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Tuesday, May 27, 2008

South Africa Shark Tour 2008 Trip Report

South Africa Trip Report February 2008 By One of our regular divers with Elite Diving.
By Rhys Hillman of Enfiled.

Were we going to get to see the Big Five on land and at sea?

My brother and I met up with the rest of the group at Heathrow airport. All of us were so excited anticipating what we were about to embark on.

The rest of the group were very friendly and I had dived with some of them in Sharm on a previous trip so we weren’t long getting re-acquainted.

We had a long flight ahead of us but as we were travelling through the night we had chance to sleep for a few hours, so our body clocks were hardly put out, and by the time we landed in South Africa we were all ready for the campaign ahead.

We were met at the airport in South Africa by Alun’s smiling face.
“Welcome to Elite diving south African style” was his greeting.
For me it was a brand new destination but it was funny seeing such a familiar face waiting to meet us.

Alun had flown from Egypt where he runs the Elite Diving operation in Sharm El Sheikh, to greet the group and lead us for the next few weeks as this has become one of Elite Diving’s annual excursions.

The transport was waiting for us at Cape Town airport to transfer us to the Great White shark diving area which was a 90 minute drive along the stunning coastline and spectacular mountain passes. I had always wanted to see Table Top Mountain after seeing it as the back drop to many a sporting event televised from this area over the years.

It wasn’t a disappointment and we could see it for miles as we approached and drove round and past it.

The spectacular scenery continued and was maintained when we reached our destination. Our home for a few days looked out over a harbour facing west, so the sunset was also spectacular.

We ate that evening at Joy’s kitchen and a joy it was too. Joy’s Kitchen is a family run bistro with home cooking. It was the first sample of the South African cuisine I had heard so much about and it surpassed all my expectations. This set the standard of food for the full trip. I think I may have put on a few kilograms by the end of the two weeks!!!

The next morning was one of the reasons we travelled so far. Our first marine experience of South Africa was to view a Great White Shark in the wild!!!!

We were picked up from our guest house by Randal, who was the same friendly chap that picked us up from the airport. He transferred us to the lodge where they operate the boat trips from, and there we had a hearty breakfast and a multi media presentation and briefing of what was to come.

I was all a quiver with the excitement that had been with me since heading out from Heathrow.
“This is it”.
Many emotions were running through me. Cage diving in the same water as Great White Sharks has been well televised but to do it yourself is another matter. Maybe my quivering was also some fear. Even Alun was quieter than usual, and that’s saying something!!!!!

We boarded the 22 meter twin hulled hard boat with twin 200hp outboard engines then a tractor reversed the boat tailor down the slipway into the water and the boat pulled away.

“We have a 15 minute or so boat ride to our viewing destination.” said Alun.

What? The sharks only live 15 minutes away from this little harbour?

He was right. We came to a stop after 15 minutes or so and the crew dropped anchor and in to the water threw a piece of black plywood tethered to a rope and another rope with a lump of fish tied to one end. They looked as if they were fishing. I suppose they were.

We were moored up only a few hundred meters from the shore line. We were told that we may have a long wait for any sharks to turn up but lo and behold, after five minutes the shout went up and a great white was circling the boat.

It came in to investigate the floating plywood which we were told resembles a young seal on the surface. It wasn’t interested in the fish carcass that was at the end of the other rope, but kept coming nearer and nearer to the plywood.

The crew said it was a young one but around two meters long it looked big enough to me. The way it came to investigate the plywood, mouthing it and pushing it along the surface of the water, didn’t appear that threatening, but the shark then disappeared.

Suddenly it reappeared from directly underneath the plywood at great speed taking it in its mouth and breaching out of the water. Splash!!! Back down it came trying to swim off with the plywood in an aggressive manner. Oops!! I’ve seen a few people outside a cage diving with the great white but after watching how it behaved I’ve decided to keep my distance or at least have bars between us.

Another shout went up and there was now also a 4 meter great white circling the boat.

Approximately 30 meters away from the boat, there was an inquisitive seal popping its head out of the water to take a look at what we were doing. It appeared to know that the sharks were close to us and kept its distance.

