Southern Africa - Sharks, seals, surf and Dive South by Monty Halls
It is invariably a nerve wracking experience placing yourself in the hands of someone else for the duration of a dive expedition. This is particularly apt when you are part of a team put together by Full Circle Expeditions on an epic worldwide quest to find the best diving the planet can offer. It was late 2002, South Africa was our first stop, great whites and raggies our first priority, and Reon Coetzee of Dive South Safaris the first face we saw as we staggered through customs in Cape Town.
Reon greeted us cheerily, visibly excited at the prospect of putting us through our paces over the next two weeks. A swift warm up appeared in the form of a whistle stop tour of Table Mountain, specially cleared of cloud by Reon for our arrival. As we stood on the roof of Cape Town, the Cape spread before us, Reon swept an arm expansively along the coastline.
"You are looking at two great oceans coming together" he said, "and two mighty currents meeting. The cold waters of the Benguela current are full of oxygen and nutrients, and have created a rich food web. Sitting on top of this web is the great white shark, unchallenged apex predator of the South African seas."
"Further east" Another expansive wave," and we come across the Agulhas Current. Warmer, less rich in nutrients, but an underwater conveyor belt for big migratory animals, most of whom you'll be meeting over the next couple of weeks." The team absorbed this information, ashen with anticipation.
First stop was several hours along the coast at Gansbaai, home to 90,000 Cape Fur seals breeding, living, fishing and cavorting off Dyer Island. Running parallel to the island is a deep channel termed the killing zone. Stray into or over this channel, as many juvenile or sick fur seals do, and you are going to have an emotional afternoon.
Reon briefed us thoroughly before we climbed onto the boats of the Great White Shark Diving Company. Essentially the brief consisted of ensuring that we followed the instructions of the crew members to the letter - a boat bobbing around in the Killing Zone is not, it seems, the place to amusingly push someone in.
Reon also warned us that we could be in for a long wait - this was not a zoo, and if the great whites didn't feel like turning up, they wouldn't. With this at the forefront of our minds, we anchored off the island, the air redolent with a pungent combination of seal and chum, and waited.
My carefully laid strategy for coping with the onset of boredom was rudely shattered after only a few minutes by the traditional shout of the tourist spotting his or her first great white shark - "Jesus CHRIST!" - echoing from the bow. Scrambling forward, I found an ashen faced team member staring at a foaming area of water, a la Chief Brodie in Jaws. Before I could ask what had happened, there was further series of expletives from the stern. The show, it seemed, had very much begun.
Nothing prepares you for the sheer bulk of a great white shark, for the silent approach, the cold analytical stare, and the visceral mammalian rush of being so close to a master predator. We lined the rail, no one speaking, as the shark performed a leisurely swim past.
The next week was a series of epic encounters with great whites, as dumb luck combined with perfect conditions to provide a parade of sharks. Smaller aggressive great whites drew great shouts from the assembled team as they fearlessly attacked the baits, only to vanish in an instant as a larger animal would materialize. Even great whites are wary of being in the water with great whites.
Replete with adventure, some of the team opted for another dive in the kelp beds off the island itself. To dive here was to be surrounded by darting wide eyed seals, moving through waving forests of kelp at terrific speeds, mouthing you and your equipment, charging you at breakneck pace before flicking away inches before your cowering form, blowing bubbles of amusement. We left the water exhausted, surrounded by barking seal pups at the edge of the boat, all desperate for more. I like to think they still mention us from time to time.
And so to Aliwal Shoal off the coast of Natal, the home of unashamedly rugged diving. Gigantic muscular swells pound a remote coastline creating the fearsome surf launch in the world. The shoal itself a warren of caves and gullies containing ragged tooth sharks and sting rays, whilst in the blue water overhead are dolphins and migrating whales.
The week in Aliwal did not disappoint. We held onto handlines and crammed feet into footstraps as suicidal skippers played chicken with snarling breakers. On dives we barreled along over twisted reefs, flotsam in racing currents that swirled us through gullies and labyrinths. We grovelled on the sea bed as ragged tooth sharks swept closer and closer with lazy sweeps of a dappled tail, before darting into the gloom ahead. We watched dumbstruck as humpback whales passed within inches of the bucking RIB.
And the evenings? In the evening we shovelled mountains of food into slack jaws, great steaming platters bought in by Karin as she barked at an army of helpers. Reon would appear with a bottle of amber liquid, glasses would clink, and tales would be told. Glassy eyed and replete, we would stagger to bed to dream dreams of lithe shapes and toothy grins.
Diving South Africa with Reon and Karin? Hang on to your hat, stiffen your upper lip, fasten seat belts and extinguish cigarettes for a whirlwind adventure tour of the greatest that South African diving can offer. We departed a disheveled band of would be adventurers, bragging rights secured for all eternity. Go there now, or you'll be one year older when you do!