Southern Right whales
GREAT WHITE SHARK HUNTING WITH CHRIS FALLOWS AND APEX SHARK EXPEDITIONS OF SIMONSTOWN, SOUTH AFRICA
Our trip began by being picked up at 8am by our driver Alistair at our City Loft roof apartment in Bree St, in the centre of Cape Town. We were told to have essentials on board including a towel, bathing costume, sunscreen, water, and camera
After picking up another handful of hopefuls staying at other accommodation, we drove off to first do a sight seeing tour of the South African National Park of Cape of Good Hope, which includes the South Western most point of Africa, and then the lighthouse at Cape Point.
The park is beautiful and showcases the fynbos (‘fine leaf’) landscape of South Africa, as well as wandering animals including gibbons and ostriches. The sea is the Atlantic Ocean and was full of kelp along the shoreline.
We were taken to the most southern west point, Cape Point, to take our photos by the classic signage before another half dozen buses arrived and spoiled our moment of serenity being the only ones there.
Then we set off again to Simonstown to meet Chris and Monique Fallows at their shop. Chris and Monique are well known world wide for their photos of great whites breaching in False Bay, less than an hour from Cape Town They are wildlife naturalists with a strong interest in sharks and their behaviour. Chris first witnessed the breaching predatory habit of the great whites in 1996, and in 2000 created their business Apex Shark Expeditions around breaching, predatory activity and cage diving. He is one of the leading shark experts in the world and has been involved in shark research, facilitated documentaries and written books on sharks. Every boat trip to Seal Island logs sightings and activity, water visibility etc., and his database of over 5500 predatory events is second to none.
Today we were on a mission to finally meet this legend and go out with his crew on Apex Predator for an afternoon trip to hopefully get in the water with these amazing sharks, in a cage of course (in case you are wondering, no one is allowed to swim or dive with great whites without a cage, except for one researcher in Cape Town who has a special licence to do so).
However Chris had to inform us that we may be very unlucky to be one of the few clients of his that do not see a great white. The current season has been very unusual and for the last 3 weeks with the heavy storms and rains, the sharks had virtually gone away, as also had the reef fish which usually accompany them. That morning they had only had one shark sighting, which was a far cry from 20-40 sharks at the peak of activity. But we were dutifully informed that we could still go out or we could cancel our trip as all other operators in the town had done so. However we all decided to push on and take our chances as we had come so far to do this. One client had even flown in from Germany for 2 days for this opportunity and thank god he had been on a trip with a sighting.
We set off heading to Seal Island which is about 30 mins out of the harbour. The crew of three including Nick, a marine biologist from the UK, Woods Makeba who joined then in 2010 and Poenas Jacobs, the skipper, an exceedingly knowledgeable and experienced shark operator who had been with the company since 2005.
We had the shark cage on board, a 2-3 man one, much smaller than what we had expected, lighter framed and much more ‘intimate’ for a shark experience. They had a bucket of burley and a few big fish heads to act as the deeper bait, as well as the rubber decoy seal ‘bait’ as the surface bait.
The idea is that the deep bait attracts the shark by sight and smell and encourages them to come up to the surface, and then they get interested in the decoy, which if manipulated correctly will try to keep the sharks interested at the surface.
We were divided into groups of 2 or 3, and each group was given a safety and dive briefing on the procedure that would follow a sighting. Wetsuits (10mm) were provided and masks and snorkels for the 18 degree ‘warm’ water.
We arrived at Seal Island to be greeted by a wonderful earthy aromatic smell of seal and bird poop. The island homes up to 40,000 seals and 60,000 cormorants depending on the time in the season, and you can certainly smell it on arrival. The noise of the seals calling to each other especially the big bulls makes one hell of a racket too.
We lowered the anchor just off shore, followed by the cage. Once it was fixed in place alongside the boat, our rastifarian crewman Woods proceeded to drum on the side of the boat to attract the sharks by their finely attuned hearing as sound goes much further than smell or vision.
