With Shark Week upon us, I thought it would be a good time to share my experience with seeing Great White Sharks. When I was in South Africa a few summers ago I knew that I wanted to see sharks and started planning how to go about doing that. Hopefully some of my pictures and planning will be helpful for you if you decide to go on a similar adventure.
Once we booked our flights and hotels and knew we were going to be in Cape Town for a week I purposely kept one day open to book a trip and see sharks. While there are few different companies that offer shark watching tours and cage diving I selected Apex Shark Expeditions. The initial reasons I chose Apex were:
- Location – Depending on the time of year Apex tours leave from Simon’s Town which is about a 45 minute car ride from Cape Town. Other tours leave from the town of Gansbaai about 2 hours away from Cape Town.
- Expertise – Chris Fallows, the founder of Apex, has been working and researching Great White Shark behavior in False Bay since the late 1990s and was the first person to observe and photograph the breaching behavior where the sharks propel themselves out of the water. Since then Chris has provided his expertise to numerous documentaries including the footage seen in the Air Jaws productions that are played during Shark Week.
- Sharks Breaching – Apex Tours take you to Seal Island in False Bay that offers you the best opportunity anywhere in the world to see sharks propel themselves out of the water, better known as breaching.
- Tour Size – The tours take out a maximum of 12 guests and this is one of the smallest trips offered by tour operators. This allows guests more time in the diving cage to view the sharks below the water.
I was very happy with everything about my experience with Apex and would definitely recommend them for anyone looking for an exciting trip. I liked how they provided a great tour but also took the time to educate you about the area and Great White Sharks so we could have a background on what we were seeing. I encourage you to do research yourself to make sure you find a company that best meets your needs.
Our trip started with a 5am pickup from our hotel in central Cape Town that was arranged by Apex for a small fee. As mentioned earlier, Apex tours leave from Simon’s Town during the months of February through September and this is about a 45 minute drive from Cape Town. When we arrived in Simon’s Town we met the crew, had a light breakfast, reviewed some boat safety information and boarded our boat, White Pointer II. Our destination was Seal Island in the middle of False Bay, named by confused sailors over three hundred years ago when they confused this bay with Table Bay located a little further north.
Seal Island is about five acres big and home to over 64,000 Cape fur seals. During the winter months of May through the end of September this colony of seals is rich with little seal pups, attracting the attention of Great White Sharks. Seals leave the island to hunt for fish but swim in large groups for safety in numbers. The sharks will try to target an isolated seal that is swimming by itself or too far away from the group. This is where the practice of breaching takes place. Breaching is a hunting technique that Great Whites employ where they propel themselves up towards the surface with such force that they come all the way out of water. They can reach up to speeds of 25 miles an hour and leap up to 10 feet out of the water. This method surprises the seals as the shark shocks them out of the water (if not clenched in their jaws already) and helps the shark secure a kill.
The best time to view the sharks actively hunting seals is around a half hour before sunrise to one and a half hours after sunrise. This time period is called the natural predation time and it is viewing nature in its most primal form. We arrived right on time for this window, but unfortunately except for a few splashes we didn’t see any outright airborne sharks. Maybe the seals were too smart for them this morning!
When the sun started rising in the sky and the natural predation window closed the crew uses a decoy tow seal to try and entice the sharks to breach. This dummy seal is made of soft cushion and is trawled behind the boat on a rope, resembling a seal swimming. It’s important to note that this decoy is only used for a limited period and does not harm the shark in any way. We were told a few times while on the boat that the purpose of the tour was to view sharks in their natural habitat for research purposes and that they cause no harm to the sharks at any time. Even when the crew was chumming the water with some cut up fish it was only enough to lure sharks over and have them interested in the area, never to outright feed them.
As we motored slowly around Seal Island all eyes on the boat were focused on the decoy splashing around behind the boat. The crew warned us to stay alert because it could happen quickly and at any time (but they also tried to temper our expectations by saying it may not happen at all.) For ten long minutes nothing happened and then SPLASH, a Great White leaps into the air and comes crashing back into the water. Then again and again. The crew argues back and forth as to whether we are seeing two or three different sharks attacking the seal decoy. They seemed pretty amazed that so many breaches where happening in such a short amount of time. There must have been 10 to 15 breaches in about 20 minutes. While I don’t pretend to be a great photographer, here is a case where I’ll let some pictures do the talking.
After about a half hour of watching the sharks attack the decoy it was time to deploy the viewing cage. The cage is built from galvanised steel, thrown over the side and tied up directly to the side of the boat. The top of the cage is open and allows you to climb in directly from the boat. The crew gave us a few safety instructions (DO NOT stick your hands out of the boat and try to pet the sharks!) and then anyone who was interested in getting in the cage got into a wet suit and grabbed a mask. Since not everyone on the boat wanted to go into the cage those of us that did went in pairs (though the cage can fit 3) and had about a half hour each in the water. What is great about this cage “diving” is that there is no dive experience required at all!