“OK, who’s first in the cage?” asked Peter who was one of the crew members.

Five of us could fit in the cage at a time. The cage was 3 meters long. One of the sharks was longer than the cage as it swam past. The third great white turned up and by the time we left, we had a fourth, all with differing colours and markings.

We weren’t on SCUBA, as we were just under the surface. We took a big breath and submerged as the crew instructed us to do so. They did this when they could see the sharks approach the plywood and fish carcass. The crew would then draw the sharks with the bait along the front of the cage or towards it to bring the shark in for us to get a good view of it underwater. The first few times it was quite difficult to hold your breath. I put that down to the nervousness of it all but we soon relaxed and enjoyed the experience.

On one of the passes, a shark managed to get hold of the fish carcass and swam off with it thrashing its tail on the cage as it swam past us. You could feel its power vibrate through the cage. It then dived down to the depths, rasping its teeth on the rope until it cut right through it. After witnessing that, the five of us surfaced and “Wowed” simultaneously.

Swim outside the cage with one? Not ready for that yet!!!! May never be either.

Alison, the marine biologist that worked on the boat was busy taking pictures of the fins so they could identify and record the sightings. Each fin is like a fingerprint with their unique markings, notches and shapes. This is one of the ways they identify the individual sharks.

We had a second session in the cage after the rest of the group had their turn. You couldn’t get tired of watching such a creature in its own environment.

After a few hours of observing the sharks, the crew weighed anchor and sped off towards Dyer Island, which was only a mile and a half away from us.

I have seen many a documentary about this island on the TV so again seeing it first hand was something special.

It is where the Cape fur seals colonise and breed, and during the pupping season, you can view the great white sharks patrolling the waters around the island waiting for a pup to stray from the safety of the kelp and pounce on it with devastating effect.

The seals don’t appear nervous in the least and come up to the boat swimming alongside it taking as much interest in us as we were in them. The younger of the seals looked as if they were showing off, and kept coming up to the boat and ducking away in a flighty manner.

Although it wasn’t the pupping season we still witnessed the sharks earlier, doing what comes natural to them, even if they were mistaking a piece of plywood for a seal pup.

Also next to the seal covered rocky island was another island covered in birds of many kinds. It was nature in the raw.

We got back to shore around mid day, so we had plenty of time to explore around the harbour and the neighbouring coastline. It was back to Joys for dinner again that evening and again we weren’t disappointed.

We spent a few hours in a local bar and met a few of the local characters. The photos of the great white’s were posted on the walls all over. Also a few jaw bones here and there. This is a very old fishing village, so there were also photos of the local fishermen going back decades with some of their incredible catches.

One of the locals we met was John Morley, who proudly pointed out some photos on the wall of his grandfather being dwarfed by a great white shark, hanging on a hoist besides him. Sadly the shark had got caught up in his fishing net. Also we were told of Andre Hartman who is one of the divers that swims outside the cage with the Great Whites and lives in this area. Alun told us that he was given Andres e-mail address to contact him to go diving by Phil Lloyd one of Alun’s regular divers in Sharm but Alun said he decided against it for some reason!!!!!

For me, it was defiantly the right choice by Elite diving to stay in the small town and get to meet the local people, rather than travelling back to Cape Town to experience city life there. I suppose it’s a personal choice but I came to find out more about the big sharks of South Africa and I’m sure I wouldn’t have learnt so much about them and be apart of the distinctive atmosphere of a close knit community, if we stayed in the bright lights of a city.

The next day we left to catch a flight to Durban, which is a city on the mid eastern coast of South Africa. At the airport our hire cars were waiting. Alun drove the first car and we followed, as he knew where we were next booked in.

Again we stayed outside the city around 50 miles south. It was comforting having a guide with us as I’ve heard some disturbing stories about tourists taking the wrong way in a foreign country’s but Alun led us from the airport and out of the city on main routes. We were soon out with the country side and its rolling green hills one side and the Indian Ocean the other.

We were booked in to a colonial four star hotel. It was like going back 90 years or as I would imagine it would be as I’m only 27 myself.

