For several years now, even before Shark Week was popular, I (Anna) have been terrified but oddly intrigued by sharks. I read articles, watch TV specials, and over time have learned more about these complicated animals. In spite of all the facts/stats out there, I was still super afraid of getting into open water in fear of sharks being around…and hungry.
I must admit that Shark Week, specifically the Air Jaws series, increased my fascination with the Great White shark. Once Mike and I started planning our RTW trip I knew that one stop had to be Seal Island just off the South African shore near Cape Town famously known for shark breeching, a predatory/prey interaction between Great Whites and Cape Fur seals, and unique to the False Bay Area. And what better way to visit Seal Island than with Apex Shark Expeditions, a company started by shark expert and my idol, Chris Fallows.
I mean, who wouldn’t want to see this up close?!?
Up before the Sun:
Continuing a theme of our South African trip, our crew of four (Pam & Craig Stimmel were still visiting after our time on safari), arrived at the Apex office very early (6:15 a.m.). We were greeted with muffins & coffee by Jimi, a very fun & knowledgable shark expert and by Monique, a super nice and friendly crew member (and Chris’s wife). I had not-so-secretly hoped that Chris was going to be on our boat (I had read reviews that he frequently captains) and commented to Jimi my hopes to meet Chris. Moments before boarding Chris pops into the office, confirming that he was going to be our captain for the morning ride!!!! Quietly freaking out, I shook his hand and then in the dorkiest way possible, blurted out that I had probably watched every Shark Week program that he had been on and couldn’t wait to spend my morning with him. He laughed and said he was glad to have another fan of sharks on board. Monique seemed unfazed by her husband’s celebrity role and Mike just rolled his eyes at my excitement.
Once on board, we had a safety talk and then sped out towards Seal Island, approximately 10 km away from our starting point in Simon’s Town. Jimi chatted with us, sharing the island’s history related to the Great Whites & prepped us for the cage diving portion of the trip.
Shortly after the sun rose, we slowed down and started to watch for any natural predation activity/breaching. Unfortunately, May isn’t the best month for seeing this type of activity (July tends to be the best month due to more baby seals heading into the surrounding waters six months after being born) so we decided to tow their seal decoy for a bit to see if any sharks took the bait. Armed with two cameras, I was ready for action.
Moments after the fake seal floated away from the boat, we were treated to a “half-breach”. It happened so fast and I was too excited that I didn’t catch any of it on film. No worries, though. Plenty of close encounters were in our future!
Owen, our fourth and quietest crew member of the boat, brought the fake seal back in and we continued on our way even closer to the island. We dropped our anchor and the cage and the first wave of shark viewers geared up in wetsuits, snorkel masks, and a weighted belt to help counteract the buoyancy of the wet suit.
Apex chooses not to chum the water and uses only tuna heads to attract the sharks close to the boat. At no point is it their intention the feed the sharks, but they try to keep the shark around and engaged for identification, documentation, and cage/boat viewing.
Moments after the first group jumped in, Owen started banging on the side of the boat, hoping the sharks will be attracted to the boat through the sounds and vibrations. The tuna heads were thrown in and soon after a Great White approximately 4 meters long (13ish feet) quickly approached the boat, interested in the bait. And so it began!
Group 1 started the day off with some great shark activity around the boat, followed by Group 2 who had a shark actually hit the cage with it’s back fin after snatching the bait from the line. Mike was in Group 3, paired with 2 Canadians. Though quiet in the beginning, Mike’s group saw a 3.8M Great White which came creepily close to Mike’s side of the cage and one swimming below the cage as well.
I was slotted in Group 4 along with Pam & Craig. We were definitely the most anxious group of the bunch (hence going last) and our cage was the loudest filled with lots of nervous laughing and “this was a bad idea” cries from the cage.
With Jimi on the bait line, he calmed us down with some coaching tips, just before yelling “Shark on the left – DOWN”. Immediately the three of us dive under as a HUGE shark passes by our cage just a few short feet away. It was exhilarating!! I couldn’t believe I was in the water, with sharks, voluntarily. Quickly after coming up for air, the crew had identified the shark as Z (can’t remember her full name), a 3.7M shark they knew well. Monique quietly leaned over the top of the cage and informed us that this particular shark liked to get close to the cage and circle it and for us not to panic. Seriously?!?! Not panic?!?! We were treated to full 360 views as she circled the cage several times, seemingly getting closer every time. Tucked in between Pam and Craig I screamed in terror and delight each time she passed in front of the cage. Unbelievable.
Even after Z lost interest we had several more sharks approach the bait and cage. In fact, one came out of the water to get the bait, so close to the cage that we were able to see the teeth above the water line and then again as we dove down to see the shark make an escape into the dark water below the cage. Yep, we were in the cage when this happened:
After so much excitement our group was ready to relax and bask in the safety of the boat. Our boat stayed anchored as Jimi and Owen continued to use the bait to attract sharks for dock observation. And they did not disappoint! At the end of the morning we had seen 12 different great whites, ranging between 3.6-4.2 meters long. Boat viewing was just as great, if not better than being in the cage because you could fully appreciate the size of the sharks compared to the boat & cage. Plus, during that time we were able to chat with both Monique and Chris about their shark adventures and future plans for observation (which got me SUPER pumped for Shark Week 2014 – starting August 10th)
Our trip back to shore was filled with adrenaline-induced chatter and more pictures of seal island. Once on land, hugs and email addresses were exchanged to keep in touch and we returned to our Cape Town apartment exhausted but still riding on endorphins.
Pretty close to a perfect first-time shark experience for me!!