And then we waited, and waited and waited. And nothing happened. Like that infamous Monty Python The Minute sketch…”and yet another minute went by, and nothing happened”…
Yep, we bobbed around for about two hours and despite altering our position closer to the island at one point, nothing happened. Not even the reef fish were biting which was very ususual. And rastifarian’s African drum beat did nothing for the sharks, perhaps they just weren’t in the mood for it today.
But the seals seem to be enjoying it. They were having a ball on the rocks, diving into the water and being thrown back on to the rocks by the strong waves beating their coastline. Even the penguins were having fun waddling around amongst the seals and the cormorants. Apparently the seals are safe in the water next to their rocks as its too shallow for the whites to approach them without fear of being beached or hurt, and boy did they knew it. They were having a party in the surf. The boys moved the boat in closer for us to get a better look and smell, to enhance our experience and memories to take home, and so we took our last photos.
We set off back to the harbour after a fruitless afternoon of ‘no banana’. But then just 5 mins outside the harbour we saw 3-4 Southern Right whales. They were possibly mating as they seemed to be chasing a female whale. Apparently they are known to harass a female for 24hrs or more trying to mate, even if she has a calf nearby. There was also a bit of tail slapping and blowing to entertain us.
Great whites will feed off a whale. Poenas in the past has been witness to one particular shark breaching 15 times right next to a whale in the harbour. The blubber is what they are love. If they accidentally eat the meat they are seen to leave it behind. A dead whale is a smorgasbord for them and one carcass will feed a shark for a month.
Poenas told us though that the current policy if a dead whale is found close to shore is to tow it to the beach, and then put it on a truck and drive it 2 hrs inland to pour fuel on it and incinerate the carcass. Instead of letting the sharks eat it at sea as is normal behaviour and then not be hungry for another month, they pull it into shore followed by sharks trailing the carcass to where people are. What human ignorance and unnecessary expense.
The sharks in this area are not aggressive hunters of people. They feed on the seals mainly and are known to visit Seal Island regularly year after year. They are noted to hunt within 500m of the same spot each year. So regular are some that they have been given names such as Scarlet, Shy Guy and Colossus. Colossus has been the star of a National Geographic documentary in the past and has been tracked around the coast.
The shark activity varies in the year. The season starts around Feb until September. Initially they are lazy and are natural scavengers feeding off dead birds or seals. Then they become more active and begin to hunt. Baby seals are born around December and usually don’t leave the island and their mother’s milk for 6 months. So June is around when the sharks begin to actively hunt as the seal pups take their first swim off the island to fish for food.
Shark breaching action can be ‘natural’ breaching which is very rare, or ‘predatory’ breaching when they are chasing seal pups or bait. They usually are most active in the mornings as the light is best then and they are hungry. Afternoon sightings are usually quieter.
No one swims in this area because of the number of great whites around. Sharks have been sighted in 3 metres of water although they do not usually like shallow water. They have a natural fear of being beached and are not as maneuverable as other sharks.
Our day ended once we docked the boat, and we headed off a few hundred metres down the road to Boulder where the jackass (named after their donkey-like noise) or African Penguins roost and mate. The sun was just setting after the most glorious sunny, blue sky day. The light was fantastic to witness these little guys waddling around their rockery on the beach. You could even see little lines of pearls coming in on the ocean…penguins in linear formation about to do a beach landing to join the rest of their flock. Cute little guys, often in boy-girl pairs, almost holding hands or mimicking each other like mirror images. Very endearing.
So, despite ‘no banana’ re a shark experience, we had a great day out with nature with seals, birds, whales and penguins, and some great information about the natural habits of the sharks in this area. Formal shark research counts for little as far as I am concerned as these guys witness the natural behaviour or these sharks on a daily basis. It is priceless information.
And how best to protect our oceans and wildlife? Well perhaps stop tagging it, dissecting it, killing it…, in fact, just leave it alone and it will do very well, thank you!