The alarm rang at 4:30 am in our cold, dark beach bungalow in Camps Bay. Normally waking in the cold at such an abominable hour would make me cranky, but this morning was different. It was our last day on the Cape, and our very last chance to see Great Whites leap from the depths into the sky, a behavior seen nowhere else on earth. Well, it was our last chance to try anyway, so I pulled myself out of bed and let the anticipation waken my senses.
As I mentioned, the Great Whites had mysteriously vanished from False Bay nearly a month earlier. There had been a recent sighting or two, but the situation had become so dire that the three cage diving operations in Simon’s Town were taking turns going out every other day or so to try to spot their fish friends. May is usually prime Great White “air jaws” predation time at False Bay’s Seal Island, and an exodus such as this had only happened one other time in the last 18 years according to Capt. Rob Lawrence of African Shark Eco Charters (ASEC). We called every day following our arrival in Cape Town for an update, and by the end of the week ASEC offered to make a reservation on our behalf in Gaansbai for Sunday since they were having better luck. However, by Saturday the swell forecast in Gaansbai had already called for cancellations. ASEC informed us that they had a group of 6 willing to try their luck and we were welcome to join if we’d like. Since we had already given up on our Garden Route itinerary to wait out the sharks, we figured we might as well try. Besides, we were feeling lucky.
We arrived at the Simon’s Town pier promptly at 6:30 am, where we met Kim and the rest of the crew and boarded the boat for Seal Island. A short half hour later the sunrise cast a warm glow over the cold Cape, and the air was filled with the most horrific combination of smell and sound I have ever had the displeasure to experience. The seals create a beautiful visual aesthetic on and around the island, while the remaining senses are highly offended. It didn’t matter though, we were all too preoccupied with scanning the horizon searching for our great white shark.
The crew tossed out a seal decoy and we were instructed to keep a careful eye, as hits on the decoy happen lighting fast. We took a cruise around the island, dragging the decoy behind us along the way. One of the crew gave us a lesson on the endemic seals and birds of this tiny island, and then we began to wait. And wait.
We anchored along the south end of the island, where we could watch the seals play in the waves and head out on organized group feeding missions. We eagerly watched the juveniles who, unlike the seasoned adults, very playfully and nonchalantly made their way back to the island, undeterred by any thought of a looming threat. In the distance a Bryde’s whale surfaced.
The sun rose higher in the sky and the prospects were looking dim. Nearly an hour and a half earlier we were told that, if we didn’t see anything in an hour and a half, we would move on. I could tell the crew was giving up when, of all people onboard, Rufio screamed, “SHARK!” and pointed in the direction of Cape Point. The three of us on the top deck with him instantly turned on our heels, quickly enough to see a white figure in the distance splash into the water. A few meters east of the splash was a returning patrol of seals, anxiously swimming away. Capt. Rob flew up the ladder to ask what we had seen, and we all excitedly spoke at once. From our description, especially Rufio’s who saw the entire predation event, he knew we may be on to something. The entire energy on the boat changed in that moment. The crew members were banging on the deck excitedly, hoping to intrigue the animal into coming our direction.
Capt. Rob decided to move the boat to the west side of the island, and within a few moments a crew member yelled out, “PREDATION!”. Just a few meters from the bow we all caught a glimpse of first a tail and then briefly a dorsal fin thrashing in the water. Rufio and I were going to be the first in the cage along with one other man, so the crew quickly fitted us with gear and told us to be ready when they gave the call. We were giddy with excitement, but then the waters fell silent again.
Very silent, in fact. The seal colony now realized the threat. No patrols were going into the water, none were returning, no juveniles played in the surf. Even the odious barking halted. We remained perched in our wetsuits, again anxiously scouting for any sign of sharks.
We were not entirely dismayed; again toward Simon’s Town, but much closer to the boat this time, a giant leaped into the sky. This shark breached three times, enough that everyone onboard was offered a close view of the infamous Air Jaws. We all jeered like we were watching a gladiator fight. Just being able to witness this natural phenomenon was awe-inspiring and exhilarating. Again the energy onboard skyrocketed.
The crew tried their best to get the few sharks to come to the boat, but they just weren’t interested. After all, they had been banished to the open ocean for weeks to feed on tuna when they should have been feasting on fat seals, so they had a lot of making up to do. We waited around another hour, then headed in the direction of a super-pod of common dolphin. The dolphins entertained us with jumps and flips, and curiously danced under and around the bow for us before we returned to Simon’s Town.
Although we weren’t able to capture awesome footage of Great Whites under water, the trip did not feel like a disappointment at all. Just watching this rare air-breaching behavior from the boat was enough to get our blood pumping. We spent half a day on the water enjoying a beautiful sunrise and learning about an ecology so foreign to anything we’ve ever experienced.
We were also impressed and inspired by the crew at ASEC. Too often operations such as these care more about collecting foreign currency than actual conservation. This is not the case with the ASEC crew; even though they get to see these sharks regularly, they still have a childlike excitement every time a dorsal fin breaks the surface. They are all very knowledgeable about the behaviors of not just the sharks but all the endemic species around the bay, and were passionate in sharing that knowledge with us. Cage diving has received plenty of criticism from conservationists, and I am sure there are operations in South Africa and around the world that conduct questionable and even unethical practices, but we chose ASEC knowing that they do not bait the sharks and they genuinely care about shark conservation in South Africa and globally. Ultimately not baiting led to no interaction underwater with the sharks, but I am happier to have left having not been in the water than knowing I contributed to disrupting the balance of nature – and we still left with the memories of a lifetime.
Have you been in the water with Great Whites? What was your experience? Do you support or protest the practice of cage diving? Leave a comment below!