In traditional safaris they say the thrill is to find and photograph the "Big Five" (leopard, Cape buffalo, elephant, lion and rhinoceros). But there is one destination that delivers the "Big Six," with number six being perhaps the most complex and compelling predator of alla€”the great white shark. Only South Africa provides the opportunity to combine world-class game viewing with the planet's best opportunities for white shark encounters.
Safari Season Is Shark Season
As it turns out, the best time for both safari and white shark encounters happens to be during the North American summer, which is winter in South Africa. Winter is normally a time of relative drought, which means all game migrates toward the streams and watering holes. This concentrates both prey and predators into a much smaller area.
As far as white sharks are concerned, the water may actually be calmer during the South African summer, but plankton blooms degrade water clarity. The best water for underwater photography happens between the end of May and the end of August. Our group visited South Africa last July.
The best white sharking in South Africa happens near Gansbaai, a small fishing village on the western side of Cape Agulhas, near the southernmost tip of the continent. And that's where we meet our white shark operator J.P. Botha of Marine Dynamics. It is his partner, Andre Hartman, who has become the most famous shark wrangler in South Africa.
Andre is the one who made the white sharks happen for David Doubilet and the National Geographic TV crew. However, according to J.P., the expectations are now unreasonably high based on the ensuing editorial. It happened that the National Geographic crew had a magic first day while on assignment and, after their prior comparative frustrations in South Australia, they were both thrilled and amazed. They had slick-calm seas and performing white sharks, but as J.P. is quick to remind us, there's a reason they call this the "Cape of Storms." Even when the weather is right, it is still hard to find a "player" (their term for a photographically willing white shark). Yet there is no question the sharks will be there. Whether we will be able to lure them in front of our lenses will be the issue over the next eight days.
Shark Safari Journal
The following are some brief vignettes of my trip log during our white shark adventure:
First full day of shark diving in Gansbaai. J.P. makes the 15-minute drive to Gansbaai from Grootbos. Weather looks great. Bright sun and very little wind. We are on a 32-foot cat with twin Yamaha outboards. Two cages, each can accommodate two divers in a pinch, but better for one if you are shooting. Normally, plenty to shoot topside with the sharks, so it is a hard decision whether to go under water or stay on top. Especially with Andre as shark wrangler, as he has great facility with the sharks. Or so I've been told. We'll soon find out, I presume.
About a five-mile ride (20 minutes) from a little harbor to Dyer Island/Geyser Rock and the channel where we search for Mr. White. Great action with sea lions near Geyser Rock occupies us in the early morning light on our first day out.
Not many opportunities this day, and I never do get in the water. It's a shame we don't have sharks today, because it is calm and pretty clear. Obviously, our first day isn't the magical one we'd hoped for, but we do see sharks, both at our boat and at other nearby boats. We remain encouraged and hopeful that our day will come.
Not much to tell and certainly nothing to lift our spirits. Rough, partially cloudy, not much action. All the boats out this day essentially get skunked. Not really skunked, because we have one shark, but he's not a performer and it's too rough in the cages even if he were. Still, the topside potential is awesome, given the right shark, right conditions. We don't have it today, though.
We come home around 3 p.m. Best action is traditionally between 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. as the sharks seem to like the brighter light. Late afternoon is good for breaching shots, we are told. No chance to find out for ourselves as of yet. After a week of land safari and a very productive first day with the sea lions here, I am beginning to worry about having enough film, even though I have 200 rolls. This day definitely conserved my film stock, although not by choice.
Wind continues to blow, but we go out to sea just the same. They tell us what to expect, but we're here for sharks and the sharks aren't at Grootbos. Rough, cold, windy. We only bring one of the two shark cages along, and in fact don't even deploy that one. We have three separate sharks this day, and they're all more interested in "Cookie" (a rubber cutout shaped like the silhouette of a sea lion pup) than they are in the food. No mouth shots all day, and I only shoot a single roll of film out on the boat.
The winds die down, but we awake to overcast skies. Despite an ominous beginning, this proves to be an excellent day with 11 different sharks coming to visit our boat. I notice it is a big deal here to talk about how many sharks we have in a day. The fact that so many visit the boat in a single day speaks to the impressive white shark populations here in South Africa, but I am far more concerned with how many "players" we have in the course of a day.
Yes, on this day we may have had 11 sharks that show enough interest in our bait or Cookie to be counted, but we only have two sharks eager enough to entice shutter clicks. That's the criteria as far as I'm concerned. These two, however, are the best fun of the week so far. My most productive images this day are probably from lying on my belly on the swim platform with my eye to the Seacam Swivel-45 viewfinder. This lets me keep the dome halfway or fully under water, yet my head is out of the water. On two separate occasions, the white shark comes close enough to bump my dome, but fortunately does not scratch the dome (or me). These should be nice motordrive sequences. I also work with my polecam (RS with 13mm and remote cord attached to a tripod post). I have to shoot blind without any means to view, but since the shark comes close enough at least once to put his mouth over the camera, I think I've aimed reasonably well.