All the staff was so friendly, and the views from our room and dinning area again were breathtaking. We were overlooking the beach where the surf was crashing on to the shore. We were then told that we would be launching through that surf when we go diving the next morning.

The dive centre was attached to the hotel so we just had to get out of bed the next day and walk a few steps into the dive centre.

We had a very early start as the conditions are more favourable in the early morning, so we could get two dives in before the wind picks up in the afternoon.

We loaded up our dive equipment on to the boat which was a 6.5 meter inflatable with twin 80 hp outboards. A large 4x4 drove the RIB onto the beach and dropped it on to the sand close to the water line. We all helped to turn it around using the incoming surf to help float the boat and hold it facing into the oncoming waves. Juan the Cox then mounted the RIB and started the engines. When he was satisfied they were warm enough, he instructed us to jump on and off we went. It was obviously that Juan was very experienced at handling the RIB in these conditions.

Most people were wearing wet suits. As all divers will know, these alone make you float. We still had to don a life vest for the exit out of the surf, to comply with local safety standards.
Juan waited for a gap in the oncoming swells, then gunned the engines between the rollers and looked for a break. If there wasn’t one, he’d turn around, follow a wave in and start again. This was so exhilarating. I’ve done beach and surf launches many times before but never with the size of waves that were rolling in. They must have been in excess of 12 foot. Hairy stuff. Once past the surf line it was off to the dive site.

The first dive was at a site called ‘the cathedral.’ There were many gullies, overhangs, small caves and holes to explore. The reef fish were different to what I’ve seen before, but this was my first time in the Indian Ocean.

On the first dive, we had a nice easy drift along the reef, dropping down in between the gullies to look at the life there. Although I’d come to South Africa primarily to see the big sharks, I was amazed at the small colourful life that exists among the reefs there. There were nudibranchs galore, shrimp and spiny lobster (cray or craw fish we call them back home) and much more. My two favourite reef fish were the Moorish Idol and the Clown Trigger Fish.

Most of the dive sites are along a ridge which is called Aliwal Shoal. The bottom lies around 22 meters and the top of the ridges come up to around 11 meters. There is one dive where a peak comes up to within three meters of the surface and can clearly be seen from the boat. The visibility on most of the dives here was around 15 to 20 meters and the sea temperature was 23 to 24 degrees Celsius.

On the first dive we had several encounters with turtles and this was the trend for the rest of the trip. On the first dive alone we saw a large green turtle, two logger head turtles and two hawksbill turtles. As we started our ascent to our safety stop, we saw a large eagle ray gliding past us, followed by six dolphins and they were followed by two black fin sharks.

“This is what I’ve came here for” I thought.

We spent the surface interval on the boat and watched a pod of dolphins pass us on the surface, and a turtle also came up to the surface to take a breath of fresh air.

The second dive was a faster drift with again an array of turtles and reef fish. The main difference on this dive is the amount of rays we saw foraging in the sand between the gullies. There must have been three or four different types.

On our way back to shore, we were about 80 metres from the beach when Juan spotted a whale shark close to the surface. It was approximately 7 meters in length in about eight meters of water. Of course, we had to take a closer look so he slowly turned to get near it and the massive dark shadow started to move towards us. It wasn’t disturbed in the least by our presence and again it appeared as interested in us as we were of it. We jumped in with our snorkel gear on, and the first thing I noticed, was a big bite shaped chunk that was missing from its tail fin. It was obviously not a recent wound, but I wondered what could take such a bite out of a creature that size, even though they are very docile? It could have been when it was much younger as this is the place for big creatures.

After spending around 15 minutes with the shark, we got back in the RIB and started back again. Juan did remind us that he said that there had been a few spotted recently but he didn’t want to raise our hopes as you can never guarantee that they stay around. With that he pointed to another one. It was about the same size so I though it may be the same one, but after getting back in with it, the first thing that was obvious was that the tail fin was complete. Obviously a different one. After another ten minutes snorkeling we set off again and only went about 50 meters again only to see another two side by side followed by another two and another two. My God!! We counted twelve whale sharks in total along the same stretch of beach. The boat was travelling around 25 miles an hour so it wasn’t as if they could pass us, so we weren’t counting them twice.