The top of the cage floats above the waterline so the process was to stay above the water until a shark was near the boat and then hold your breath and duck your head down to see underwater. The crew chums the water with bait to attract the sharks close to the boat and since they are above the water they are able to tell you when a shark was coming and when to dive underwater and look. The first time I dove under and grabbed the handrail, located safely in the cage away from the bars, a shark swam about 2 feet from the cage. A 12 foot creature that can cut through the water quickly and with few natural enemies. A natural born killer (Though to be honest mostly of fish and seals, not often of man). Thankfully the sharks didn’t seem to pay that much attention to the cage, something I was very worried about before getting in. They were still on the prowl for food and while I looked like a fat seal in my black wet suit, I was protected by the cage and the boat. The half hour of viewing the sharks swim around us seemed to go by in a flash and I wish we had more time, but it was another pair’s turn to view and we had to climb back into the boat.
After everyone had a turn in the cage it was hauled back up onto the boat and we had a light lunch before saying good bye to Seal Island and heading back to the docks at Simon’s Town. An added bonus to being in Simon’s Town is that you are already on the Cape Peninsula so we added on a side trip to Boulders Beach, home to a colony of 3,000 African penguins, and a trip to the Cape of Good Hope. Apex Tours was able to provide us with a guide for a reasonable fee who also brought us to a late lunch at Two Oceans Restaurant with amazing views of False Bay. As we were driving back to our hotel in Cape Town we couldn’t contain our excitement of seeing penguins, the Cape of Good Hope, and Great White Sharks leaping out of the water! I highly recommend if you ever get to South Africa that you try to do a similar trip.
If You Go…
While I did all of my planning prior to leaving for South Africa, here are some tips and things to consider when trying to book a similar trip. I wish I had known a few of these things prior to my own trip so I hope these are helpful:
- Cost – Apex Shark Expeditions charges R1950.00 per person for the 4 hour boat trip (Converts to about $155 in US Dollars). This is a GREAT deal right now as the conversion rate was not as great when we went in 2012 and it cost almost double per person at that time. You can work with the Apex team to coordinate a pickup from your hotel in Cape Town and/or a side trip around the Cape Peninsula. I don’t recall the prices for those two pieces of the trip but I remember it was a better alternative to driving around myself in a foreign country, especially at 5 in the morning!
- Time of Year – Depending on the time of year you will see different activities in False Bay:
- February to April – Shark cage diving and possible scavenging
- May to September (June-August is the high season)– Breaching, natural predation and shark cage diving
- October to January – False Bay is out of season and trips will go out from Gansbaai
- Time of Day – Morning vs Afternoon Tours – It pays to get up early! The only time to see natural predation is just before and after sunrise. Afternoon tours still have cage diving and you can see sharks but seeing them breach is not common.
- Gansbaai vs Simon’s Town – Simon’s Town is about 45 minutes from Cape Town and Gansbaai is about 2 hours. Tour operators with boats leaving Simon’s Town are in False Bay and heading towards Seal Island. Boats that depart from Gansbaai head towards an area known as Shark Alley that is between Dyer Island and Geyser Rock, home to 60k Cape Fur Seals.
- Motion Sickness – If you are prone to motion/sea sickness make sure you bring Dramamine or a similar medication. You don’t want to feel sick while everyone else is watching sharks and you certainly don’t want to be leaning over the side of the boat throwing up your breakfast with flying sharks all around you!
- Camera settings – If your camera has a sports or action setting with fast shutter speeds that would be the best setting for capturing shots. The breaching happens without notice and very quickly so if you try waiting for the perfect shot you may not get it. Better to take a ton of pictures and delete the bad ones later. The advantage to this is that you may get chronological action shots in sequence with the shark jumping out of the water and then landing again.
- Be Flexible– Boat trips are dependent on weather and all boats will be monitoring the weather the day before to check conditions and will cancel due to bad weather or rough seas. Be flexible with your schedule and book the trip towards the beginning of your time in the area so if it is cancelled it can be rescheduled to a later date.
- Multiple Trips – If you are a shark fanatic and will be staying in the area you can also look into taking multiple trips out on the water. There are discounts offered for multiple trips and each trip is different as you never know what you will encounter. Plus should one day be cancelled or the sharks are not very active it won’t ruin your entire experience and you wouldn’t have traveled all that way for nothing.
If you ever get the chance to get to South Africa and can book a trip to go shark cage diving and view Great White Sharks in their natural habitat, I guarantee you it will be a trip you remember for a long time.