Shark Diving, from Gansbaai to Cape Town

Posted on March 16, 2010
Written by: Hannah Medd

Image Gallery

Leaving Mozambique is always tough, the people, the water, the food, the beer. But we were headed to Cape Town, South Africa, to see family and friends. And by friends, that also includes great white sharks.

I worked in the little harbor town of Gansbaai on a boat that takes people to sea to dive with white sharks for three years. I even met my husband there, whose family still owns and operates one of the boats.It is strange and wonderful place at the end of the African continent where the swirling waters of the warm Agulhas and cool Benguela currents results in high levels of marine biodiversity.

And coupled with resident cape fur seal colonies, this makes Gansbaai an ideal habitat for an abundant population of transient white sharks.

I’m still not sure what makes it such an ideal habitat for the flamboyant personalities you find on land though. There is a high season--winter--when the sharks seem more abundant in the bay and by the island, and a low season--summer--when the water temperatures are typically cooler and sharks move away from the island.

Despite our combined knowledge, we arrived in late summer because of our travel schedule. We went to sea on Barracuda, a 38 foot catamaran dive boat, and quickly anchored, chum slick started, and patiently waited for the sharks in the area to pick up on the smell.

A good experience cage diving with white sharks is accomplished mainly by choosing a spot based on wind and current and using the correct chum. The permits allow for the use of certain types of fish product to be used as chum, which is carried out over the surface of the water and dispersed throughout the water column. If it is the right stuff, a shark will become interested. Using their keen sense of smell and ability to detect tiny changes in amino acid concentrations, they follow the chum slick until they find the point source: The dive boat.

The clouds were heavy overhead, impeding our ability to see the sharks from a distance. But, we were delighted when a small female decided to follow the chum slick and investigate the bait. 

Although I have nearly 500 days on these waters observing white sharks, I get the same exact feeling as I did on day one, pure excitement.  I immediately look for the sex of the shark, estimate a size, and take into account any distinguishing marks.  This little girl was pretty flawless but looking at her dorsal fin, the notches made her easy to identify. 

The crew quickly put the cage in the water and got the clients in the wetsuits as the first shark decided to come and go. But the calm was disturbed by a bigger female that came from the deeper water at a vertical line towards the bait, her belly shockingly white in the dark blue-green water.  The bait was expertly pulled away in time, offering no reward for her effort, but giving the audience a chance to see a different behavior. 

I chose not to get in the cage because the visibility was dropping along with the water temperature. But, we had great surface viewing of the first sharks return and two new sharks’ attempts on the bait.  The wind also picked up and the clients all seemed satisfied with their white shark encounter, so the crew secured the cage on the stern and pulled the anchor as the rain began to fall. 

I was sad to only have the one day with relatively uncomfortable conditions but the silver lining was that I knew the 14 tourists that went to sea that day walked away knowing more about these amazing sharks, their importance in the ecosystem and the perils they face.

We left the whites of Gansbaai and arrived in Muizenberg, a town on the coast of False Bay near Cape Town.  False Bay is known for its white sharks, with several cage diving companies and a researcher working near Seal Island. But, we were in search of another shark in those waters, the broadnose seven gill (Notorynchus cepedianus).  Seven gills are aptly named for the seven pairs of gills instead of the five pairs found on most modern sharks. 

A great friend and my husband’s cousin, Morne Hardenberg of Shark Explores, operates out of Simon’s Town and offers an amazing opportunity to dive with these formidable sharks that can grow up to 3 meters in length.  We loaded all our diving equipment and heaps of camera equipment, including two big still cameras and two video cameras to aide in a research project that monitors the population. 

The sun was warm but the water was a dreadful 53° F!  Suddenly my 5 mm wetsuit did not seem sufficient.  The anchor was secured at the edge of the kelp and we kitted up quickly.  As I slipped under the surface, the water rushed into my hood and gasped into my regulator.  "Is this really necessary?, I questioned.  My obvious answer was yes as the first freckled grey-brown shark appeared through the kelp stalks. 

These sharks don’t seem to mind divers, but they certainly don’t get out of your way either.  With a huge camera housing in my grasp, I tried to stay part of the reef and predict the sharks’ path. But, every time I thought I had it, a shark surprised me just over my shoulder, a foot from my head. 

The visibility was a decent 10 feet and as we swam around the rocky reef, through the dancing kelp. We saw seven gills and a spotted gully shark just at the edge of a sandy patch. The dive site is a Marine Protected Area teeming with marine life like schools of silver fish in the open, abalone the size of my head, spiky urchins, bright orange anemones and starfish. 

The second dive was just as amazing.  The sharks ranged in size from large to small and one even followed my husband towards the surface.  When the tanks were dry and I was sure hypothermia was close to setting in, we were on the boat, chugging hot coffee from the thermos and talking about all the specifics of the dive, but mostly about these fascinating sharks. 

Seven gills are known to hunt in packs and are often seen as part of large aggregations of 10-20 individuals.  These sharks are very confident and will not hesitate to take a snap if cornered.  None in our dive group had made that faux pas despite the nature of photographers to do anything to get the shot.  I admitted that underwater videographer might not be next on my career path when I realized that I had the buttons reversed at some point and thought I was on standby when I was recording and vice versa.  Luckily, everyone laughed and comforted me with stories of their own beginner mistakes. 

A few days later, we were back in the same dive spot but the water was half a degree colder and the visibility had dropped to about one foot at some spots.  The sharks seemed much larger when you could only see them 1-3 feet away.  I struggled with my hood and spent most of my dive trying to find everyone by following the flashes of the strobe, which also meant a shark was nearby.  I was shivering to my core and ended the dive. 

Morne and my husband have extensive experience in these waters so they were at ease swimming back to the boat mid-water, but I felt better paddling along the seafloor.  We all know white sharks are in the area and the bad visibility made me very aware of every shadow.  The hot sun at the surface instantly calmed my shivering core as we motored back to the marina.  This was our last dive of the trip and I was trying to remember all the details, conditions, behaviors, species, and fun.  There were too many of each to recall so I just smiled and joined in on the guy’s debate about which shark was the coolest.

Over the past six weeks, I lost a Tiffany’s necklace, a very special 30th birthday gift from my husband, and flooded my point and shoot camera.  The water had been 53° F with 1 foot visibility at some points and I never got into the water with my white sharks.  All of this could have meant that this trip was a disaster and yet we flew home feeling more than satisfied with visions of white tip reef sharks, zebra sharks, whale sharks, white sharks, spotted gully sharks and seven gill sharks floating around behind our closed eyes. 

We are so incredibly fortunate to be able to do what we love and we love our oceans and more specifically, sharks.  I couldn’t wait to get home and start spreading the word about what we saw because it is a tool to entice people to become interested in sharks and hopefully, help protect them!