What a first day of diving but now we have the surf to encounter again. We all again donned the life vests and Juan timed the waves so he could follow a roller right up the beach.

Juan knows the beach very well and in some places there are some sand banks so these need to be avoided. He lines the boat up with a channel on the sea bed as he approaches the beach by taking some transits from the land. You’d think he’d throttle back as gets near the shore, but no! He powers the throttle down and hits the beach at top speed. The RIB has a protective stainless steel strip along the length of the hull and this offers some protection to the RIB as it skids up the beach leaving the surf in its wake. We came to a sudden stop where we caught our breath again.

I remember reading an article in Dive magazine from August 2007 where it measured the heart rate on different dive situations in South Africa and this type of beaching gave one of the highest readings. No wonder. What fun!!!!

We had another three days diving in this area and thankfully we started a little later in the morning for the rest of the time. We would have our first dive then head back to the hotel for a full breakfast while gazing out at the sea in front of us wondering what we would encounter next. Every dive was different and so interesting.

The next time we saw a shark was when Juan actually baited for them with a slick of chum and a stainless steel washing machine drum suspended in the water at around five meters from the surface. The drum had sardines poking through the holes.

This was the Tiger Shark dive with no cage. This is a planned chumming dive specifically to attract the tiger sharks and any other shark that’s in the area.

There was an air of tension among us all on the boat that day. We were all reassuring Mike who was in our group and had travelled with us from Heathrow. He was nervous of sharks and being in the blue. He had been coaxed to come along by his friend Bernie and here he was waiting to dive into the water and hang in the blue. Not only that but when Juan gave the signal to get in, we knew the sharks would be there waiting. I think we forgot about our own fears while reassuring Mike.

We all knew what to expect as Juan showed us a video of a tiger dive from the previous year and seeing Alun in the video taken last year it brought it home that we were actually going to be doing it also. The tigers really got up close in the video and they didn’t disappoint us on our dive either.

Juan gave us the signal to roll over the edge of the RIB. We descended down to five meters and immediately saw one of the tigers showing an interest in the drum of sardine.

In total there were three tiger sharks circling the bin in turn and increasing their circle to encompass us also. The bin was suspended from the surface by a buoy at the end of a steel cable. One of the tiger sharks had a large gash near the base of its tail fin. One had a scar on his dorsal fin and the other had no visible scars so it was easy to distinguish between them. The tiger shark with the gash at its tail seemed to dominate the area as it was that one that appeared to patrol the baited drum the most.

Also with the tigers were six black fin sharks. A very muscular shark with a slight black mark on it’s dorsal and tail fin and if seen on their own you’d sure to be impressed at this 2 meter shark. As they were accompanying the tigers you tended to forget about them to concentrate on the Tiger sharks.

This was a true adrenalin rush, but after an hour in the water with them you may get a false sense of security, as they showed little interest in us, although they did start getting closer to us bit by bit as time went on. It appeared more as if they weren’t so wary of us in the end and started to get more comfortable with us being around them. If only they knew how we were feeling!!!

Our brief was very clear. Keep in a tight group, don’t descend or ascend quickly, show them respect at all times (as if you wouldn’t. They were around four meters long with big mouths for Gods sake!). Ascend as a group and attach yourself to the boat as soon as you get to the surface.

It was always in the back of my mind that they would be following us up, but that wasn’t the case. However, the black fins came with us and that was little bit unnerving looking at them close to us while on the surface. Although they never approached to a worrying distance, you can imagine how quickly everyone got back on the RIB.

How could we better that? We were so charged with excitement and like coiled springs all night. I’m still on a high every time I think of all we saw on this trip.

We had one day left in this area but nothing left on our wish list to see so what could be better than a repeat of some of the critters we came to look at. On our last day we had another encounter with a couple of black fin sharks, a brief sighting of two hammerheads and another two whale sharks on our way back in near the shore.

