Bookshelf: Wild Seas Secret Shores of Africa

Wild Seas Secret Shores of Africa – Thomas P. Peschak

Wild Seas, Secret Shores
Wild Seas, Secret Shores

Thomas P. Peschak is the official photographer for the Save Our Seas Foundation. He’s also a marine biologist, and has a deep knowledge of his subjects (as well as an artist’s eye). Tony and I really enjoyed South Africa’s Great White Sharks, which he co-authored with a research partner.

This is mostly a collection of photographs – there’s very little text, but what there is is very informative and packed with nuggets of information despite its brevity.

South Africa, Namibia, Mozambique, and Tanzania are represented well. His photographs of the skeleton coast of Namibia, which I first read about in Lawrence G. Green’s books, are magnificent and desolate. The Cape is well-represented, and Peschak finds and appreciates the rich, bright colours of our rocky reefs and kelp forest inhabitants.

Tony disapproved of several photographs showing free divers touching and holding on to tiger sharks at Aliwal Shoal. These sharks are quite “tame” (as far as that’s possible), but it’s not that much different from holding onto a turtle’s shell (except that the shark doesn’t have to surface to breathe), something of which I strongly disapprove. It would only take one unfortunate incident involving a freediver and some sharp teeth to shut down the shark diving industry (outside cages) in South Africa. Why take a chance?

At the end of the book, Peschak explains how he took each photo, what equipment he uses (he’s a Nikon man!) and other context material. This section is wonderful, especially for the aspiring underwater photographer. Unfortunately I will never be as good as him – he picks the shot he wants, and is prepared to wait ages for it… I take more of a scatter-gun approach and photograph any- and everything I find interesting. While I am prolific, he’s brilliant!

Peschak loves split shots, and he explains that he finds this a very effective method to relate land and ocean. His comments on composition – especially for this type of photograph – are very useful. He also loves his fisheye lens… I don’t blame him! About half the photos were taken on scuba, and half free diving.

You can purchase the book here if you’re in South Africa (hard to find), and here if you’re not.

Sea life: Broadnose sevengill cowsharks


Trawling through Tony’s YouTube page the other night, I realised that he has a whole lot of videos of broadnose sevengill cowsharks – most of them less than half a minute long – that have never seen the light of day on this blog. It’s a shame not to share them, as these sharks are magnificent and curious, and come obligingly close for the camera.


So, for your delectation, here are some broadnose sevengill cowsharks, filmed at Shark Alley in False Bay last year. This site can be done as a boat dive, but it’s incredible in that you can do it as a shore dive, too. It’s physically strenuous and involves a short surface swim, but can be done by a reasonably in-shape and adventurous diver.


The reason for the presence of these sharks in False Bay is unknown. They are caught by anglers (even up the West Coast) and found up and down parts of the South African coastline, but seem to come to Shark Alley to rest. We’ve dived with them numerous times and never failed to see several of them on a dive. They are generally placid (we’ve only had one slightly scary experience with them), curious, and self-contained. They have big eyes and small, smiling mouths.


Some of the sharks display white spots on their backs, which is a fungal infection. We saw far more white-spotted sharks when we dived Shark Alley last year, compared to recent dives there. These spots, in combination with the distinctive freckled markings (I fit right in!) that these sharks display, can be used to identify unique individuals.


Many, many of the sharks we see are marked in some way. There are signs of bites from other sharks, and I think most of these are sustained during mating behaviour. The females – if other shark species are anything to go by – are gripped by the males near their dorsal fin during copulation. Hence the tooth marks.


Some of the sharks also show signs of conflict with humans, and this is very sad and disturbing. We often see sharks with large hooks in their lips or gills – these hooks are usually made of stainless steel and will not rust away. Some of these are snoek fishing hooks (I imagine the shark was accidentally snagged), and some are from anglers who deliberately try to catch these sharks. Unlike great whites, they are not a protected species.


