I took this photo of the Clan Stuart engine block while the divers were kitting up on the boat

Skipper’s notes on a great white shark encounter

I would never consider myself an expert on wild animals, but I have been diving for a while and no matter how long you spend underwater or on the water, every day can bring something new to look at. We had a very interesting experience on Saturday 14 September at one of our local dive sites. The Clan Stuart, an inshore wreck in 10 metres of water about 100 metres offshore, can be dived as a shore entry as well as a boat dive. Our group were all very experienced and mostly in their forties and fifties. Diving the wreck from the beach requires a challenging climb over the train tracks as well as a rock embankment plus a trip through the shore break. It is not for everyone, so we offer this site as a boat dive.

I took this photo of the Clan Stuart engine block while the divers were kitting up on the boat
I took this photo of the Clan Stuart engine block while the divers were kitting up on the boat

The conditions were good. The water temperature was 15 degrees, visibility 6-8 metres and there was a manageable 2-3 metre swell (it wouldn’t have been manageable if we’d done it as a shore entry). The divers rolled into the water and head over the stern of the wreck. From our boat you dive with a buoy and a reel or you stay at home. There is far too much boat traffic in Cape Town to dive any other way. I always stay very close to the the divers in the first few minutes to ensure I can attend to problems quickly.

Five to seven minutes into the dive the buoy turned sharply and headed for shore at quite a pace. I moved in a little closer and a white shark surfaced perhaps 10 metres in front of the boat and about 10 metres behind the divers. It then disappeared briefly and came back heading for the divers. I started to head towards the shark to get between it and the divers, but it swam straight for them and simply swam through the group.

It then turned and came towards the boat and surfaced again, and I tossed a weight at it, not really knowing if it would help. The shark went below the boat and I never saw it again. By this time the group had reached the shallows and two of the group, Christo and Craig, were busy getting the others out of the water. I then went back to the jetty, left the boat there and drove to pick them up assisted by Clare as we were not getting six divers with kit into either of our cars.

As with any such interesting experience there are always a lot of helpful and insightful questions, comments and observations.

The first question posed to me was from the Divemaster, Craig. Did they do the right thing? Most definitely. I think he and Christo made an excellent decision in a very stressful situation. In our briefings I always touch lightly on the recommended course of action if you see a shark or any other large wild animal, and between Christo and Craig, both regular divers on our boat, they followed that plan to the letter. I tell the divers to get into a small group, stay close together, and – if possible – stay on the sea floor. They must wait until the shark has moved away before attempting to swim off in a calm manner. On no account should they surface while the shark is still in the area.

Interestingly, everyone agreed that the shark’s size was between 3-4 metres, and that it was very inquisitive but not overly aggressive. The shark had a fair amount of time to display any aggression as the swim from the wreck to the beach can take several minutes and in fact took a fair while as Christo and Craig kept the group tightly together despite the inclination from one diver to wander off. I asked if anyone had noticed if it was a male or female as I know our resident scientist and shark expert would like that info, and got this response from Christo: “It swam straight at me, I could see both its eyes, and when it was less than two metres away it turned so suddenly that I felt the wash from its tail.”

This comment from Christo impressed me the most. “I have had no interest in seeing a white shark underwater but having seen one I can understand why people find them to be beautiful and graceful.”

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