South Africa, Predators Paradise!
Posted on Sunday, 8 July 2012
South Africa is home to the Big 5, incredible landscapes iconic landmarks and open space, and lying just offshore some truly remarkable marine mega fauna.
There can be few places, if any, where you can see the big 5 on land and the likes of Great White sharks, and many other shark species, mega pods of dolphin, various species of whales, flocks of penguins and a huge diversity of other marine life all within a few hours’ drive of each other.
Cape Town, South Africa’s mother city, situated at the South Western tip of Africa offers just such an opportunity. False Bay is just 35 minutes’ drive from Cape Town city center and the opportunity for the marine nature lover to see world famous spectacles is easy, accessible and affordable.
During the months of March to June massive bait fish shoals of sardine and anchovy enter False Bay and with this influx of prey come a whole host of predators. Launching from the historical naval port of Simons town the opportunity to see mega pods of dolphins crashing shoals of bait fish whilst at the same time being attacked by kamikaze like squadrons of Cape Gannets is only 20 -30 minutes boat ride away. False Bay plays home to the start of the annual sardine run around March each year and over the past 5 years in particular the size of the dolphin schools has been astonishing. This influx of common dolphin has also brought a new predator to the bay and previously unheard of orca sightings have suddenly started to occur. The orcas along the Cape coast appear to be dolphin hunting specialists and the action, when it happens, is about as intense as you could ever wish to see. We have witnessed on numerous occasions pods of orca run down the schools of dolphin and then with a final dramatic breach into the fleeing masses stunning and killing their prey.
By early June the schools of bait fish have moved up the East coast and the schools of dolphins, flocks of Gannets and pods of orca’s have for the most part moved on. But wait, as the TV adverts would say, there’s more.
Around late April False Bay’s legendary Flying great white sharks, as seen on Planet Earth , the Air Jaws series and more than 50 other nature documentaries, start arriving at Seal Island. Seal Island, situated in False Bay’s north central region is home to Africa’s largest island bound seal colony and numbers around 65 000 seals at its peak. By early June the young seals which are born in November /December have been weaned off their mom’s fat rich milk and now start going out to feed and fend for themselves. It is at this time that the action around Seal Island really ratchets up a few notches and unparalleled natural predatory action involving the oceans most famous fish takes center stage. In any given season around 600-800 predatory hunts are recorded by the Apex Shark Expeditions crew around this tiny island and nowhere else on earth offers the same chances of seeing this spectacular behavior. The sharks are successful in around 50% of all hunts and the size of the sharks averages around 11-12 feet.
For those needing to get their hair wet, cage diving, once the early morning’s predations slow down, offer the opportunity to get close to the sharks in their domain. Visibility ranges from 5-50feet with 15-20 feet being normal. Water temperatures range around the mid to late 50’s.
The unique aspect of Seal Island as opposed to other great white shark dive locations is that you can have the chance to see the sharks hunting, breaching and also be able to cage dive all on the same trip although sightings obviously do vary based on weather conditions.
By late August seasonal shifts occur in the bay and the NW winds start shifting more into the SW and then SE. This results in a new mega visitor returning to the bay and the gentle giants, the Southern Right whales move into the bay to mate and calve. Boat based whale watching trips from Simons town take passengers within a stone’s throw of the whales and excellent land based whale watching can also be enjoyed.
Local dive operators generally have the best reef diving conditions in the bay during winter, May-September, where numerous wrecks are dived and soft corals, nudibranchs and a host of temperate water fish add interest to most dives. One of the truly spectacular and easily accessible dives in the bay is with the large seven gill and endemic shark species that patrol the magnificent kelp forests which flank both the Eastern and Western sides of the bay. Pyramid rock, situated only 10 minutes boat ride from Simon’s town offers arguably the world’s best seven gill shark dive with generally good vis in the 15-50foot range and spectacular kelp forests through which these massive prehistoric sharks swim. The sharks are curious but docile, a good mix, and often closely inspect divers! If time allows or if you book in advance a double tank dive can be undertaken with the colony of Cape fur seals that are roughly a mile away from the shark dive. These ever playful seals show off their agility and cavort and play with gay abandon around any divers willing to be their playmates.
Depth in both these areas is generally around 30 foot so it is an easy dive for even the most novice of divers.
As the Southern hemisphere summer really advances so the opportunity to head offshore into the realm of the open ocean predators becomes a reality. Departing once again from Simons town pelagic shark trips are undertaken by Apex Shark Expeditions with the target being the spectacular mako and blue sharks as well as a large emphasis being placed on general marine life such as pelagic birds, cetaceans and game fish all being sought after. Rounding the dramatic cliffs of Cape Point, one of the world’s great nautical landmarks, the next stop is the open ocean and this trip is about as adventurous as a naturalist can do in a day. The warm Agulhas current washes down the Cape East coast and rounds Cape Point usually 15-25 miles offshore. Bringing warm, clear and often blue water this really is a great chance for divers to experience a true open ocean experience.
Dives here are primarily undertaken by drifting in a cage which floats roughly 10 yards astern of the vessel allowing sharks to easily circle divers inside. The use of the cage is not only to increase safety but also to compensate for the current which requires a lot of swimming and by being in the cage allows divers the chance to concentrate on the action and not on keeping up with the boat. On flat calm days, depending on skill level, divers may be allowed to drift and free dive whilst under constant supervision.
Water temperatures range between the high sixties to mid-high seventies and visibility is typically 30-60feet. Yellow fin and albacore tuna, sunfish, occasional turtles, and even marlin are sighted on these remarkable trips.
For guests interested in birdlife , this is one of the world’s best open ocean pelagic bird watching areas with the chance of seeing six or more species of albatross in a day and at least four species being commonly seen on most outings.
Be warned though that these excursions are highly weather dependent and as such a few days should be allowed for this activity. The best months are typically December to April.
If after the shark, whale, dolphin and seal action you felt like a more gentle pursuit, the Boulders beach penguin colony with over 2000 pairs of African penguins, offer the family, divers and non-divers alike, the chance to get close to these comical birds in a magical setting of large boulders and a beach filled with character.
False Bay really has few, if any other places to match it in terms of sheer diversity of predators, ease with which they can be seen and year round options for activities that range from very mild to pretty wild. Be warned that during the months of September to late November the wind can really blow and at this time of the year contingencies for land based activities such as wine tasting, visits to Cape Point nature reserve, Table Mountain, Kirstenbosch gardens or Robben Island ( Nelson Mandela’s prison) should be entertained. Excellent accommodation is available in Cape Town and many 5 and even 6 star hotels and in Simon’s town hotels and excellent B&B’s offer varying levels of accommodation.