The sevengill cowsharks compete with great whites for some of their prey, such as soupfin and smooth-hound sharks. They are often hooked at the northern end of False Bay, while hunting these other shark species. They also eat seals, shysharks, gully sharks, and fish species such as roman. They are ambush predators, and when visibility is poor they are a lot more confident and approach far more closely than they would otherwise.


Research is planned by Save Our Seas to determine whether the interaction between the great whites and sevengill cowsharks over prey causes some sort of habitat partioning in False Bay (since, of course, great white sharks eat cowsharks too). There is anecdotal evidence that they either are able to hunt in groups or (more likely) that their opportunistic feeding behaviour gives rise to several sharks feeding on the same prey item simultaneously.


Diving with sevengill cowsharks in Cape Town is a rare and special opportunity. Tony has pointed out before that it will change your view of sharks forever.

Shark and kayak

Thomas Peschak is a wildlife photographer who spends just over 3 months of the year in Cape Town  and the rest of the time travelling and taking photos around the world. He’s the official photographer for Save Our Seas. He has published several books and his work often appears in magazines such as The Dive Site (our recommendation of the magazine is here).

I came across this incredible photo he took in False Bay in 2003.


White Shark and Kayak - picture by Thomas Peschak
White Shark and Kayak – picture by Thomas Peschak

It’s been much analysed and dissected – many people thought it was Photoshopped, but it isn’t. The story of how he took the picture can be found on his website.

Shark Research in Cape Town

Sharks, namely great white sharks, are an integral part of life in the ocean. As the apex predator they have a huge fan base as well as a large portion of the population that despise them. Great whites have made it onto the endangered species list and protection of these creatures is now widely accepted.

As a regular user of the ocean I have an interest in finding and photographing anything that moves in the ocean, and all life below the surface holds a measure of intrigue for me. Watching how these creatures big and small behave and interact in the ocean has a special place in my every day. From the smallest pipefish to a massive humpback whale, any sighting whilst on a dive is an amazing experience. As a regular ocean user, I also have a vested interest in shark movements.

No matter what you find in the ocean, a Google search will bring up heaps of information, photos and stories from any number of people, all willing to share the knowledge and information they have on the creatures they have experienced. Google ”research on pipefish” and there are thousands of articles, a massive amount of information and any number of publications.

Do such a search on great white sharks and the picture is very different. Sure, there is information out there and all of it interesting to read, but my concern is add “Cape Town” to your search and you come up almost empty handed.

There is a host of companies that make a living of these creatures by taking people to see them, dive with them and photograph them. All of these operators offer an amazing experience and for a fee share all of their knowledge and experience with you and ensure you have an experience of a lifetime. These operators are running a business, funded by their own efforts and dedication to doing what they love. With this I have no issue and in fact the vast majority of knowledge and available information on great white sharks around Cape Town comes from these people.

Cape Town has a host of research projects, funded by other people’s money, donations, and sponsors and yet much of the information gathered by these people is either not widely publicised or I just can’t find it. There is no end to the lists of ”projects” and pages of ”we plan to…” items on any number of websites but hardly a word of what they have done when or why.

We know great whites come closer to shore in summer, but do we know why? We know they have tracked great whites in the False Bay area for hours and hours and on a surf site there was a post regarding a great white tracked in False Bay for 24 hours, but so little real information.

So, where does one find the information? Any ideas?

Who to follow


So I am sick in bed today while Tony enjoys the sea and southeaster with students. In the absence of my diving fix, I have to rely on the Internet to feed my currently short attention span. Enter Twitter.

To me, Twitter incorporates my favourite feature of Facebook – constant stream of bite-sized news and views – and leaves out all the other guff (Farmville, Zombie Vampire Slayers, Are You Feeling Hot Today?).

It’s not all about socialising and keeping up with your online friends… It’s also useful for news, activism, and informative updates from individuals and organisations whose work interests you. If you want to beef up the list of users you’re following, check out our “followees”!


Learn to Dive Today: @learn2divetoday (of course!)


