A Day with Great White Sharks

 

‘Predation! Nine o’clock! One hundred metres!’ is not a phrase you will hear shouted during an average day in your life but then a day at sea with Great White sharks isn’t your average day. Every trip I have been on as a crew member or guest with Apex Shark Expeditions is unique and both guests and crew are full of excitement and anticipation as we depart for Seal Island at 6:30am. We are all hoping to see the magnificent white shark and the other wildlife of False Bay in South Africa. As we push away from the jetty and travel eight nautical miles across the waters of False Bay towards the island, the sun rises over the mountains surrounding us and turns the horizon every shade of gold, pink and orange one can imagine. No two sunrises are the same here and I have lost count of the number of times I have decided that the latest magnificent sunrise is my favourite, only for it to be surpassed by the next one a day later. On flat days the water appears milky as the dawn arrives and on rougher days we hold on tight and prepare for the adventure of a lifetime.

 

Seal Island is the premier location to observe the natural hunting behaviour of Great White sharks upon Cape Fur seals. It is Africa’s largest island-bound seal colony, with 64,000 Cape Fur seals and it lies within the waters of False Bay in the Western Cape. False Bay hosts an incredible array of wildlife including these seals, a number of bird species, dolphin and whale species and the sharks that this bay is renowned for. It truly is a marine nature lovers’ paradise and offers something for people of all ages and interests.

 

As we arrive at Seal Island I can’t help but be overcome by the beauty of this location, of the sheer number of seals huddled in their social groups and the noise they make as they communicate. Many guests have commented to me that the seals sound like sheep bleating or like goats calling to one another. The seals leave the island in groups every day from the southern tip of the Island and they travel many miles out of False Bay to feed. This epic return journey for a meal lasts anything from three days to ten days and during that time the seals cross waters that are highly populated by sharks. They complete this journey three times a month in order to feed and evidently they have to learn how to handle the sharks hunting below them in order to survive. At sunrise we observe these seal groups carefully for signs that the sharks are hunting. The white shark is an ambush predator; they hunt from the depths below the groups of seals and launch themselves out of the water in pursuit of their prey. They have earned the name ‘flying sharks’ from their unique hunting behaviour and it is particularly prevalent at Seal Island. You can literally feel the tension on the boat as both crew and guests scan the horizon eagerly, watching the groups of seals like hawks in the hope of seeing a white shark breach.

 

‘Predation! Nine o’clock! 100 metres!’ A white shark leaps from the water in pursuit of a seal from the group and thanks to our careful observation we have witnessed this spectacle in motion. We use a clock system onboard to denote the location of a predation event and all guests were lucky enough to witness the shark flying through the air. As quickly as it occurred, the predation event is over and flocks of Cape Kelp Gulls congregate at the site of the kill. We watch the shark swimming on the surface consuming its kill before it disappears back to the depths. To see your first white shark in the ocean is incredible, to see your first white shark air-borne goes way beyond your wildest dreams. The agility of these sharks and their sheer size is awe inspiring. Their white bellies glisten with water as they reflect the orange dawn light and the sharks can achieve various positions when they breach. They perform an acrobatic display that includes horizontal lunges, partial and full vertical breaches and sometimes a shark somersaults right over itself as he or she comes out of the water at particularly high speed and turns on a dime.

 

It is fair to say that witnessing such predation events leaves us all speechless. I am always thankful for their efficient hunting behaviour for, whilst it is nature, none of us want the seal to suffer with a prolonged predation event. By far my favourite events are when the seal escapes. When a white shark misses the seal on the first breach, the seal looks down into the water, finds the shark and promptly moves either behind its jaws or towards its tail. The seal then effectively ‘works’ the shark by leaping and twisting away from it whilst the shark attempts to catch its prey with further lunges and breaches. As time passes, the seal is either caught or the shark loses interest because it has spent too much energy pursuing this particular meal. The success rate of the shark drops dramatically the longer a predation event continues and the odds swing in the favour of the seal surviving. The seals are quite frankly heroes in my opinion, for their ability to be so clear minded when being pursued by a shark. I cannot begin to imagine how they control their fear at such times but they do.

