A Day on the Bay: Exploring Smitswinkel Bay

Date: 27 December 2013

The rocks at the southern end of Smitswinkel Bay
The rocks at the southern end of Smitswinkel Bay

Fighting with patchy visibility in False Bay during the days after Christmas last year, we found ourselves exploring the shallows at the southern end of Smitswinkel Bay, where the water was clean. The surface conditions were great, and it was a lovely day to be boating. A gentleman in his rowing boat seemed to agree with me.

Rowing boat in Smitswinkel Bay
Rowing boat in Smitswinkel Bay

Summer diving in Cape Town can be tricky (and has been particularly tricky this time around). If there’s not enough south easterly wind, the Atlantic doesn’t clean up, and a cold dive in two metre visibility is fun for no one except penguins. False Bay is dirty, regardless of what happens, but it can get a little bit cleaner now and then (five metre visibility makes us ecstatic) and is nice and warm. We had days when the surface temperature was 23 degrees in January, but underwater mostly looked like this.

View of Smits from the boat
View of Smits from the boat

Friday photo: The Admiral’s Waterfall, Simon’s Town

The Admiral's Waterfall after heavy rains
The Admiral’s Waterfall after heavy rains

I took this photo with Tony’s long lens, from the parking area of False Bay Yacht Club, which is a good place to see the waterfall when it’s in flood. It was one day after we’d had 120 millimetres of rain in under 18 hours, so there was a lot of water coming off the mountain. If you want to see the waterfall up close, drive your car to the end of Barnard Street in Simon’s Town, and walk from there. It’s a flat walk of about twenty minutes.

Video footage of Jackfish Alley (Ras Mohammed National Park, Red Sea)

Jackfish Alley was an astonishingly beautiful dive site that we visited during our Red Sea liveaboard trip in October 2013. It’s inside the protected area formed by the Ras Mohammed National Park, and is one of those shining advertisements for Marine Protected Areas that we wish there were more of!

Very early on in the dive we went through a swim through – a hole in the wall of the reef that had an opening a short distance further on. This is what it looked like:

[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3bfLKc-1G68&w=540″]

Kate checked out a huge coral head…

[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K5j0ljEFrfE&w=540″]

… and I took these two panoramas, showing the coral garden that we swam through, and the spectacular topography.

[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=w1mXShjq-6g&w=540″]

Look how blue the water is!

[youtube=”http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DDG9m3G6rH0&w=540″]

Friday photo: Scarborough beach (2)

View to the north on Scarborough beach
View to the north on Scarborough beach

Here’s the view on Scarborough beach looking north, towards Misty Cliffs (the mist is visible in the distance). There’s a little river flowing over the beach into the sea, just visible to the left of the boardwalk.

Friday photo: Misty Cliffs

Looking back toward Misty Cliffs from Kommetjie
Looking back toward Misty Cliffs from Kommetjie

Misty Cliffs is a suburb between Scarborough and Kommetjie. It’s in the distance in this picture – the residential area just visible against the mountain. I thought the name was stupid and overly gothic until I drove through the suburb myself; you can’t actually see it very well in the photo, but there is a permanent misty haze over the cliffs there.

Lecture: Alison Kock on Shark Spotters

The Save Our Seas Shark Centre in Kalk Bay held another marine speaker series this November, and Tony and I attended a couple of the talks. One which we enjoyed was given by Alison Kock, research manager at Shark Spotters. Shark Spotters is a beach safety program that Capetonians are rightly very proud of – there’s more about it on the Shark Spotters website, here and here. Alison’s talk focused on some updates as to the research that is going on in False Bay, and extensions of the spotting program.

Updates on the shark spotting program

Between 2004 and 2012 the shark spotters have made more than 1,400 sightings of white sharks, 60% of which resulted in beach closures. The sharks are either resting, passing by, or searching for prey (other sharks, rays, fish) when they come inshore in summer. For spotting to be effective, at least 40 metres of elevation is required from which to observe the beach. The beaches in False Bay differ, in that sightings at Muizenberg resulted in a beach closure only 30% of the time, while at Fish Hoek the beach was closed 80% of the time. This is because of the nature of the surf and sharks’ behaviour at the different beaches.

