In 1991, after much campaigning by Nan Rice of the Dolphin Action & Protection Group and Dr Len Compagno, a world renowned white shark expert working at the South African Museum, South Africa became the first country in the world to protect the white shark Carcharodon carcharias. In 1993 similar legislation was passed protecting white sharks in Californian waters. The best time to film or view white sharks is during our winter from May to September when these animals congregate near seal colonies in False Bay, Dyer Island and Mossel Bay. Permits are required from Marine and Coastal Management to film or work with white sharks.
Seal Island in False Bay is a sanctuary for the Cape fur seal and sea birds and is the white shark location nearest to Cape Town. The boat leaves from Simon’s Town, a small village about 40 km's from Cape Town as the sun rises over the distant mountains. Early morning at Seal Island is an excellent time to see shark-on-seal predation. It is not uncommon to see a white shark breaching, its massive body clearing the water, sometimes with a seal in its mouth. The spray from the re-entry can be seen for miles. The white shark relies on speed and surprise as, once the seal sees the shark, it can often out-manoeuvre it. Immediately after a successful hit the sky is filled with screeching seagulls, clamoring for the bits left by the shark. Nothing goes to waste. Badly bitten seals are a common sight on the island, grim evidence of the seals that managed to escape. I once witnesses a badly wounded seal, washed off the rocks by a wave that was too weak to keep its head above the water to breath. Other seals came to its assistance by taking turns holding its head out of the water. We left this amazing scene as dusk approached only to find no trace of the wounded seal the next morning. During a TV shoot in 1999 a high speed chase resulted in one such seal landing on the back of our boat. While the crew waited in terror for the predator to join its prey, the pursuing shark sped past below the boat.
While the peak period for False Bay is mid-winter the weather can be glorious. During the 1999 National Geographic Television shoot the underwater visibility regularly exceeded 20 metres (was up to 30 metres at times) and on most days we were able to put to sea.
Dyer Island, situated about 200 km's from Cape Town, is a well known venue to meet the great white shark. The area actually consists of two small islands, Dyer and Geyser, the latter being a seal colony. Between the two is a narrow channel: the world renown "Shark Alley". It was near Dyer Island that a 6,2 metre monster was accidentally caught in a trawling net a number of years ago. Its jaws and accompanying photographs can be seen in a local fish shop in the Gans Bay harbour. It is not uncommon to see sharks of over 4 metres in this area.
The first thing that impresses most divers on seeing a white shark for the first time, is the gracefulness of these impressive animals as they cruise past. Due to their large pectoral fins, very little forward motion is required to maintain stability and depth control. It is, in fact, often difficult to observe any movement in that large tail. However, when the shark attacks a seal that has wandered too far from the island, its speed and power are incredible to witness.
An unforgettable experience is free diving with white sharks. This requires an intimate knowledge of the animal's behaviour and body language as well as a good in-water back up. Once, while filming a white shark on the surface near the boat, both my lookout diver and I were concentrating so hard on the shark that I was filming that neither of us noticed a second one approaching to my left. Suddenly I became aware of movement in the corner of my eye and swung around, the camera still rolling. By this time the shark was only one metre from my shoulder. I tapped it on the nose with my camera and it instantly turned and swam away. The entire sequence was captured on video. When I replayed the sequence I noticed a subtle change in direction and posture of the first shark, indicating to me that the second one was approaching. This was similar to the interaction that has often been observed between white sharks.
“It is not the white shark that I am filming that worries me, it is the other white shark that I have not seen that poses the potential danger” - Charles Maxwell, Dyer Island, July 1998.
The main advantages of diving out of a shark cage is freedom to get wide and sweeping camera shots, good composition with reef and kelp and no jerking shark cage. Polecams and cage shots are essential for working in dirty water or for close up action shots.
One of the most exciting white shark encounters happened when I least expected it. I was filming bull sharks on Aliwal Shoal, KwaZulu-Natal in very clear water for the BBC with well know presenter Steve Leonard, when a magnificent 4 metre white shark cruised in, totally unexpectedly. It circled curiously for a minute and then disappeared again. It was a special experience for the series presenter as it was one of his first sea dives since qualifying and his first dive in South Africa. Most divers wait for years for such a special encounter.