‘Blink and you will miss it guys. Do NOT take your eyes off the decoy’ is a phrase I repeat daily for our guests as we tow our decoy seal behind the boat after the natural hunting activity at dawn has slowed down. By towing our decoy seal we are hoping to attract a white shark and witness it breach upon our soft, carpet seal. Whilst the tow has no guarantee of being successful, it can be the perfect opportunity to capture the flying sharks on film and a hush descends upon the entire boat as we begin. It is the one time in the day you can hear a pin drop as everyone concentrates silently. We are all watching the decoy, cameras are bleeping quietly as each autofocus adjusts and arms begin to ache as we motor along slowly waiting for that special moment. On the days we have success the boat goes wild as the shark leaps for the decoy. The guests’ shouts and whoops add to the buzz as we compare what we saw and check our cameras to see who captured the moment.

 

As the sun lifts itself higher in the sky we chat happily; it is the time of day I find that everyone comes alive from both the excitement of the morning and also because the sun provides much loved warmth and energy. We set anchor near the island, choosing our location carefully depending upon the prevailing wind and swell, and begin the process of attracting a shark to our boat. This part of the morning is when we can observe the sharks behaving in a more relaxed manner as they are no longer in hunting mode. The boat affords excellent viewing opportunities to watch from the surface and we also offer cage diving for those that wish to see the white shark at eye level. Whilst many of our guests wish to go cage diving, it is by no means necessary to dive in order to have a fantastic view of the sharks and their behaviours.

 

We do not feed the sharks or chum and our bait is used purely as an attractant. We also have a stationary decoy seal that we place on the surface, which is often of more interest to the sharks than the bait itself. On some days we wait five minutes for a shark to arrive and on other days we can be waiting anything from half an hour upwards. These sharks have their own agenda and it is only the curious, the interested ones that visit us. When the first shark arrives the guests’ initial hesitation disappears and they clamour to the boat side to see our visitor. They observe the shark moving slowly, gracefully through the water as it moves in towards our bait and decoy. The sharks are curious and demonstrate the ease with which they can approach, investigate and bank away into the depths so effortlessly. This is not the hunting behaviour we observed earlier, this is a shark calmly investigating novel objects in its environment whilst it goes about its business. Whilst some of the sharks we know are bold in their approach, we also have sharks that are somewhat cautious and spend their time around our second bait that sits deeper in the water. It can take time for a shark to be confident enough to approach at the surface and it fascinates me that, despite their size and predatory abilities, these sharks are careful and cautious of changes in their surroundings. I have witnessed white sharks flee promptly if we change or move the baits too quickly before they are accustomed to them. They are not the mindless, over-confident killing machines that some people consider them to be. They are both intelligent and considered in their actions.

 

If a shark stays with us for a period of time we can get to know its personality and observe its unique markings. It is these moments that allow us to identify individuals each season and observe them year on year as they grow into maturity. Each shark behaves differently around the boat and it is clear they have very distinct personalities. Zamalek is an extremely relaxed male shark and exhibits a very specific behaviour, in that he spends hours with us making right-handed turns around the cage repeatedly. It is very rare for a shark to stay that long and to spend so much time at the cage. He has a lack of interest in our baits but he does however have an obsession with the decoy seal. As catnip is to a cat, the decoy seal is to Zamalek. We have to be very careful putting the decoy seal out when Zamalek is with us because he pursues it constantly until he manages to get hold of it. He never appears to tire of such a game.

