Southern Africa - White sharks & Vin Rouge by Dean Heatley
With over 20 years experience behind us our group of six divers set out for two weeks to South Africa to sample cage diving with Great Whites, reef diving at Aliwal Shoal and Protea Banks and some land based adventures at a game reserve. We were looked after by our hosts from Dive South, Reon and Karin Coetzee who had put together an all-inclusive package for us based exactly on what we wanted to do. Their ability to do this coupled with numerous contacts along the way made for a trouble free holiday second to none. The flight to Cape Town is about 10 hours from London arriving first thing in the morning so that by the afternoon you could be diving in the city's Two Oceans Aquarium for a first encounter with Ragged Tooth Sharks or Sand Tigers, as they are known elsewhere. It was a very gentle experience although somewhat cold in the 17?C water but at least we knew what to expect. It's also quite a novel feeling to see lots of bug-eyed kids waving frantically at you from the other side of the glass!
The real stuff began at Gansbaai just along the coast. A sleepy fishing village where it seems the locals have resorted to taking people out to the sharks rather than flinging nets out every day. While staring in disbelief at a stainless steel cage in someone's garden a big guy by the name of Piet Smal introduced himself and invited us in to watch a video. If the next day were to be anything like the video the trip would have been complete already. Cruising out beyond Geyser Island passing a migrating Southern Right whale we anchored off Seal Island where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans meet and within 15 minutes of the shark's head bait going in a Great White was with us. The most striking thing about these animals is not their size or appearance but the gentle way they go about investigating the bait and the boat. There is no frenzy intent on eating anything but just a nosey look at what's on offer.
Once we had a couple of genuinely interested sharks we were in the cage. The operation is slick and the dive briefing first class as they cater for non-divers as well. The dive master does not mess about and you do exactly what he says, when he says. Make a mistake and fall in here and you'd be lucky to end up with just a telling off. Two at a time in the cage is a little crowded but it's all part of the plan as we had to get six of us into the water while the sharks were still around. Heavily weighted it's possible to crouch low inside and still get your cameras and arms (!) through the mesh but the whole experience must be akin to how those little washing tablets feel inside a Hotpoint! So there they were right before our very eyes; undisputedly the animal kingdom's most perfect predator.
After five minutes or so you get a tug on the surface demand regulator and you know it's time to get out, the only frenzy you're likely to find are the comments and descriptions from colleagues on the boat! With the sharks interested it is quite possible for more goes in the cage although it depends completely on them. The boat crew cannot keep them there although they do let the occasional bait be taken instead of plucking it from the shark's mouth.
During the day we saw eight or nine different sharks, some returning for a couple of visits. Estimations of size varied from 2 metre tiddlers to one gigantic 4 metre shark which dwarfed the transom of the boat. It has to be said that a 4 metre anything is big, your car is probably less than 4 metres long, but a shark of such size is positively impressive. Over a scrumptious dinner laid on by our hosts conversation buzzed about the day's activities and red wine flowed by the bottle. The Great White shark is truly a marvel and has only been designed to exist in limited numbers, we should never treat such an animal with hatred or contempt for simply doing so well what comes naturally. A second white shark charter was planned at Mosselbai on Roy and Jacky's ketch "Infante". Self styled adventurer-cum-shark lover Roy confesses to having junked the high life for his passion with the sharks. He mixes daily with the academics, the scientists and the storytellers and he makes for one hell of an entertaining skipper. Although our day out with Roy didn't see us in the cage with the sharks we had a dusk experience never to be forgotten.
A metre long hardboard decoy in the shape of a seal pup was tied to 50 metres of line and towed behind "Infante" as we headed for the harbour with the sun rapidly setting. On our second pass around Seal Island (anywhere the seals live is called Seal Island out here) without warning came a sudden rush of air and water followed by cheers from us lot. We had just witnessed (and in some cases photographed) a 3-metre white shark hitting the decoy from below with enough force to clear the water completely. Pulling the line in revealed that the sharks never miss for only the head and shoulders of the decoy were left.