The next portion of the trip was to be spent near Mozambique on the North East of the Elephant Coast but first we stopped off at the Natal sharks Board just north of Durban where we had a presentation on the sharks board’s work and the local marine environment, followed by a dissection of a Bull shark that had been caught in a net just 200 meters off the shore line near the hotel that we stayed in. It was a bit sad and I’m sure that the use of beach protection net is a delicate subject between any conservationist and the local population who use the beach where the nets are deployed.

We had a four hour drive north and again the scenery kept us from becoming bored. The three areas we stayed at were so contrasting and this new area was a much slower pace of life with a laid back attitude of a quiet “out in the sticks” type atmosphere.

This is where South Africans premier coral reef lies and the reefs are named by their distance from the launch point such as two mile reef, five mile reef etc.

We stayed in a large private house with its own swimming pool and were catered for by what seemed like an army of staff. The food here was different but once again surpassed all expectations. Home cooking at its best.

Again we had early launches so just a quick cuppa on waking then a 5 minute drive to the beach through the national park gates.

We were introduced to our guide on the beach, who said her name was Megan.

“Megan?” said Alun. “Do you know where that name comes from”.

“Yes” Megan answered “and what’s more my name is Megan Williams”.

Being a Welshman himself Alun was gob smacked that the guide that was showing us the reefs in South Africa was of Welsh blood. She had been working in the Caribbean last year when Alun was here so they never got to meet then. Megan even put Alun on the phone to her father, who is more Alun’s age, for a chat. Her father now lives back in the UK but was happy to hear the dulcet tones of another Welshman who was being hosted by his daughter in South Africa.

Once again the launches were through the surf. We never got bored of them. They were like a white water rapid ride. When the boat finally came to a halt on the beach, I felt like saying “can we do it again”. Of course, we would if it was the end of the first dive.

I’m not saying I like my food more than diving but now it was time for a treat. Our picnic breakfast was served on the beach under our gazebo tent. It consisted of a large tall glass with muesli, covered by some sweet yogurt type cream and then fresh fruit topping, followed by several egg, bacon and tomato toasty, tea, coffee fresh fruit juice and to top it of a large muffin. We were the envy of the beach. We were certainly well catered for.

After our second dive we drove around the coast sight seeing then back to our house for a dinner fit for a king. (There I go again talking about my food).

We had three days to explore the reefs. One of our aims while in this area was to spot a whale shark or two that are often seen here. We didn’t as it happens but weren’t disappointed and couldn’t complain as we were well satisfied with the amount of whale sharks we had already seen further south. That apparently was quite unusual. “The right place at the right time” as they say.

On one of our days we were offered to try and swim with the dolphins that live around 7 mile reef. Sure enough the cox drove past the dolphins and dropped us in their path. They didn't hang aropund long but watching them pass while in the water with them was again awesome.

Elite Diving gave us the choice to swap the itinerary around so we decided to visit the game reserve on our last day.

We were met at the gate of the game reserve by a guide driving a high 4x4 with seating for nine people not including the driver and co-driver. It was high so we could look out over the plains and bush as we were driven around the reserve spotting the wild life that lived there.

One of the highlights was being taken to a hide where we could view a heard of elephants as they congregated around a watering hole, plus the array of other animals that were also attracted to the water. I suppose we couldn’t come all this way and not see some of Africa’s indigenous species on land also.

No lions though. Although the 4x4 we were riding in didn’t have any sides so I was glad. You had to get there at 4am to even to get a chance of seeing them. As we were there for the diving, what we saw well satisfied us all. After all, how can you beat being face to face with three tiger sharks?

The two weeks went by far too quickly and it was time to drive back to Durban for our flight back to Blighty. I’m sure the memories of this trip will live with me for ever. But can’t wait to do it all again. I’ve also bought a professional video of our Great White shark day and the Tiger shark dive to help me remember in my old age!!!! What an experience.

Apart from the country and the diving itself, what impressed me was the timing, organisation and standard of everything. It all went to plan with all transport and services at the right place and the right time. Elite Diving had drawn up the itinerary with their South African agents and organised each stage with everything going to plan like a well oiled machine. They defiantly delivered what they said they would.

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