A Big Fish Expeditions Trip Report
The most diverse shark diving in the world!
Over the last two decades I have been lucky enough to experience many of the world’s great shark dives but this was my first trip to South Africa. After just one expedition, I’ll go out on a limb and say that Cape Town and Natal collectively offer the most diverse shark diving in the world. The shark action that we experienced on this year’s trip was simply unparalleled!
A tantalizing glimpse of the eastern Cape
We started our shark safari in Umkomaas in Natal Province on the Eastern Cape. We were a little early for raggedtoothed sharks (aka sandtigers) and bull sharks so we concentrated on blacktips and tigers and looked for other species on Aliwol Shoal’s beautiful soft coral reefs.
I have seen oceanic blacktip sharks in a number of locations but always from a distance and then usually just fleeting glimpses before they slip back into the blue. For some reason, the oceanic blacktips in Umkomaas are fearless of humans and more than happy to swarm the bait and divers alike. I counted around 40 blacktips on our best dive but there were likely even more.
A couple of tigers also approached the feed but stayed tantalizingly deep so my images are pretty grainy. Add in a pair of strikingly patterned mantas and a whitetip on the reef and we were off to a pretty good start. Unfortunately there are so many sharks to see in South Africa that we only had two days to dive around Umkomaas before heading to Cape Town on Africa’s southwestern tip. Next year I am running multiple trips and I plan to dedicate an entire week long expedition to shark diving around Umkomaas, Aliwol Shoal and Protea Banks so that we get to shoot all of the species that divers see there and have an opportunity to go after some of the rarer shark species to boot.
The western Cape
Our main destination on this trip was Simon’s Town which is a quaint naval town on the southwestern tip of Africa. On our first day there the weather was not great for diving but we had one day slated for a game drive anyway so we headed inland to shoot ‘the big five’ land animals in a private reserve. Armed with telephoto lenses we dodged rain squalls and came home with some great images of Africa’s iconic species but that was not why we were there and everyone was hoping for some serious shark action the following day.
Superb seven gill encounters
Our second day in Simons Town day was calm and the inshore viz was great so we dove in a protected area known as Miller’s Point where divers can swim with scores of sevengill sharks, up to five species of endemic catsharks and the illusive spotted gully shark which is a local member of the houndshark family.
Like the blacktips in Aliwol, the sevengill shark encounters in Cape Town are unique. These large and curious cowsharks cruised back and forth in two’s and three’s on all of our kelp forest dives, resulting in unforgettable encounters for everyone and some stunning images.
The catshark capital of the world
During that week in Cape Town we dedicated three great days to diving the inshore reefs and kelp forests and managed to shoot every catshark species that we had hoped to encounter.
The line up included Dark Shysharks, Puffadder Shysharks, Pajama Catsharks, Leopard Catsharks and even some extremely skittish spotted gully sharks that we found hiding in caves deep in the reef.
For a change of scenery we also dove on some deeper, more colorful reefs. On those dives we were lucky enough to see some of the more illusive catshark species from the area.
Great white sharks
Cape Town may be the Catshark Capital of the World but sevengills, catsharks and spotted gullies are just some of the reasons to dive there. We also spent a couple of days at Seal Island; a large rocky plateau that is home to more than 70,000 Cape Fur Seals. And where there are that many seals, there are inevitably lots and lots of great white sharks!
We would arrive at day break in order to witness spectacular natural predations as the white sharks ambushed the seals on their way out to sea. Our experienced guides would point out stragglers that were easy targets for the white sharks and sure enough, one seal after another would quietly disappear or sometimes be hit from below in an epic spectacle or raw power as the white sharks launched themselves completely out of the water.
On our best day I think we saw 17 natural predations and a couple of hits on our decoy but other than some splashes and a few fin shots I never managed to catch one on camera. I always thought it looked tough but now I have a new respect for the amazing breaching shots that some shooters have captured on film over the years! I’m looking forward to taking another crack at it in 2014 🙂
Once the sun rises higher in the sky, the seals can see the white sharks below them so the natural predations tend to decrease. At this point we would drop the cage and start chumming the sharks up to the boat. As a veteran great white shooter in the gin clear waters around Mexico’s Guadalupe Island, I did not expect the photo ops to be particularly good in the green soupy waters of Seal Island but the great white sharks are extremely large in South Africa and they come very close to the cage so the pictures came out quite well and the green water added a unique eerie feel that you can’t get at Guadalupe. Seal Island is a magical place that shouldn’t be missed!
The Cape of storms
We had hoped to spend a day far offshore free diving with makos and blue sharks but there was a big weather system off the Cape that thwarted that plan. Although it would have been great to add those two species to our shark count, everyone was happy to head back to the reef instead and enjoy more time with the catsharks and sevengills.
Cape fur seals and African penguins
We also snuck in one Cape Fur Seal dive at a much smaller inshore seal colony where we were safer from patrolling great whites. The fur seals were extremely playful, darting back and forth as seals often do around divers.
In our free time we wandered down to nearby Boulders Beach which is home to hundreds of African Penguins. These adorable flightless birds were once teetering on the brink of extinction but due to commendable local conservation efforts, they are rapidly recovering and today they freely waddle along the beach to the delight of visiting tourists.
The seals and the penguins added even more memories to an already extraordinary trip but of course the sharks dominated the expedition. Our final count on the South African Shark Safari was 10 species of sharks in 7 days of diving. That’s definitely a record for me. South Africa is simply unbeatable!
Join me in Africa in 2014
To give us more time on the Eastern Cape, next year I am planning two back to back but completely different trips. Join me and a small group of likeminded shark divers on either or both of these world class expeditions. You won’t be disappointed!
The WESTERN CAPE SHARK SAFARI will be based in Simon’s Town and will concentrate on the Great Whites, catsharks, Sevengills and hopefully offshore blues and makos if the weather cooperates.
The EASTERN CAPE SHARK SAFARI AND SARDINE RUN (PAGE COMING SOON) will start with the tigers, oceanic blacktips, raggedtooth and Zambezi sharks of Aliwal Shoal and then continue on to South Africa’s world famous Sardine Run.