her own plans! We arrived to gale-force winds that followed us all the way up from Cape Town and this beast continued to blow for the first three days of our trip. It was disappointing but our group was very understanding and we made the most of what we could do.
On the first day we did something that Chris and I have wanted to do for years now. There is a commercial fishing harbour a couple hours away that has some resident Short Tailed devil rays in very shallow water. On our arrival Poenas immediately spotted the first very large black shape as it glided past the harbour wall. Then very quickly a second ray was spotted. This ray can get to two meters wide and can weigh up to 200kgs. The water was unfortunately pea soup green and there was no way we could snorkel with the rays. The next best option was to stand in the shallows and interact with the rays in this way.
We all stood on a long line, with me on the outside. Almost immediately an extremely large ray approached me. I had no idea what it was going to do and the next minute it had bumped into my hip, giving me one great fright. The restaurant on the wharf feeds the rays every day and thus they are quite happy to ask anyone who is around for a snack. Once we caught onto what was happening we were all competing for that end spot so that that we could have a close encounter with the rays. It was so much fun and every time a ray would try nibble on someone we were rewarded with some very girly laughs and shouts.
During the bad weather we also visited a nature reserve close by where we could snorkel in the rock pools at low tide. Due to the high winds the conditions were pretty miserable but we did manage to see our first two species of shark. The seldom seen Leopard cat shark and then a Striped Pyjama cat shark.
When we finally got to sea on the fourth day Mother Nature had another cruel realisation for us. We have visited this spot so many times over the last ten years and every time has yielded amazing shark sightings. We choose this time of the year as the water temp is normally 20 to 23 degrees Celsius and the hammerheads, Ragged Tooths and Bronze Whalers are normally found here in great numbers. To our absolute shock and horror we got out to sea to find that the water temperature was a freezing 10 degrees Celsius. The wind was obviously a concern for Chris and I but we never in a million years thought we would find freezing water and no sharks! Forced into being experimental we worked our way quite a bit further out and found water that was a little warmer, 14 degrees Celsius. With not too many options left we decided to try our luck and after about twenty minutes of having a bait in the water we got our first tiny Smooth hammerhead up to the boat. We could only stay further out to sea for about an hour and a half as the sea was still very choppy from the gale force winds. Before being forced to move closer inshore we did have about five hammerheads at the boat. It was great to see them but the cold water really affected their behaviour and they did not interact with us for too long.
Once we moved closer inshore, and back to the 10 degree Celsius water we did not find any hammerheads but a highlight was to have a large Ragged tooth shark come up to the surface to take a large gulp of air, not something that is seen too often.
On the following day we headed out into very flat water with our fingers mightily crossed that warmer water had pushed in. It was not to be… We decided to take a boat cruise into the marine reserve and into an area we not been to before. Sea conditions often make this piece of coastline out of bounds but the beautiful conditions meant we could navigate through. It was a spectacular drive along this deserted area and as we approached a very long piece of beach Chris and Poenas spotted a small school of dolphin. As we got closer we found them to be about twenty large Bottle-Nose dolphin. We had an awesome encounter just from the boat as the dolphin knifed through the perfect glassy water, and then would surf and jump through the breaking waves. As the conditions were so good our guests were able to join the dolphin in the water. We would drop them just in front of the approaching school and then they would enjoy fantastic views as the dolphin slowly cruised by. It was a very special experience and just goes to show that you can still have a great time if you make the most of what Mother Nature presents to you. We did eventually anchor on a piece of reef. As we drove over the reef system we could see a number of Ragged Tooth sharks sitting down below. Yes, they were actually sitting and not moving at all. We tried really hard but we could not get them up to the boat, as was as though all the sharks were pretty much frozen with the cold water temp and their only interest was to hunker down and conserve energy.
So, we headed back to Cape Town for the next part of the trip. Even though we did not have great success with what we had been looking for we certainly made the most of what was there and had a great many laughs in between.