Dive Atlas Of The World: An Illustrated Reference To The Best Sites - Jack Jackson (2016)
by Chris Fallows
SINCE THE MID-1990S SOUTH AFRICA HAS become renowned for Great White Shark viewing and diving. All the diving activities, which are conducted from the safety of a steel cage, are practised along the Cape south and southwest coasts. The Cape coast has a Mediterranean climate with winter rain from May to August and daily air temperatures of 15-20°C (60-68°F). In summer, November to March, the average air temperatures are 25-30°C (77-86°F). During the shark season (when the sharks congregate around the seal colonies), from April to October, the water temperatures are around 12-16°C (54-61°F), making at least a 5mm wet suit necessary. Charter boats are launched from three different sites on trips to see Great White Sharks. Each of these offers a different viewing opportunity.
Great White Sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) are magnificent predators that often occur around huge colonies of Cape Fur Seal (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus) and this is where various charter companies offer opportunities to view these super sharks. While waiting for the sharks it is also very enjoyable to watch the delightful antics of these seals as they cavort in and out of the water.
1 SEAL ISLAND
Seal Island in False Bay has become famous because the Great Whites here leap clear of the surface of the water (breaching) on a regular basis in pursuit of the seals that come and go from the 64,000-strong colony. The operation in this area specializes in viewing natural behaviour with very little chumming, while much time is spent observing the aerial hunting of the Great Whites in the morning and in the evening. Their hunting behaviour is spectacular, as these marine leviathans, often weighing over 1000kg (2200 lb), leap as much as 3m (10ft) into the air. This phenomenon has attracted National Geographic, Discovery, BBC and others to film at this location.
This area is recommended for anyone with an interest in observing the Great Whites in the most spectacular display of their natural behaviour when feeding.
Tours to Seal Island depart from the old British Naval port of Simon’s Town, which boasts a resident colony of African Penguins (Sphenicus demersus), and which is only 35 minutes’ travel from South Africa’s mother city, Cape Town. Charters are run from two high-powered 8m (25ft) catamarans specifically designed for photography and close encounters, and the boat trip out to the island takes around 25 minutes.
Diving around Seal Island can be very good at times even though this activity is overshadowed by the surface spectacle. Visibility can be around 15m (50ft), but the average is 8m (25ft). Water temperatures are around 15°C (60°F) and the dives are conducted from a steel cage, which is floated on the surface. This area’s other claim to fame is the size of the Great Whites that have frequented the island over the years. Two of them, dubbed Hercules and Submarine, are both over 6m (20ft), although the latter has not been seen for some years. The average size of the sharks is around 3.5m (11ft).
Another Great White Shark dive site is Gansbaai, two hours’ drive east of Cape Town. This is the most commercial area for viewing these sharks and there are many operators offering trips. It is the area where commercial cage diving began in South Africa in 1991. Most boats launch from the quaint harbour of Kleinbaai and head out to Dyer Island, which lies about 20 minutes offshore. The launch can be an adventure in itself, because open ocean waves often break across your path just outside the harbour.
Between Dyer Island 2 and Geyser Rock lies a channel known as shark alley. The boats anchor in the 5m (16ft) deep channel and wait for the patrolling sharks. Geyser Rock has about 50,000 seals which, like at Seal Island, attract the Great Whites. The average visibility is also around 8m (25ft), while on exceptional days it is up to 15m (50ft) and more.
Cape Fur Seals are the preferred winter prey of the Great Whites patrolling these waters in search of marine mammals. Large bull seals can weigh over 300kg and are themselves formidable predators.
Although it is still possible to free-dive with other species of shark such as the Zambezi (Bull) Shark, it is now illegal to do so with the Great White.
Dyer Island also has a multitude of bird species, including the rare Leach’s Storm Petrel. Water temperatures are usually around 15°C (60°F), but occasionally can be lower. Dyer Island operations focus solely on diving, as very little breaching or predation is seen here and all the operators carry cages and diving gear. For those interested purely in observing Great Whites underwater, Dyer Island should be first choice. The sharks in this area are around 3.5m (11ft) on average, but larger ones often put in an appearance. Dyer Island is also famous for a couple of operators who free-dive with the sharks, although this practice is not recommended and is, in fact, illegal.
Breaching Great Whites are the reason Seal Island has attracted film crews from all over the world. These spectacular bursts last only a split second, but the memory lasts forever.
After the initial strike the seal is quickly consumed. Great White Sharks are the apex predators around the Cape coast.
3 MOSSEL BAY
Mossel Bay, about 400km (250 miles) east of Cape Town, has a small Cape Fur Seal colony numbering around 6000 animals. Here, like at Seal Island in False Bay, there is only one operator. Diving is done from a large yacht and the cage is attached directly to the boat. This set-up allows snorkellers the opportunity to view the sharks, making it the only operation in South Africa where you can snorkel in a cage.
Mossel Bay has large numbers of Great Whites earlier in the season than the other two areas. They often arrive in March and occasionally even in February. The launch site is only 10 minutes’ sail from where the shark viewing and baiting (chumming) takes place. The water is generally warmer in this area, averaging around 17-18°C (63-65°F) during the shark season. Blue, warm, open-ocean water sometimes sweeps into the bay, making for a great dive. Breaches and predation are also observed in Mossel Bay. The scenic Garden Route, which really starts from here, makes this site a worthwhile visit for anyone with time to spend in South Africa.
When planning a trip to South Africa to dive with Great Whites, it is advisable to make contact with the operator of your choice and find out if they are in fact seeing Great Whites shortly before your intended stay. These animals are free to come and go as they please and it is a long way to travel to be disappointed. If you are fortunate enough to have a good encounter with these majestic, super predators, you will never forget the experience. Divers may be the first people to develop affection for these majestic animals.
South Africa is the best location for a chance to see Great Whites and, considering the country’s marine and terrestrial diversity, it is an outdoor explorer’s Utopia.
Although diving with Great Whites is the star attraction, Blue and Mako Shark diving 50km (30 miles) off Seal Island is for the purist. Sharks are attracted with the use of sound devices.
The Bryozoan colony (Myriapora truncata) is called False Coral because its colour and shape are similar to that of Red Coral. When dead, it loses the colour whereas true Red Coral remains red.