DIVING WITH COW SHARKS AND CAPE FUR SEALS | SIMONSTOWN, SOUTH AFRICA
COW SHARKS AND CAPE FUR SEALS | PISCES DIVERS FALSE BAY, SOUTH AFRICA
Simonstown on the western side of False Bay near Cape Town has an international reputation as the place to go to see great white sharks breaching 3m out of the water off Seal Island. This is a spectacular experience provided by naturalist and photographer Chris Fallows and his wife Monique of Apex Shark Expeditions. They label False Bay as the ‘Serengeti of the Sea’ because of its marine diversity, and as well as their infamous shark cage diving and shark breaching trips, they also promote two other types of dives which are contracted out to local dive operators.
These experiences include an opportunity to dive with Cape fur seals and the primitive seven-gilled cow sharks in the kelp forests of False Bay. These dive sites are on opposite sides of a rocky outcrop known as Partridge Point near Cape Point Nature Reserve where there is a small seal colony.
Winter time (June to August) is best for diving here because the plankton count is lower making visibility much better. 5-8m visibility is good in these waters and anything better than 10m is an outrageous bonus. However weather conditions and currents can impact on this so checking local conditions before a dive is a good idea, although a luxury that most divers can’t afford because of their need to book ahead.
We dived today with Mike Nortje, owner of Pisces Divers. He was easy to spot as he wore contrasting shades of yellow fins and had an uncanny sense of where to point in anticipation of a shark or two moving past. While divers might be wary of a passing great white shark at any moment given their prominent numbers in False Bay, Pisces divers don’t appear to have a history of any sightings of great whites. It seems that the great whites just don’t approach scuba divers according to Mike. So believe me when I say you can concentrate on the diversity and colour on these dives and not be looking over your shoulder constantly!
We dived off Mike’s boat although both dives could have been shore dives and were a maximum of 18m only. The boat drove 15mins out of the harbour to get to the dive sites and the water was a ‘warm’ 17 degrees. I had on 4 layers of clothing being toasty warm for each of our 45-50 mins dive but a ‘local’ diver from Johannesberg wore a dry suit.
The scenery here more than matches anything I have seen on the Great Barrier Reef as feather stars, anemones, urchins, sea squirts and sponges provide a kaleidoscope of colour and an environment that is a macro-photographers dream.
Basket sea stars are more often seen in deep water but on both dives with Pisces they were found on soft corals in 10m of water. They are known to actively feed on mysid shrimps which could be seen in huge clouds of many millions. I had never seen as many mysids in one place before and they particularly drew my attention as mysids are the staple diet of leafy and weedy seadragons found in my home state of South Australia.
There was also a fascinating small cuttlefish which when it moved off it changed colour three times adapting to its surroundings, ending up a dark green as it entered the kelp forest. An amazing demonstration of camouflage.
The kelp along the shore was below the low tide zone. There would have been a group of 30 or more Cape fur seals resting on the rocks but our first dive experience was dominated by three, very playful sub-adult seals about 1-1.5m in length. They seemed to delight in checking out the points of difference between one photographer’s set up and the next. The GoPro camera in particular was a tempting snack as they were bite sized compared to some camera set ups a metre or more across.
The seals swam to us, through us, around us, between us and above us. At no time did they touch us but they were certainly close enough to be touched. There was no fin or snorkel grabbing as I had experienced in the Galapagos. In fact these guys were very well behaved but really curious, and we all got some great close up video footage. Every now and then my camera was filled with the eyes of a curious seal when I least expected it.
Our second dive was only 30 seconds away but on the other side of the rocks. The seals tended to be on the ocean windward side and the cow sharks in the more sheltered bay side. These prehistoric sharks do not have a dorsal fin and have seven not the usual five gills. I lost count of the number of these up to 3m sharks gently swimming around the kelp forest. They tended to swim over a very coarse sandy bottom and in the open part of the kelp forest. They were as casual in their demeanor as our grey nurse or the African ragged tooth sharks, being slow moving and indifferent to the presence of divers, their bubbles and flash cameras.
The sharks would come towards divers if you were stationary and would tend to swim away if we approached them. So the trick was to be well positioned and wait for them to approach you, which they often did close enough to bump the camera if you didn’t move it out of the way.
I had never seen these sharks before and didn’t think I ever would in my lifetime. Even though they are widely distributed in the world they are usually in deeper water and in murkier conditions.
Overall this day was a whole lot of fun and gave us all some first time experiences. The most difficult choice of the day was whether to go wide or use macro settings for our cameras as both dives provided ample opportunity for both. The dives certainly removed a belief that False Bay could only be enjoyed for great white shark experiences in cages.
[Photos from Dominik Radler and Tony Isaacson]