Sevengill Cowshark near Pyramid Rock

FAQ: What about sharks?

You had to ask! I’m glad you did. As divers, we are venturing into the sharks’ domain, and it’s a risk we take. This might sound scary, but it’s important to bear a few things in mind. First, the ocean is a big place. It’s very unlikely that we’ll meet a shark, unless we go looking for them. Second, even though sharks are wild animals, they don’t like to eat people. Great white sharks need a huge amount of energy to keep their incredibly powerful bodies warm and mobile. That’s why they eat seals – conveniently packaged in a very thick layer of calorie-rich, nutritious blubber. Humans just don’t have the same appeal. That’s why many shark attacks are “bite and release”: the shark takes an exploratory nibble, because he thinks you’re a seal, and when he realises you’re not as tasty and fatty as he thought, he lets go and swims away. Unfortunately, with so many sharp teeth, a shark’s exploratory nibble can hurt you quite badly.

You might be thinking that what you’ve just read proves it’s a terrible idea to dive where sharks are found… especially since we often see seals on our dives in Cape Town. What’s to stop a shark from getting confused between a diver in his black wetsuit, and a sleek little seal? The answer to this relates to how great white sharks hunt. Their hunting technique is to launch themselves from the bottom of the ocean, up towards the seal on the surface. This enables them to reach enormous speeds and to take the seal totally by surprise. Often the shark will breach right out of the water with the seal in its mouth.

Why doesn’t this worry us? Because we spend most of our time on the bottom. For one thing, sharks can’t usually get underneath you to attack. There isn’t much chance of the shark mistaking you for a meal – in fact, it’s more likely that if you see a great white, he’ll just cruise right on by without paying you any attention. Another reason is that the places we dive that are frequented by seals (Partridge Point, Duiker Island in Hout Bay, the Clan Stuart, Long Beach for example) simply aren’t deep enough for a shark to mount an attack. They prefer to get their snacks out at Seal Island in the middle of False Bay (where the shark cage diving takes place), where there is a deep channel around the island perfect for hunting.

There has never been a great white shark attack on a diver in the Cape, despite the attacks we have had on swimmers, spear fishermen and surfers. That’s because surfers and swimmers are usually flailing around on the surface, and spear fishermen are usually dragging a handful of dead or dying fish behind them sending out distress signals to all the predators in the vicinity, so you can forgive the shark for getting confused and thinking they were a meal! You can see some general shark attack statistics (for the whole world) here.

If you dive with me, I will give you a shark briefing if I feel it’s necessary. I’d also like to encourage you to join me sometime for a dive at Shark Alley in front of Pyramid Rock in False Bay. This is a shore entry site where sevengill cowsharks can be seen in large numbers, with near certainty. They are beautiful creatures, up to about three metres long, and are not harmful to divers. We swim to the sandy patch among the kelp where they like to hang out, and then sit on the sand and wait for them to visit us. They are curious, and swim very close to take a look, and then swim away. It’s breathtaking – in a good way! You can see some videos of past dives I’ve done with these sharks on my YouTube page. Diving with these magnificent creatures will change your perception of sharks in general, and may also help you to master any shark-related fears you may have.

Sevengill Cowshark near Pyramid Rock
Sevengill cowshark at Shark Alley, near Pyramid Rock. These curious sharks will approach to within a few feet of divers to get a closer look.

For information on shark spottings in Cape Town, visit Sharkspotters (here too). For information on the relative risks of a shark attack compared to other things (lightning strikes, bicycle accidents, etc – the home improvements section is highly recommended!) go here.

As of yesterday (25 August) I can speak from first hand experience – after a just under a year in Cape Town, I was buzzed by my first great white shark. She circled us, and then left. It was awe-inspiring, and left me feeling honoured to have encountered one of these incredible creatures. I mentioned it in my newsletter today.

(This information also appears on my website, here.)

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Tony

Scuba diver, teacher, gadget man, racing driver, boat skipper, photographer, and collector of stray animals

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