South Africa

SANCCOB – the organisation that rescues, cleans and protects our coastal birds: @SANCCOB

Two Oceans Aquarium, Cape Town: @2oceansaquarium

Shark Spotters for reports of shark activity in False Bay: @SharkSpotters

World Wildlife Foundation South Africa: @WWFSouthAfrica

Conservation & Agencies

NOAA’s National Ocean Service: @usoceangov

NOAA’s Ocean Explorer educational program: @oceanexplorer

Project Aware – conservation agency by divers: @projectaware

Save Our Seas: @saveourseas

World Wildlife Foundation: @WWF

Whale & Dolphin Conservation Society: @whales_org

NASA (they do ocean exploration too!): @NASA

Ocean Information Center (OCEANIC) at the University of Delaware College of Earth, Ocean and Environment: @oceandata

The Smithsonian Institute: @smithsonian

Smithsonian Ocean Portal: @oceanportal

Sea Shepherd Conservation Society (because everyone can do with a bit of radical extremism to spice things up now and then!): @seashepherd

Ocean Conservancy: @OurOcean

Ocean Institute: @oceaninstitute

Oceana: @oceana


Bonica Snapper video cameras (the manufacturers of Tony’s newish toy): @bonicahddv

Fiona Ayerst, underwater photographer who offers courses: @Fayerst

Orms (more awesome camera equipment, knowledgeable sales staff and a top-notch D&P facility): @OrmsdDirect

SA Camera (very reasonably priced photographic equipment, including underwater housings): @SAcamera

Scott Kelby, author of fantastic photography books: @scottkelby

Writing & Television

National Geographic: @NatGeoSociety

Urban Times Oceans: @UT_Oceans

The Guardian Environment section: @guardianeco

PBS NOVA will keep you up to date with science news and cool gadgets: @novapbs

Circle of life

Alison Kock, shark researcher at Save Our Seas reports on how the carcass of a Brydes (pronounced “broodahs” – didn’t know that!) whale was towed out to Seal Island by the SA Navy in order to prevent it from running aground just south of Miller’s Point. Over 30 different great whites showed up over a period of just over a week to munch on the carcass. The full article is here, on The Dive Site – fascinating reading.

Newsletters you should be subscribed to

As a veteran newsletter subscriber, and someone who actually ENJOYS getting them in my inbox (not everyone does) – probably a sad reflection on my self esteem, that I need to request people to email me! – I can offer you the following hints for signing up:

  • Some websites have a Subscribe box on their front page. Use it!
  • The other place to look for a subscription option is on the Contact page.
  • If there’s no explicit newsletter link, it’s often worth dropping the site owner an email asking to be subscribed to their newsletter if they have one. If they don’t, perhaps they’ll take the hint and start something up…

You can get subscribed to Tony’s newsletter by emailing him. It tells you about planned dives and courses, as well as report backs on recent underwater activity.

If that’s not enough, check out the following newsletter writers:

Cape Town

Keep up with what’s going on at the Two Oceans Aquarium at the V&A Waterfront by signing up for their newsletter. They have regular concerts, conservation activities, and other special events at the aquarium.

Chris and Monique Fallows at Apex Predators run shark cage diving and photography trips to Seal Island. We haven’t done a trip yet – wanted to go in high shark season but this year it corresponded with high World Cup tourist season, so we’ll do it next year – but their detailed updates on the marine activity in False Bay are awesome… Sightings of of orcas, dolphins, whales and sharks abound, and Chris’s photos are amazing.


PADI sends out newsletters periodically, describing diving destinations, certification options, and other bits and bobs related to scuba diving. Depending on which box you ticked when you registered for your course, you may already be on their mailing list.


The Dive Site is South Africa’s best diving magazine. By a LONG way. And that’s after only one issue! They send out a weekly newsletter by email filled with photos, blogs, competitions and event notifications, and if you haven’t managed to get a print subscription to the magazine, it’s available on their website in digital format.

African Diver Magazine is an online-only magazine published once a quarter. If you join their mailing list, you’ll get a notification when the new edition is released.