At Muizenberg, the backline is some 300 metres off the beach, and the majority of the time sharks are cruising along behind the backline or further off the beach. The beach is only closed when sharks enter the surf zone – 74% of the time they are simply swimming past the beach. When a shark is behind the surf zone, the red flag is raised (for High Shark Alert) but the beach remains open.

At Fish Hoek, 61% of the sharks remain behind the breakers, but this is a mere 50-100 metres from the beach. 68% of the sharks are swimming past, but their proxmity to the beach means that more beach closures take place than at Muizenberg. The lookout location at Fish Hoek is on the mountainside, 110 metres above the beach.

Shark exclusion net at Fish Hoek

Fish Hoek is to be the site of a trial shark exclusion net that will be tested in the next month or two, all going well. It’s important to understand that this is an exclusion net, not a gill net, and the team in charge of the trial have been mandated to design and construct a net that will not lead to bycatch of any marine species. The aim is not to kill sharks and reduce the population, thus reducing the chance of interactions with people (this is what the Durban nets do), but rather to build a “wall” in the sea to keep them out of a specific area of Fish Hoek Bay in order to make it safe for swimming.

The other important thing to remember is that nothing like this has ever been done before.  Owing to the strength of the wind and swells that we experience in Cape Town’s summer, and the presence of large amounts of kelp in False Bay which can foul the net, the net will only be deployed on calm days and will be removed overnight. The net has been designed and is being constructed at the moment, but the process of deploying and removing it (to be handled by the trek fishermen) will be a learning experience initially. If the initial prototype has flaws, the City of Cape Town is determined to iron them out and make it work. It would be courteous and generous of the media and other observers to recognise that this is a world first, and to allow for an initial period of change and possible disruption as the net is tested and refined.

New spotting locations

Earlier this year, Caves at Kogel Bay (on the eastern side of False Bay beyond Gordon’s Bay) was added as a spotting beach. This is a popular surfing location and the water is relatively deep as much of the coastline in that location is rocky cliffs. There have been numerous sightings there since spotting commenced, confirming that this site seems to be on a route that white sharks take in and out of False Bay.

Monwabisi Beach on the northern end of False Bay is the site of up to 10 drownings per year, owing to dangerous rip currents that are, in part, a result of artificial structures constructed for swimming (see the satellite image below). Shark Spotters is adding Monwabisi Beach to the list of regular beaches that have spotters on duty. This is an exciting development and will be particularly important if the proposed oceanfront development along Baden Powell Drive takes place.

[googlemaps https://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&ll=-34.074071,18.687294&spn=0.006185,0.009645&t=h&z=17&output=embed&w=425&h=350]

SharkShield research

South African researchers collaborated with scientists in Australia to test the effectiveness of SharkShield, a portable device for use by surfers and divers and intended to repel sharks with a magnetic field. The South Africa researchers towed a seal decoy at Seal Island with the SharkShield attached, while the Australians tested it in natural predation situations. They found that the device does not attract sharks (this I imagine would be the absolute minimum functionality required before one even considered using it!). The device repelled some sharks, but not all of them, and its effectiveness depended on the shark’s state of mind. The range of its effectiveness was found to be about 2 metres diameter from the object. The full research study is available here.

Safety tips

Sign at the end of Fish Hoek beach
Sign at the end of Fish Hoek beach

Alison concluded her talk with some shark safety tips, of which it’s good to remind oneself of once in a while (specially in summer):

  • Be aware of your surroundings. The presence of dolphins, bird activity, or fishing may indicate that white sharks will be in the area. Don’t let the cute dolphins distract you and get your guard down!
  • Check out recent sightings. Visit the Shark Spotters facebook page, and make sure you understand the flag system and read the signs at the beaches you visit.
  • Don’t swim at night, in low light (sunrise and sunset), or in murky water (such as at a river mouth) or poor visibility.
  • Stay in shallow water. Three quarters of shark activity at our beaches is behind the backline.
  • Avoid high risk times and areas when you go swimming.
  • Stay in groups – don’t get separated or swim out far beyond the other water users.

