Advisory issued by City of Cape Town

Shark Week, Cape Town style

Last Saturday, 14 September, Tony took a group of four Russian tourists (all very experienced divers in their forties and fifties), Divemaster trainee Craig, and experienced Cape Town diver Christo, for some boat dives. Their first dive was an hour-long dip at Photographer’s Reef, in very nice visibility. By the time they were ready to do a second dive, the wind had come up a bit, and they decided to visit the wreck of the Clan Stuart, which is close to shore and relatively sheltered.

The dive site

The Clan Stuart is most often dived from shore, but involves a crossing of a busy road in full dive gear, climbing over a low wall, crossing small dunes and a railway line, and then a scramble over some rocks onto the beach. Then there’s usually a breaker to get through – no mean feat at the best of times. One of the Russian divers has a prosthetic leg, which would have complicated the surf entry somewhat (and ended up complicating their exit slightly).

It should be mentioned that according to the Diving the Cape Peninsula and False Bay page about the Clan Stuart on wikivoyage, scuba divers have reported seeing white sharks on the Clan Stuart in 2010 and 2011. We did a very uncomfortable dive there in early 2012 during which we were swarmed by white steenbras, behaving in a manner which made us suspect shark presence, although we didn’t see a shark (and we couldn’t get out of the water fast enough). I’ve added the Clan Stuart to my winter-only dive site list, which includes anything near Fish Hoek or Glencairn, and especially Sunny Cove.

The dive

Very shortly after rolling into the water at the Clan Stuart, the divers encountered a curious great white shark, which circled them twice and then swam off. It was not aggressive at all. Tony saw the shark on the surface after it had circled the divers, as it came quite close to the boat. One of the Russian divers, Vladislav Tomshinskiy, had a video camera and the presence of mind to film the shark as she swam past, both times. The first bit of footage is very blurry; in the second, the shark is clearly visible as well as the bubbles of Christo and Craig, who was holding the buoy line. From the footage local shark expert Alison Kock estimates the shark to be 3 to 3.5 metres long, and a female.

Craig and Christo acted calmly, got the divers into a small group, and when the shark had left them alone, swam them close to the bottom, over the wreck and onto the beach, where Tony and I fetched them in our cars. Our Russian visitors were thrilled to have seen a white shark and perhaps would have liked to continue the dive at the Clan Stuart, but we judged it prudent to go elsewhere and they finished the day at Roman Rock.

Advisory issued by City of Cape Town
Advisory issued by City of Cape Town

We notified Shark Spotters, who informed the City of Cape Town and issued a shark advisory. If something similar happens to you, please let Shark Spotters know – they log all encounters between people and white sharks, for public awareness and research purposes.

Why talk about it?

There is always the chance that scuba divers in Cape Town waters will encounter a white shark, but very few such encounters actually occur. Tony almost always mentions sharks in his dive briefings (if I close my eyes I can practically recite the shark bit: “This is Cape Town, and we do have great white sharks here. It’s very unlikely that we’ll see one, but if we do, this is the plan…”). He speaks from experience, having encountered white sharks at Long Beach on two separate occasions. He’s been told by one or two of his divers that talking about sharks in a dive briefing is scary and they don’t want to hear that there’s a chance of seeing one – but ignoring the fact that encounters like this one at the Clan Stuart can happen is short sighted. Both Craig and Christo have heard the shark briefing tens of (and in Christo’s case possibly more than a hundred) times, and as a result had some idea of what to do because they can probably also recite Tony’s briefing to themselves without having to think too hard about it.

Hopefully the example set by the divers on this particular day will provide comfort that an encounter with a curious white shark need not be catastrophic, and show that there are things you can do to minimise your chances of a negative outcome. Also, it serves as a reminder that sharks don’t swim around looking for people to eat. This shark had probably never seen a diver before, and was understandably curious about these noisy creatures in its realm. It wasn’t looking for a meal. All six the divers behaved calmly and with discipline, not panicking or doing anything that would endanger themselves or their buddies. They were also all completely awe-struck by the experience of seeing the shark in its natural habitat, and variously remarked upon its grace, how quickly it turned, the powerful wash of water from its tail fin, and how majestic it looked.

Over the next few days we’ll feature accounts of the event from Tony, Christo and Craig, as well as the video footage that Vlad took of the shark. I hope that this can contribute to white shark awareness and safety in the diving community.

I think it’s a timely occasion to do this, as the City of Cape Town has recently released its annual safety tips and reminder that white sharks move inshore during the summer months. This inshore movement is related to the availability of fish such as white steenbras, and a number of other factors. Sharks are a reality of life and scuba diving (and surfing and swimming…) in Cape Town; an informed community of water users will enable us to appreciate and protect these animals whilst promoting water safety and a realistic assessment of the risks.

What’s coming up?

We’ll have reports on the incident from a few different perspectives. Also, I’ll post the video of the sighting taken by Vlad. I’ll update these links as the posts go live over the next few days:

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Clare

Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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