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March 22, 2012

Facing Cape Town’s great whites

Photo courtesy Chris Fallows/www.apexpredators.com

Many people fear sharks and a lot of that fear is often directed at one specific shark, the great white. But, often, our perception is based on shark attack articles, images or film, without educating ourselves sufficiently on the big fish. 

False Bay, in Cape Town’s South Peninsula, is home to many great white sharks, and a place locals and international visitors can access information and come face-to-face with these amazing creatures. We ask local operator and researcher Chris Fallows to share some thoughts with us about these amazing creatures.

Great white shark diving is more popular outside Cape Town and not many are aware that it can be done in False Bay. Where do you operate from and how regularly are these diving trips undertaken?
Apex Shark Expeditions operates in False Bay at Seal Island, and launches from Simon’s Town. Trips have been running to Seal Island to view the great whites for 16 years and, having worked at Gansbaai for four years before that, I believe Seal Island offers a different and more rounded natural experience. The viewing at Seal Island is seasonal with April to September being peak season, but sightings at Seal Island were also excellent in February and March, both in 2010 and 2011.

When the dives are undertaken, do you use specific mechanisms to lure the sharks, or are there specific areas concentrated with guaranteed shark sightings?
A special aspect of shark viewing at Seal Island, is that you probably have the best chance in the world to see a shark hunt a seal naturally. We do nothing to entice or encourage this behaviour and it is totally natural. With regards to cage diving, we use a single bait or roughly 3-4kg that is floated on a rope to attract a shark to our vessel. The sharks are not fed purposefully at any stage, nor are they pulled closer to cages. So anyone expecting a thrashing shark bashing into the cage, will be disappointed. The sharks are spectacular enough doing what they do naturally.

Photo courtesy Chris Fallows/www.apexpredators.com

False Bay is known worldwide as the place to see great whites breach. Is it a natural phenomenon and what is the likelihood of seeing it on every trip?
Sharks hunting seals is a natural phenomenon, and from May to September this behaviour is most prevalent. Apex Shark Expeditions guests have an excellent chance of seeing one or more predatory event per trip. Apex also tow's a fake seal shaped decoy to show guests a breach, but this is not guaranteed as we have no way of making a shark breach if it does not want to. We also try to keep this towing to a short period and prefer, where possible, to show guests natural predation which often includes breaching during a hunt. 

As a naturalist, how does the impact of shark attacks and the response from the public affect the work that you do?
I obviously have a huge attachment to the sharks and their well-being, or else I would not have been involved in working with them for so long. So, I always try to educate people about these predators when I can. I would prefer no shark attacks, both for the human and the shark’s sake. That said, I surf, dive, swim and paddleboard; so I take as many risks as anyone in the ocean, but also know that when I go into the sea I enter the sharks' domain.

Photo courtesy Chris Fallows/www.apexpredators.com

What impact does shark cage diving have on the preservation of the great white shark species?
Without this industry there would be very little known about these animals. Many of the scientists and researchers in this country have got a vast deal of data from the cage diving vessels, and some of these operations even run their own research programmes. Shark cage diving boats in False Bay and elsewhere have made massive efforts to clean up their acts over the past 10 years. Many good operators try to learn more about the sharks, educate their guests, and hopefully contribute to creating an environment where the value of the animal alive through tourism, far outweighs the death of these magnificent predators as trophies or a set of fins, if the cage diving industry did not exist. 

The public is concerned about a possible increase in the number of sharks due to the species being protected. Do you believe the population has grown?
No, definitely not - and it is not in my interests as an operator to tell people there are less sharks. Apex Shark Expeditions has kept data on every shark sighting we have had at Seal Island since 1996, as well as when we used to work inshore until 2000, and the data clearly shows an overall downward trend. The average size of the sharks has also decreased. Up until the mid-2000s we saw 10 or more sharks at Seal Island on 18% of all our trips, today we see 10 or more sharks on less than 10% of our trips. Every year, we saw at least two to three sharks over 5 m, and today in any year we are lucky to see one. The great white shark, like so many other predators is disappearing. Recent statistics will prove this and data is available for anyone who is interested.

Photo courtesy Chris Fallows/www.apexpredators.com

In your opinion, what activities, by the public, have caused an impact on the increased great white shark visibility and encounters?

In the 70s, 80s and early 90s, most summer white shark sightings were off places such as Strand, Macassar and Strandfontein. The great white sharks were naturally in these areas because their summer food, small sharks and fish such as kob, geelbek and other summer fish were found in these areas. By the mid-nineties, shark fishing for smaller shark species took off and suddenly these smaller sharks were heavily fished. Throughout this period our observational data showed the great whites covering more ground in summer, this was obviously because they needed to work harder to find their normal summer food.

Today, there are also more people using the ocean than ever before. People spend more time in the water due to advancements in wetsuit technology and people recreate through new pursuits that did not exist 15 or even 10 years ago such as kite boarding, stand up paddle boarding, etc. You also now have shark spotters sitting on the mountain looking for sharks, helicopter trips to see sharks and more boats in the water fishing for the sharks' natural summer food.  

With that said it is clear that our education, understanding and actions will be of utmost importance in the future generations of this predator. We all need to be more responsible, take heed of warnings and act accordingly. For more information on great whites, or trips with shark diving operators in False Bay or Gansbaai, check out our list of operators.

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