Roy was pleased, we were ecstatic and that was his 481st recording of such a breach. He fastidiously keeps all kinds of records and data adding to his enormous knowledge of these fantastic creatures. Later, at a South African Braai over drinks and under the Southern Cross we rattled on into the night as to the whys and wherefores of such behaviour. After our adventures at the Cape we seriously wondered what could come next but we had a 1200km drive up to Natal for the dives on Aliwal Shoal. Our amiable chauffeur, Gerhardt wiled away the hours with talks on place names, harbour history and khaki weeds but we fell asleep anyway. Here we were treated to some top class diving reserved only for those experienced enough to deal with 35m depths and open water drifts among bull sharks and hammerheads, no holding on here.
The reef is several km off shore but only a short ride in Aliwal Dive Charters' powerful RIBs. The Indian Ocean can be wild and always develops large swells toward the afternoons in winter. For that reason we were rudely turfed from our beds at the ungodly hour of 6:30 in order to be in the water an hour later. As you roll backwards from the RIB it's a quick descent onto the reef where you'll be greeted by the formidable sight of the ragged tooth sharks. Raggies, as they are affectionately known here, look terrible, a kind of cross between the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Loch Ness monster, all teeth and bravado. But they are also graceful in the way all sharks are and no more sinister than whitetip reef sharks. As you wait on the bottom by Raggie Cave they will come and inspect you, approaching with a menacing snaggle-tooth grin keeping their beady little eyes on you until it becomes obvious to them that you are no threat. Then, almost as if to admit they've made a mistake they kick their powerful tails and take off at high speed. A strange thing occurs here and if you listen carefully there is a distinct thud at the point of kicking their tails, very low frequency but definitely present. A by-product of a quick getaway or designed to stun, who knows?
After the dives there is the possibility of the boat being followed by dozens of playful common dolphins young and old shepherding their new-borns and for our visit they seemed also to attract the mighty humpback whales. Four of these giants rose from their play for a breath and gently dived again, each time coming further out of the water until we eventually had the fabulous sight of full tail flukes and some hi-jinks lob-tailing. Such a formidable sight leaves you stunned into simply asking why do they do that...
Spending three days diving Aliwal gave us the opportunity to dive other sites like Eelskin, which is shallower at 20m and teeming with life. Coral fish in abundance, morays, catsharks, puffers, boxfish, trumpet fish, angels and butterflies. Although the current and swell make taking pictures hazardous to photographer and reef. As a point of note nobody is encouraged to dive in gloves here except on the wrecks. If you can't grab it you can't break it.
The Produce is a classic wreck broken into three sections lying in 32m, 15m to the deck it's festooned in corals and home to lionfish, glassfish and some enormous potato bass. We encountered a loggerhead turtle quietly enjoying his breakfast of fresh oysters, whilst trying to fend off greedy little fusiliers.
Cathedral is another beautiful dive, 28m and home to dozens of raggies. It is like a set from a film with an arched entrance and a main amphitheatre open to the surface ideal for some excellent photo and video shots. You can also sift the sand for dropped raggie teeth but it seems somehow unfair to disturb the sharks and usher them out of their safe haven. Go carefully here and simply stop and watch, it's much more rewarding than piling into their cave. We dived it twice and it was only on the second dive that the true peace and tranquillity hits you. It's the kind of place to go when it's all over.
As well as Aliwal we dived Protea Banks courtesy of Roland Mauz. His vast experience and years out of Germany's rat race provided us with some first class diving. Here we saw raggies but it was the chance to see bull sharks and hammerheads that attracted us. We weren't disappointed when they turned up almost on cue while ascending through open water. The bull shark is more commonly known as the Zambezi because of its rather crafty habit of sneaking up freshwater rivers for the odd snack in murky waters. Justifiably it has earned the reputation of being one of South Africa's most dangerous sharks and we were respectfully cautious when they appeared below us each accompanied by a squadron of remorae and pilots.
A lone hammerhead took a pass here and back at Eelskin another species swam by but as yet we can't decide what it was, Dusky, Sandbar, Spinner or Copper. Perhaps we should go back next year... A visit to the Natal Sharks Board was highly educational and their work along this piece of coastline will hopefully continue in spite of the country's ongoing political struggles.