Everyone has good topside action this day. Any of the underwater shots would have been restricted to available light due to the water turbidity, but since the action is so near the surface, that isn't a problem.
Andre is still trying to show us the topside bite shots. He has a way he can lift and turn the white sharks so that the head is exposed for a quick series of photos. Conditions have to be just right to make this happena€”right shark, right light, right surface conditionsa€”but for two quick rolls of film we have it! The rest of the day is pretty slow, but that's kind of the story of white sharking: Moments of frenzied action followed by long periods of complete boredom. Still, it is now clear to me that South Africa is the happening place for white sharks. When it's good here, it is amazing.
Very slow day. Overcast much of the day. Only two days left now and the group is feeling some anxiety for sure. We have a couple of sharks, but nothing really to shoot at. The mood at dinner this night is quite somber.
Last night the winds howled and it rained, and while the winds are probably manageable, the sky is heavily overcast as we face this next-to-the-last day. I rationalize by thinking of all the assignments that have come before where it all comes together on the last day. Like the whale charter where I got my only in-water photo on the last day, the last hour, the last roll of film, the last frame. But I hope this one doesn't cut it quite so close.
The overcast sky increases and ultimately turns to rain for much of the day. The Cape of Storms lives up to its reputation this day. We decide to forgo the boat adventure for today and drive about an hour and 15 minutes to Stony Point to shoot the jackass penguins. Definitely worthwhile even though we have to shoot from behind a wire fence. This day, the penguins are close enough to shoot with a 300mm. Nice scenic area and cooperative birds. No sun, but maybe that will contribute to the overall black-and-white mood of the shot.
This is our final day of scheduled charter, a Saturday. But because the plane does not fly until 8:45 p.m., we elect to charter a boat for one more day. Weather permitting, we'll have one full day, and a second reasonably full day for white sharks. The way it stands now, we'll need every minute to optimize our success.
After a fitful night of sleep disrupted by heavy winds and rain, I awake to an absolutely foul day. Winds are blowing 65 km per hour, rain, and even hail. This is how winters are reputed to be in this region, and now I know why any white sharking expedition needs to budget for days ashore. This cold front is indifferent to our deadline, so all we can do is hope tomorrow, our final day, is ultimately productive for sharks.
We have lost our scheduled days aboard Swallow, so J.P. arranges for us to go out on a different boat. The winds have died down, but the swell is still big. Since it is our last day, we charter for yet another day. Fueled by the optimism that seems to visit us daily (at least in the morning), we brave the breakers and head out once again to Dyer Island.
Due to the rough seas, we start out in the relative protection of the channel, and immediately have a white shark. But the current is too swift to deploy a cage and the waves are too high for me to try over/unders from the platform. A totally unworkable sea. Since our objective this day is in-water shots, we abandon our shark. I've never willingly abandoned a white shark at the stern before, but there is simply no way underwater photos are going to happen under these conditions.
We move to the southeast end of Dyer Island, but by now it's 11:30 and we have to be on our way home by 2:30 to make our flight. Our short time combines with fickle sharks to enhance our frustration. We anchor next to Swallow, where Andre is hosting another film crew. Actually, we have several sharks come visit us this day, but once we put the cages in the water they become skittish. We find one shark that seems reasonably productive, but when a diver gets in the cage, it leaves us for another boat.
The clock is ticking and we aren't getting shots. Probably have four or five different sharks this day too, but once again I'm reminded of the difference between "viewing" sharks and doing serious white shark photography. In this kind of water clarity, I need a shark to be less than two feet away, and today it doesn't happen.
The ultimate irony occurs as we pull up our cage and prepare to head back to shore. A large white shark comes to our boat almost immediately after we pull the cage up. He looks like he might be a player. And then a second shark joins the scene. The sun is out, the light penetration is good, and the sharks seem like they might want to perform. Everyone else has gone home this day except for us and Swallow. But we're out of time. As we pull anchor, my final parting image of Dyer Island includes Andre Hartman seated at the stern platform of Swallow with our two white sharks now pursuing his bait. Someone other than me is taking photographs of what I jealously consider my sharks.
Tomorrow the sharks will still be there, Andre will be trying to entice them to the bait, and I'll be jet lagged in Key Largo. However, I will have about 130 rolls of film to process from my South African odyssey. So, at least I can revisit the adventure with my loupe ... until, inevitably, the next time.
The sharks at Dyer Island are not a resident group. There are constantly new sharks passing through, so they don't learn to associate boats with food. The learning curve is always steep and unique. Some sharks will play, others won't. The time of day, surface conditions, presence of other sharks, type of chum, and myriad other factors determine whether it is possible to entice a shark to the bait. Even the presence of a cage in the water may scare them off, whether or not there is a diver inside. Then you must factor in light, visibility, camera malfunctions and photographic skill. All of which should make us appreciative of the white shark photographs that actually work.
For More Information
For more information on white sharks in South Africa and safari, contact WaterHouse Tours and Reservations at (800) 272-9122.