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Trip Reports

Sharks of Southern Africa with Alessandro

written by Monique Fallows

A Cape Fur seal swimming through a bait ball of sardine.

Posted on Wednesday, 26 February 2014

The Western Cape is home to a huge variety of shark species and for a shark enthusiast wanting to see and dive with many different species over a short amount of time The Sharks of Southern Africa Expedition that we run each summer is a shark lovers paradise! Our first two days took place in Cape Town where our aim was a Pelagic shark trip to dive with Mako and Blue sharks. On the first day the weather forecast promised calm weather and with the warm water only a few miles from Cape Point we were all ready for a great day out there.


Weather forecasts now days are very accurate and it has been a while since the weather man has got it wrong. We had a beautiful run up to Cape Point whilst enjoying a beautiful sunrise, but as we rounded The Point, it was not the great weather that we were promised. We pushed a few miles further offshore hoping the weather would improve but unfortunately we had to turn around at about 8 miles.  


The good news was that we had a pretty good Plan B. The Great White sharks had made a very early return to Seal Island this year with the first sharks sighted in the last week of January. In years gone by it was not uncommon for the Great White shark season to start around April, so January is very early indeed.


The weather was still perfect in False Bay and we anchored in beautiful conditions to receive our first sharky visitor in just a few minutes. He was an amazing 4m male and was very interactive around the boat. I had not seen a Great White since our December visit to Gansbaai so it was a great opportunity for me to appreciate the enormous size of the Great White shark, particularly this large mature male. After giving us a great view a slightly larger female arrived, so seeing two very large sharks first up was indeed a highlight and a fantastic way to start this expedition. We ended the day with five sharks in total. A brilliant day at Seal Island for the month of February.


The following day was also too windy for offshore diving but nobody was complaining about the three Great White sharks that were seen at Seal Island again. The Great White's were somewhat of a warm up as the team headed three hours up our east coast in search of a number of other shark species. We stay in a remote seaside village far away from bustling traffic and no restaurants and shops in sight. Hilary, our host, is an excellent chef so the restaurants were not to be missed at all! The excellent food and quiet atmosphere is a great break away and any sharks that we would see would be a bonus.


On our first morning we headed out to sea in calm winds but with a slight swell running. As we arrived in our first “sharky” spot Chris spotted a large group of about thirty Bottlenose dolphins. They were in a small sheltered bay and after surfing in the beach break milled around for a short while. This gave us a great opportunity of diving with them. The water visibility was poor but because the dolphins came so close and were curious with the divers it was an excellent encounter for everyone.


One of the main target species in this area are Smooth hammerhead pups. Chris and I have been observing and diving with these hammerheads for the last thirteen years here. The conditions can sometimes be difficult with wind and swell and the behaviour of the little hammerheads can also vary from day to day. You can easily spot them from the surface as their tiny dorsal fins cleave the water and as we get closer to them they often scoot away with short bursts of speed.

A number of Bronze Whaler sharks were also spotted around the boat so that was another new shark species for this trip.


Ever year we hold a competition of who spots the first shark. The winner getting drinks at the bar, so I was super ready to win this year and was delighted to shout out for the first shark. It would end up being our busiest morning ever and we estimated no less than a few hundred hammerhead sharks milling around two small bays. There were just tiny dorsal fins popping up everywhere and we were completely surrounded by sharks. For most people this would not be a comfortable feeling, but we were all in heaven!


The diving conditions were however a little tricky. Water visibility was poor at only a few meters and the hammerheads were particularly shy. Over the years Chris and I have observed them in many different moods. Sometimes they are all over the bait and the divers and other times they want nothing to do with us, mostly displaying body language that they are wary about our presence. So, although it was not a diving day with these little fellas it certainly was incredible to see the absolutely huge numbers they were present in.