Conservation & Volunteering

South African

If you’re using the ocean at all, whether as a diver, surfer, beachgoer or sailor, you should be supporting the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI). They are staffed entirely by volunteers and do amazing work. It costs R100 per year to be a member, and you get a cool magazine every quarter. They also have a newsletter.

SANCCOB (The Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds) is in the news every time an oil spill gets on the feathers of our cormorants and penguins. They are a non-profit seabird conservation and protection organisation based in Cape Town. There is a volunteer program if you want to get your hands dirty (and get nipped!). They have a newsletter.

Conservation and shark specialty diver training body SharkLife has a newsletter – look for the link in the left column of their site.

Underwater Africa is an advocacy group that liaises with government regarding Marine Protected Areas and the permits we require to dive in them. Register with them to receive updates – this should concern all South African divers.

The South African branch of the World Wildlife Foundation (WWF) has an e-newsletter. They’re the people who run the SASSI initiative – if you don’t know about it, you should!


National Geographic has a range of newsletters you can pick and choose from. Their photography in particular is spectacular.

The National Ocean Service is part of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and sends out a periodic newsletter. Their educational Ocean Explorer program also has a newsletter.

Project AWARE is all about divers conserving marine environments. They’re an international organisation and it’s well worth getting on their mailing list to stay informed. There’s a Project AWARE specialty course that divers can do.

Ocean Conservancy is the non-profit organisation behind International Coastal Cleanup Day and several other conservation initiatives. Worth keeping up to date with their news.

The Save Our Seas Foundation has a newsletter, but it seems to get sent out VERY irregularly… like once a year. May be worth signing up for, as they do really good work.

The Smithsonian Ocean Portal sends out a newsletter advertising events, updates to their blogs, and covering ocean news. The Smithsonian is a venerable institution that encapsulates almost everything that is interesting about America… Check it out!

Shark tale follow-up

After his shark sighting at Long Beach last week, Tony emailed local guru Georgina Jones of SURG – more on SURG (Southern Underwater Research Group), and Georgina’s work in particular, will follow in another post (probably a book review). Tony wanted to find out whether his observation that there was no visible marine life, no fish and no movement at Long Beach on the day he saw the shark had anything to do with the presence of the creature, or whether it was uncorrelated. Georgina passed Tony’s email on to Alison Kock at Save Our Seas, a veteran white shark researcher based in Cape Town.

Alison’s reply – which is filled with fascinating nuggets of information about shark monitoring in Cape Town and great whites in general – is reproduced below:

Thank-you very much for forwarding this encounter. I keep a database of all white shark-human encounters in Cape waters and with your permission would like to add this encounter and your name, Tony and contact numbers to this database. Interestingly another sighting in the same area was recorded on the 23 August, and there were two white shark sightings at Fish Hoek on the 25 Aug, and one on the 24 and one on the 20th ( has sightings recorded at shark spotter beaches).

Tony, regards your observation one would certainly expect that larger fish and seals would be absent from an area temporarily where a white shark is patrolling. However, it’s also conceivable that smaller marine animals could perceive the shark as a threat. A huge misconception is that white sharks only eat these larger animals, but various smaller fish and invertebrates (bivalves, cuttlefish, squids, octopus, pilchards etc) have also been recorded in white shark stomach contents, particularly smaller sharks (Geremy Cliff data). Thus, these animals may also respond to an immediate presence of a white shark if perceived as a threat. However, I wouldn’t expect this behaviour to persist for long periods of time.

We have deployed small animal-borne cameras on white sharks over the years and have been able to get a sharks POV of what happens on a reef when the shark swims over it. Some smaller fish which you wouldn’t think to be on the menu do react by swimming out of harms way. However, the behaviour is usually instantaneous with ‘normal’ behaviour by the fish resuming almost as soon as the shark’s head has moved past. When we observe white sharks around the research boat, we record similar behaviour, the chumming often attracts large groups of various species of ‘bait fish’, these fish almost always respond to the approaching shark by moving out the way temporarily.

Thanks Alison!