With the depths and type of diving nitrox is highly recommended and available. Buoyancy control must be absolutely A1 because you will find yourself ascending in moving open water a lot of the time where deco and safety stops are essential. Ability to rollout of and climb into a heaving RIB will improve the first time you see a Zambezi under your fins and you'll have a completely different approach to beaching a RIB after being driven up the sand at top sprocket and simply stepping out! The water was about 22?C and warmer than the air with the wind chill at this time of year. Down at the cape for the white sharks it was a few degrees cooler but adrenaline will take care of getting too cold. A hood is highly recommended along with 5mm of neoprene. Don't worry about the rufty-tufty South Africans laughing at you in a hood, they're all delightfully mad anyway!
Which leaves me to say that despite a tendency towards madness our hosts could not do enough for us. They never stopped; whether it was fetching drinks, organising dive kit, laundering clothes, forcing more delicious food down us, e-mailing home, educating us or fiddling 60kgs of excess baggage for nothing! The whole experience was beyond reproach and Dive South cannot be recommended highly enough.
Specific thanks for the photos included here go to Dave Rees, Terry Holmes, Steve Smith and Dean Heatley
Dean Heatley; advanced diver, diving since reaching the BSAC legal age and trained by Terry Holmes and Steve Smith under the snorkel-diver regime! Dived UK, Scotland, Ireland, Mediterranean, Red Sea, Maldives, Caribbean, Florida and now of course South Africa. Treasured possession is a Nik3, still learning how to use it!
Dave Rees; club instructor, only started diving 11 years ago trained by Woolwich.Sub.Aqua.Club. 0162. Been lucky enough to have dived many places in the world, but still enjoy British diving - wrecks included. Got left on the surface following a drift dive for 45mins with nothing to see but my buddy, Les Houson as the skipper forgot to pick us up! Enjoy underwater photography
Steve Smith; adv instructor/open water instructor, we were so poor when we started diving that we had to make our own wetsuits (note: wet not drysuit) but they fell apart in the tumble dryers at the Littlehampton camp site! Currently thinks of himself as the new underwater Cubby Broccoli. Dived in UK, Med, Red Sea, Maldives, Caribbean, Australia, SA
Pauline Smith; adv diver, started diving when dive-boats had no loos - great for bladder control! None of the equipment fitted, it was all made for the boys and nothing was pink. 'Can't do without' piece of kit is a Stahlsac bag on wheels, like the Tardis it swallows tons of gear and is responsible for many a hernia at airport check-ins! Dived in UK, Med, Red Sea, Caribbean, Australia and South Africa.
Terry Holmes; adv instructor/open water instructor, trained by long serving club member Eddie Day during the 70's, the wise old man of the sea, who will probably leave this mortal coil with his fins on. Dived uk/med/Aus/NZ/Carib/Cuba/Maldives/SA. Can often be seen accompanying his friend "Subal-Nikon" on dives and is famous for saving Linley from an inflatable shark once...
Linley Murdock; adv diver, ...saved from an inflatable shark once
It cost £1515 pp based on accommodation sharing two-up. Flying with South African Airlines from Gatwick to Cape Town we had no problems with baggage allowance and weight on the trip out, although it's fair to say we had Reon to sort things for the trip home! At the Cape we were in the Victoria and Albert hotel for a night, then at Gansbaai a superb country house B&B followed by a couple of nights in the Post Office Tree Manor Hotel. In Natal we had luxury safari tents at the Park Rynie Campsite. Overland we journeyed in a 12-seater Mercedes van with air-con, cool box and custom made trailer for provisions. Our itinerary took us more than 5000km along SA's famous Garden Route. Currency is the Rand and we drew money on arrival at Cape Town Airport but I don't remember actually needing any! We travelled in winter so the risk of bugs and nasties was greatly reduced. Even at the game reserve there were no mozzies or flies. Security and personal safety was never an issue under the guidance of our hosts.
For a truly once in a lifetime trip contact them here;