Birding with Great White Sharks

Exactly one year ago today, I was in Cape Town, South Africa. It was my last full day in the country before heading back to the US. I knew I wanted to try and get out on the water somehow or at least go to a nearby park that might have some species I didn’t find yet. Then some friends convinced me that we should all go out on a Great White Shark cage diving trip to the famous Seal Island, in False Bay. This is the only location in the world where great whites launch themselves out of the water, in order to catch seals. It sounded like fun, plus I could possibly get some interesting seabirds if I went out that far.

Approaching Seal Island - Photo by Alex Lamoreaux

One of the first birds we noticed as we rode the small boat out to Seal Island, were the endemic Cape Cormorants. This species is only found along the western and southern coasts of southern Africa and one of its most famous breeding colonies is on Seal Island. Other common species were Swift Terns, Cape Gannets, Cape Cormorants, Kelp and Hartlaub’s Gulls, and Great Cormorant. We also saw a few Parasitic Jaegers and some Great Cormorants. As we approached the island, more and more African Jackass Penguins were seen as well as thousands of Cape Fur Seals. It was pretty obvious why Great White Sharks love this place – its loaded with newborn seals.

Bank Cormorant - Photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Swift Tern - Photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Cape Fur Seals filling the waters around the island, no wonder great whites love it here - Photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Cormorants, gulls, and penguins all standing together among a number of seal lions - Photo by Alex Lamoreaux

We made one close pass along one side of the island, allowing great looks at the birds and seals and then we went out to deeper water about a quarter mile from the island. Here we dragged a cut-out of a small seal behind the boat as well as dragged dead fish behind the boat. Our main goal now was to lure in a shark, so that we could each get down into a cage and be able to see the shark while underwater with it. I was getting nervous, so I focused my attention on looking for birds. After minutes of waiting, we noticed something had just barely made itself visible above the water, behind the boat and then dropped down out of view. The crew on the boat said it was the nose of shark breaking above the water as it nudged the fake seal. Moments later, the shark launched out of the water after the fake seal. Soon we had two sharks swimming around the boat , one was 4.3 meters and the other was 3.1 meters in length. The crew prepared the diving cage and asked for volunteers. No one offered, so I sucked it up and volunteered my self. Not only was I terrified to get in the water, alone with two massive sharks but the water was freezing. I quickly slid down inside the cage, instantly becoming numb to the cold water (or just too scared to even feel anymore). Then I floated there for a few minutes, with no sign of the sharks. The worst part was that the was was so murky that day, I couldn’t see more than about 3 meters in from of me….so the shark would be very close by the time I could notice it. During the 20 minutes I was down in the cage, I saw both the sharks pass right by the cage a number of times. They never attacked the cage, so that was nice.

Cape Fur Seals - Photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Great White Shark - Photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Great White Shark - Photo by Alex Lamoreaux

Great White Shark - Photo by Alex Lamoreaux