Our boat seemed suddenly too small as we stopped over the Cape Undersea Canyon, 20 miles off Cape Point. The majestic Table Mountain that normally dominates the Cape Town skyline was but a vague outline on the horizon.
Bait and chum were quickly deployed and we waited in anticipation. The radio crackled into life: a fishing boat in our vicinity had hooked and released a large mako shark. Within an hour a single blue shark appeared in our chum slick. We were not sure how the sharks would react to scuba bubbles as previous dives had been done on snorkel. The blue shark was soon joined by a shortfin mako shark.
Blue sharks, with their distinctively torpedo shaped snouts, are amazingly supple creatures. They can bend and twist, a useful aptitude when catching fish. Blue sharks are beautifully coloured: deep indigo on top with white sides and belly. This blue shark was accompanied by a pilot fish, that spent its time trying desperately to keep up with its fast manoeuvring host. As I sank below the surface the blue shark came in, swimming tight circles around me and occasionally trying to bite my camera. Even with my wide angle lens the shark was, at times, too close to the camera to film satisfactorily.
For the first 15 minutes of my dive, I did not spot the mako shark and I was, therefore, concerned that I had scared it away. Suddenly it reappeared at the bait. Mako sharks look more menacing than blue sharks with their protruding, teeth and large eyes. They are, along with white sharks
, part of the mackerel shark family. I noted that, as with the white shark
, the mako shark has a large, powerful, homocercal (equal-lobed) tail and wide caudal keel. This enables makos to swim at the high speeds required to catch tuna or to jump clear from the water. Sadly, this attribute has also worked against them as it had made the mako shark a sought after fighting fish amongst anglers. It’s flesh also makes excellent eating. Makos were the sharks that fed on the marlin in Ernest Hemmingway’s classic novel, “The Old Man and the Sea”. For many shark lovers, the mako’s perfectly proportioned body, grace and power, make it the “sharkiest” of all sharks.
The behaviour of the mako was also different to that of the blue shark. It would dive deep, out of sight, and then reappear in a high speed vertical ascent, straight towards me. With some degree of trepidation, I followed the mako down to about 15 metres, allowing it to speed past my camera, and upwards towards the bait. I awaited the shark’s return, alone, with 300 metres of water below me, surrounded by a blue emptiness. Soon it returned to circle be, bumping into my camera in an inquisitive rather than an aggressive manner. Reluctantly I had to leave for the surface to check with the boat that was drifting away. After a few quick dives and hard swims back to the boat, I was overheating under 14 millimetres of “West Coast” cold water wetsuit.
All too soon my air was finished and I returned to the boat with the first good underwater video images shot of sharks in this area.
On our long trip home we were rewarded by an amazing display of aerial acrobatics by a large school of bottlenose dolphins. These animals are not common off the Cape, as they are normally associated with the warmer water further up the coast. We put out a few lures and within minutes had two long shiny snoek on the deck. These fish are as much a part of the Cape as the cloud covering Table Mountain. Delicious when smoked with wood chips or cooked over an open fire, we were set up for a good supper.
Since that first mako encounter I have spent many days off Cape Point. I have seen yellowfin tuna in excess of 100 kg's. so close to me that they nearly hit my camera. These magnificent fish had sickles so long that the tips nearly touched the fishes body. I have towed my towcam over the Cape Canyon and soon had tuna chasing it at high speed. As I watched the onboard monitor, a mako shark suddenly appeared, charging the camera and peeling off at the last moment, rather like a jet fighter plane.
A recent article appearing in the British science weekly “Nature” suggests that the population of large predatory fishes, including sharks, has declined by a staggering 90 percent. Mako sharks are being hit hard by long-liners, recreational anglers and the evil of the shark fin industry. The average size of these sharks is on the decline. Where we found one mako shark there would probably have been 10 in years gone by.