False Bay is home to perhaps the worlds premium apex predator, the Great White Shark.
Great White Sharks are present in False Bay throughout the year. Their behaviour and location is fairly regular and predictable, being mainly dictated by the habits and availability of prey. This level of predictability makes it easier to determine when are the best times to go and see these magnificent creatures doing what they do best- swimming around and eating stuff.
Although there are Great White Sharks present in False Bay all year round it is obviously easier to find them if they are all in one place. False Bay is a large expanse of water. To find something even as big as a Great White in that amount of water, if you don’t have a good idea of where they are, is going to be nigh on impossible.
For much of the year False Bay’s Great White Sharks are primarily found hanging out around Seal Island. Seal Island is approximately 14.5km east north east from Simon’s Town, and just over 6km directly off the beaches of Strandfontein.
Its a bit of grandiose to call it an Island, spit of rock sticking out of the sea does it more justice, but it is home to a very large colony of Cape Fur Seals. And if there is one thing that False Bay Great White Sharks like eating more than cape fur seals its juvenile cape fur seals (Great White Sharks don’t do much to help their image – baby seals? Come on guys, find something ugly to eat).
The combination of the seals leaving the rocks, the relatively deep drop off into the waters of the bay, and the shark’s preference for ambush hunting make False Bay a unique place to view great whites. The sharks lurk in the depths, the seals swim on the surface. Great white sharks can reach speeds of up to 40km/h in short bursts, and they weigh as much as a family car. The physics are the same which is why the sharks burst out of the water in pursuit of the seals.
Breaching is not unique to False Bay, though nowhere else is it seen as frequently, or the sharks use it as consistently to catch food. It is certainly what our great white sharks are famous for. And this type of predation only happens around Seal Island at certain times of the year.
For these reasons the great white shark watching and cage diving season only really gets going in February, and then only if sightings have been made at Seal Island.
The Great White Sharks Season in False Bay
In February and March the sharks will interact with boats. Great white sharks are inquisitive by nature (I guess if you are the 3000kg apex predator you don’t need to be too afraid of anything) and so do come and check out the boats, which is great if you want to get in the cage and see these creatures up close and personal. However, you are unlikely to see predation, particularly the iconic ‘air jaws’.
Late February into March are also among the times most likely to see perfect sea conditions. False Bay tends to be a bit bouncy in Summer because a strong south easterly wind called the Cape Doctor tends to blow most days. This tends to die away towards the end of summer, losing its strength, and early autumn is really too early for Atlantic storms, so really, if you don’t have the best sea legs then this can be a good time to get your Shark cage diving in.
By April and into May the shark activity at Seal Island is starting to pick up though breaching is still not happening with any great frequency. Some of the boat operators can induce the behaviour using decoys, but it is pretty much hit and miss, and you shouldn’t be thinking that you are going to see it in just one trip out to the island. Its going to be luck rather than anything else.
Although you will have some valuable interactions with Great White Sharks between February and June the main activity at Seal Island is in June, July and August, with the predation beginning to tail off in September.
This is when breaching is most likely to be seen. The years seal pups are taking to the water for the first time and have to run a gauntlet to get to open water. They are safe on the rocks, and they are relatively safe in open water, but the small area of ocean in between the two can be deadly for the new pups.
In a straight line sprint even adult seals cannot out-swim a great white shark, however, nature holds balance by making the seal more agile, and slightly more cunning, than the sharks. The sharks may be faster than the seal, but if the seal knows the shark is there it is a different story because the seals can swim rings around a great white for fun (and have been observed doing this). In the pursuit of speed the shark has had to sacrifice agility. So the trick for the shark is to not be seen!
Seals aren’t dumb though, they know the sharks are there, even the pups have an idea that something lurks in the depths. Knowing about them and being able to do something about it are two very different things. Unfortunately the odd pup doesn’t make it to the open water (or conversely back to the rock), and ends in a glorious explosion of power and grace as a 4.5m, 1000kg+ torpedo leaves the water. Sometimes they hit the seal, sometimes they don’t, either way its the same if you are stood on a boat watching.
Of course, the shark stands more chance if the visibility in the water is lower. Although they can cover in excess of 10m/s good visibility can give the seal the edge, so the sharks favour early mornings. The seals are clearly visible as silhouettes against the sky above, but the waters below are still gloomy.
You can continue to see great white sharks into September though by October natural predation is beginning to tail off. From October until January the great whites tend to disappear from the waters around Seal Island. The easy meals of seal pups is drying up and other food sources start to look more attractive to the sharks. Some start patrolling inshore waters, scaring the heeby jeebies out of swimmers, others just disappear into the blue yonder. It used to be thought that Great White Sharks were restricted to very small geographical areas, however, tagging has revealed that sharks tagged and released in False Bay have swam as far as Australia, and returned, within a single year.
Whilst the behaviour of the great white sharks in False Bay is seasonal and somewhat predictable there are times when they really surprise us. If you want to come and see these marvellous predators in their natural environment you need to bear in mind that it is the wild, and open ocean. Unlike safari parks who fence in the animals, fully in the knowledge that at least they are in there somewhere, the same cannot be said for the sharks. Sometimes, even when they are supposed to be at Seal Island, the boat operators cannot find a single shark. This has been known to go on for days. Usually there is no easy explanation for this, though it is likely that they have found something easier to eat than seals- such as a dead whale. The whale carcass can be miles away, but word of an easy meal like that gets around, and the sharks will stay with it until they have had their fill (or more likely the food source is gone).