De Kelders drip cave

Entrance to the drip cave
Entrance to the drip cave

On our way home from our short stay in De Kelders, Tony and I walked down the steps to the entrace of the drip cave (“drupkelder”), a cave on the shore which has a large freshwater river running through it that supplies the town of Gansbaai with fresh water. We weren’t able to go inside (it was by appointment and I think the person with the key was at the shopping mall).

The view from the cliff above the cave
The view from the cliff above the cave

The cliffs at De Kelders are riddled with caves, but this one is apparently quite unique because of the freshwater river inside it. It also contains beautiful stalagmites and stalagtites. It was visited by Lady Anne Barnard in 1798, and has recently (date uncertain) been threatened by a property development (which may or may not be the fairly unsightly building that currently stands on the land above the cave). I was interested to see in the article about the property development that there was concern that the whales would be chased away from the coast by the bright lights from such a large building.

Tony going down the steps
Tony going down the steps

The concrete structures around the entrance to the cave are related to its use as the water supply for Gansbaai, while the wooden poles are part of a restaurant facility that the owners of the land planned to erect. Probably better that they didn’t.

A few days on the coast: De Kelders

The cliffs at De Kelders
The cliffs at De Kelders

In the second week of October we spent a few days at a bed and breakfast situated right on the cliffs at De Kelders, a tiny residential suburb located about 35 kilometres past Hermanus and less than five kilometres from Gansbaai. It was both a mental health break and an early celebration of our two year wedding anniversary, which actually takes place at the end of next month (our marriage seems to have been both longer – to Tony! – and shorter than that). You can send Noddy badges to our postal address.

Looking towards the inside of Walker Bay
Looking towards the inside of Walker Bay

De Kelders is Dutch for “the cellars”, and is so called because the limestone cliffs on which the town is perched are riddled with caves – some of spectacular dimensions. It is also one of the finest locations in the world for land-based whale watching. Walker Bay is a wide, open bay with Hermanus at its western top corner, and De Kelders on the eastern edge. Each year, many southern right whales make their way to this part of the coastline to calve, socialise, mate and generally delight the tiny humans who flock to this part of the world to observe them.

Gathering clouds over the cliffs
Gathering clouds over the cliffs

I first visited De Kelders briefly with Tony in October 2010 as part of a stay at Grootbos. We spent an early evening eating oysters and watching whales from a balcony at De Kelders. (We didn’t pay for any part of this trip – very fortunate – our style is more Salticrax and Steri Stumpies while sitting in the car!) My acquaintance with this quiet suburb was renewed by the television series and book Shoreline, which dealt in some detail with one of the historically significant caves in the cliffs there. Stone age humans made a home in the caves some 75,000 years ago and added marine protein to their diets from shellfish, seabirds and seals. Poor planning and sheer laziness on my part meant that we did not visit any of the caves that required a guide or an entrance fee, but we did see several caves of varying dimensions in our scramble over the cliffs.

Jagged rocks covered with lichen
Jagged rocks covered with lichen
Dassie on the cliffs
Dassie on the cliffs

It is possible to walk along the cliffs, with varying degrees of rock hurdling required. There are narrow gullies through which the tide rushes fiercely, and one or two tiny sandy beaches that might allow swimming. The cliffs are lined with kelp beds, and during the months of June to November the whales approach right to the edge of the kelp, where the mothers are quite still and their calves test out their vocalisation and physical abilities.

Protected inlets where whales lie
Protected inlets where whales lie

We took a whale watching boat trip on our first full day in De Kelders. The second day was miserably rainy in the morning, so we drove down to Danger Point lighthouse near Gansbaai (and got pelted by rain). That afternoon we watched whales and walked on the cliffs. We drove home on Wednesday via Hermanus, where we saw more whales and visited an abalone farm (on this subject, more to follow). It was profoundly relaxing and a beautiful break.

Path over the cliffs
Path over the cliffs