Up Close and Almost Too Personal with the Great White Sharks of False Bay with African Shark Eco Charters
By Paul Danckwerts
How do you write about a great white shark, it’s immense never ending silvery flanks catching the light as it scythes through the bubbly gloom six inches in front of your face? With difficulty. Just to see one of these behemoths is a privilege and an emotional one at that for anybody who knows anything about these misunderstood monsters of the deep.
The Blue Pointer 2, a 36-foot vessel that sports two 300hp engines on the aft, sits comfortably at its berth in Simonstown on Africa’s Cape Peninsula. It’s a custom vessel built for shark cage diving. With an upper deck for the non-divers, an on-board toilet and a cabin there’s plenty of room to move around in. It is captained by Rob Lawrence, one of the pioneers of the shark cage diving industry. He’s worked with these sharks since 1992 when it all began.
The air is cold but brimming with opportunity and the call of seagulls. We stand around chatting about the day ahead, some of us eyeing the galvanised steel cage in the back of the boat a little more than others. We’re then formally welcomed by Leigh de Necker, the team’s marine biologist. The briefing was sound and informative. An array of snacks and beverages are offered to the guests before heading out of the harbour, escorted by a long synchronised line of cape cormorants riding the contours of the waves.
The combination of blue ocean swell and the amphitheatre of mountains which covers most of the horizon culminates into some seriously beautiful scenery. With many of us doing this for the first time the salty air was thick with nervous expectation and excitement. We’d all seen the photographs at the booking office; magnificent aerial attacks on seals and close-up shots of their massive jaws lined with neat conical teeth. The fact that they can reach 6m in length (and almost 2 tonnes in weight if not more) leaves a lot to the imagination. Would we be that lucky? Would we even see one?
No more than thirty minutes later we’re anchored on the windward side of seal island; close enough to ‘feel’ the rhythmic crashing of blue waves onto this patch of rock that is home to a population of nearly 40 -60 000 Cape Fur seals and a myriad of birdlife. The weather was perfect and the swell was tame but the visibility was only about 3m due to some unfavourable wind the night before.
As the crew go about their preparations the rest of us wait. Five minutes or fifty nobody knows for how long. The crew begin working the chum bucket and the ‘thumper’ sends its distinct message into the murky depths. They have knocked on natures door but she still has to come to the party. The suspense is almost tangible. Suddenly a shout from above jolts everybody out of their reverie. The divers suit up and with a reminder that to keep your limbs to yourself, a sagacious proposition for sure, we carefully slip into the cage.
Before submerging beneath the surface I’m handed a regulator that’s attached to a hookah system. Not having to come up for breath is a real advantage as it enables you to totally immerse yourself in the cold (in my opinion anyway), bubbly and adrenaline filled surroundings. With no warning at all you’re staring into the flanks of the aforementioned shark. She came out of nowhere, a trick she knows well. She appears, disappears and then reappears from a different angle. Once or twice she swims straight for you before breaking off at the last second. My head was constantly on a swivel trying to maximise my ‘facetime’ with these creatures of the deep. Before I knew it I was on the deck trying to warm up in the sun and giggling like a child.
In one morning with African Shark Eco Charters, four great white sharks danced to the song of the chum; a 3m female with a bent dorsal fin, 2 sub adults just shy of that length and “Patches”; a 4.5m female aptly named due to a prominent white marking on her left scute. We were fortunate. This is nature after all and she makes no guarantees.
To top off the morning itinerary a complementary coffee and discount at the harbour view restaurant, “Saveur” is offered. I definitely took the opportunity to sit back and reflect on how privileged I had been to be able to look behind nature’s curtain into a world we know very little about. Almost nothing is known about their reproduction nor their movements and the bit we do know about their ecology and behaviour makes for some very interesting reading. For decades, they’ve been the subject to an unwarranted “man-eater” image but does a species that’s characterised by such raw power and grace deserve such a reputation? I think not.