The following day we immediately came upon a small pod of about five to seven Humpback dolphins just after sunrise. Although they are a fairly localised species we have only seen them maybe fifteen times ever so we were really excited to get another look at them. This species of dolphin is very rarely interactive and sightings are normally of them surfacing and breathing on the surface for a few moments and then diving down again. We had them do this several times before we gave them some respectful space to go on about their own way again. We all got a great view of them and were then ready for our next species.


In the distance Chris had spotted some diving cape gannets. We always check out this kind of activity as there is a chance of coming across pods of dolphins that would also be feeding on the sardines. As we approached we could see a large school of about five hundred Common dolphins spread over a wide area, all feeding with the gannets. In no time dozens of them had approached our wake and were gently swimming alongside us.


The dolphins began balling the sardines and as we came across a number of sustained feeding activity we decided to put some divers in the water. It turned into a mini Sardine Run event and the group were surrounded by dolphins feeding on the tightly packed sardines. Once this slowed down we decided to try just floating on the surface amongst the dolphins. Once all our guests had experienced this I was able to have a go. It was an amazing experience. Very soon the curious dolphins joined us and a dozen at time would swim very fast towards us, swim underneath and then gently turn upwards to look at us, all the while squeaking in high pitched sonar, before whizzing away again. They came back again and again and all our guests agreed that this was one of their best experiences with nature ever!


This was however supposed to be a shark expedition and although the dolphin activity was amazing we decided to make the most of the flat day and go in search of the Ragged Tooth sharks. There are a number of reefs in this area where large numbers of raggies congregate in shallow water. On arrival we quickly deduced that the water visibility was still unfortunately poor, and with a biggish swell still running, diving would be challenging. But, in no time at all a large ragged tooth shark arrived and even from the surface we got a great view of it and our guests got great use out of the Go Pros. When we could see three on the reef we put the divers down and everyone got to dive with them.  A number of Bronze Whaler sharks were also spotted around the boat so that was another new shark species for this trip. The vis was however poor at best and we hoped the next day would bring better opportunities.


Instead of a longer day at sea we opted for sundowners on the river where we were treated to a magnificent “sky on fire” at sunset. The great thing about joining a dedicated expedition is that having the same group on board each day and the longer time period means we have the flexibility to recognise what is working on that particular day and make the most of it. As we had bombed on the Pelagic Trip in Cape Town we decided to experiment further offshore in this area. We found beautiful blue water with 30m visibility and water temp at 24 degrees Celsius. But it was dead and completely devoid of life. In fact our guests just enjoyed a swim in the beautiful blue open ocean and still had a great time.


On our way back in we spotted a very large green turtle swimming on the surface. Since we were still in the blue water our guests had the opportunity to dive with it, providing another unique experience. We also came across a number of Brydes whales which we could clearly see cruising through the blue water.


On our last day we decided to give the Ragged Tooth sharks one more go. On arrival the water had not cleaned up and diving was not going to be a good option. Close by we spotted the resident pod of Bottlenose dolphins and had beautiful sights of them as they cruised alongside and very close to the cliffs. They were also feeding as they went along and it was great to see how different their hunting was compared to the Common dolphins. The bottlenose did not really partake in balling the fish, rather they would put on quick bursts of speed and gave chase when they came across potential prey.


We were about to head back when Chris again spotted gannets diving in the distance. To our great excitement we saw that the activity was taking place in the blue water, and there were sustained baitballs. Many predators were present and from the surface we watched the gannets dive bomb as the dolphins worked below, aided by a number of Cape Fur seals. The divers very quickly submerged and were treated to an amazing feeding show. The first divers were also lucky enough to encounter five Bronze Whaler sharks that were also partaking in the feeding event. The bait ball was the size of a small car and the activity went on for a good forty five minutes. It was certainly the highlight of the trip and just goes to show how your enjoyment on any trip can be enriched when taking a holist approach and making the most of whatever is happening on a given day.


We had such an amazing group and not only did we see amazing things, we had a lot of fun at the same time, so thank you to our Italian Friends! We can’t wait for 2015!


Shark Expeditions - South Africa, Marine Life, Great White Shark

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