 

Pinkie is a 3.1m male shark that is so named because of a pink marking on his dorsal fin and he is one of our more dominant sharks. White shark dominance is based on hierarchy and it is normal to see that the smaller sharks give way immediately to the larger sharks around the boat. Pinkie however appears to be unaware of his small size and is very dominant around all other sharks. On a number of occasions he waits until the very last moment to give way to the larger female sharks in the 3.7-3.9m size range pursuing the same bait. I have expected him to receive a warning bite from these females as he refuses to give way and is positioned right in front of their mouths. As is typical of these sharks though, they are extremely tolerant and let Pinkie get away with behaving so brazenly.

 

There is also Magnoona, who is 3.7m length and can be very relaxed or very lively, veering from one extreme to the other within and between trips. She is quick to approach the baits and often from depth to gain more speed. She is also very agile and executes tight turns close to the boat as she pursues her bait of choice. She mostly focuses on the surface bait and is a shark that both our divers and boat-based guests enjoy because of the time she spends at the surface with us. When she is feeling calm, she cruises extremely slowly around the boat. Magnoona left us all speechless one day when she was approaching the bait at depth. She took hold of it gently and as she then moved forwards, the surface bait rope drifted into her mouth as she approached the boat. From previous observations of sharks when they take hold of the bait, I would have expected a fairly strong reaction to finding a rope in her mouth. However, in her surprise Magnoona spat the bottom bait out and remained calm. She ever so slowly and gently twisted her head from side to side to remove the surface bait rope from her mouth. Unfortunately all she managed to do was flip the bait over her head and so had the rope around her snout. Magnoona was utterly unfazed by this and calmly paused as she assessed her situation and slowly tilted her head from one side to the other to try and free herself whilst our skipper removed the rope. We were mesmerized by her behaviour and how gentle she was in her approach. These sharks are as unique as you and I in their behaviours and a joy to watch.

 

For those that wish to go cage diving it is soon the time to do so and it is fair to say many guests are nervous at this point. The species of shark is an apex predator, we have been brought up to fear it and we are entering into the sharks’ own environment. There is nothing to fear though and the crew work hard to ensure it is a relaxed and enjoyable experience. I have witnessed guests laughing and giggling through their snorkels as a shark passes in-front of them and listened to exclamations of how huge the sharks are at eye level. The divers raise their heads above the surface to excitedly share the news with the rest of the guests that they have seen a shark pass by. It is quite something to see the sharks underwater and watch them interact with one another. On occasion they will pass the cage so closely that a diver can see the sharks have blue eyes. White shark eyes are neither black nor ‘dead eyes’ when the sunlight reflects upon them. Their baby blues certainly give them a less intimidating appearance underwater. The guests often agree that they hadn’t realised how graceful and calm white sharks are. Cage diving with them is by no means an adrenaline experience. That shift in perception has literally changed the lives of guests that came to us with an extreme fear of sharks and left with a new found respect and love of them.

 

As the diving comes to a close, the trip is by no means over. Before heading to shore we continue onwards and around Seal Island to observe the behaviours of the seals and other wildlife on the island. Whilst this island is home to many seals, it is also home to three different species of cormorant, a colony of South African penguins and the Cape Kelp Gulls. It is a pleasure to watch the young seals playing in the water close to the north eastern part of the island as the females bask in the sunshine. On stormy days the seals often surf in the waves.

 

When we leave Seal Island and the sharks behind, we look for other wildlife within the bay such as whales and dolphin. Common dolphins are prevalent in March and April but can be seen year round. These beautifully patterned dolphins are a delight as they swim alongside us and ride our bow wave. On occasion we have been lucky enough to witness groups of up to 3000 common dolphins working a sardine bait ball below us whilst thousands of Cape gannets wheel and dive overhead. At times like those we are on the lookout for whales and, more than once, we have seen a Brydes whale approach and feed upon the bait ball. Words cannot fully describe the experience of seeing all of this activity occurring at once and in every direction around the boat. It is nature at her finest.

 

As we dock at the jetty, the guests continue to chat amongst themselves and relive their highlights from the trip. Email addresses are exchanged, plans are made to return and, as they check their watches, they realise it is not yet even midday. Who knew so much could occur in so little time at sea.

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