Saturday, 5 April 2014

Baited Dives & Schooling Sharks in South Africa

After diving in Sodwana Bay, we drove to Margate, South Africa.  We settled into a cute apartment near the beach and got ready to do some serious shark diving!  Our days consisted of very early starts, sometimes as early as 4:30am, bag lunches or lunches at the apartment after diving - usually while enjoying a cold South African cider like Savannah Dry or Hunters or better yet - Hunters Lemon, afternoon naps, catching up on posting jealousy-inducing photos on facebook, watching movies, Charlie and I studying for our PADI Shark Specialty Certification and lovely homecooked dinners courtesy of Trish.
Ball full of bait (fish guts) to attract the sharks at Protea Banks, near Umkumaas, South Africa

Bait in action.  This Oceanic black tip shark is very interested in the bait 

Say "cheese" (Oceanic Black Tip Shark)

Oceanic Black Tip Shark

View back from the beach to our apartment in Margate - near Protea Banks divesites

Fern on the beach near our apartment

Dining al Fresca at our Margate apartment

Opportunity to find some shed shark teeth in a Raggey Tooth Shark Cave (this species is the same as the Grey Nurse Sharks seen in Australia and called Sand Tiger Sharks in the USA)

Oceanic Black Tip Sharks

 Very cool topography seen diving at Aliwal Shoal in South Africa
I was trying to photograph this rock cod but Charlie really wanted show me something

Oh, she was trying to point out this eagle ray!

That's a great big Grouper with Trish for scale

I was having a lovely nap one afternoon when I was woke up to Trish gently shaking my shoulder and saying "There's loads of monkeys in the garden!".  This has to be the most surreal wakeup call I've ever had.  These are Vervet Monkeys

Loads of monkeys in the promised

Heading out to the divesite at Aliwal Shoal for a baited dive

Low visibility made for an eerie baited dive with what I think was up to 11 individual Oceanic White Tip Sharks coming out of the gloom to investigate the bait.
Fern in the foreground and her mom, Trish during the baited dive at Aliwal Shoal with a sampling of the sharks in attendance.
Looking up at the base of the boat was a very interesting vantage point!

Sharks are beautiful, graceful swimmers and make movement underwater look effortless

Here are a few more shots from the baited dive at Aliwal Shoal you can see that the bait attracted Oceanic Black Tip Sharks, the Ramoras that latch onto them, giant Groupers, as well as Trevally and other smaller fish like Fusiliers.

The Shark Dive First Aid Kit was a little bigger than the regular first aid kit ;)

A very charming aspect of Aliwal Shoal was the huge resident Groupers who were very friendly and seemed to really enjoy contact with divers.  Ordinarily I am very set against any touching of marine creatures.  The oils on our skin can harm them, the interaction is unnatural, many things have protective toxins and other measures such as spines etc. and I think it is best if we just observe the wildlife rather than trying to interact with it and risk harming it or ourselves in some way.  However, I made an exception to this for the friendly Groupers.  These gentle, giant fish would approach us while we were diving, swimming right up to us.  The Grouper in the photo above was about 5 feet long and he swam directly up to me and shoved his face towards me while lifting his chin up.  He waited there until I gently stroked under his chin like you would a dog and he just hovered there enjoying it for a few minutes.  It was really magical and that big ugly fish stole my heart!

Tickle me!  Please!!

Dinner out, me and Trish

Back at Protea Banks we were lucky enough to encounter a pod of approximately 150 dolphins on one of our dives.  We were at about 28m when we saw the pod and the visibility was crystal clear that day so we could see all the way to the surface where some of the dolphins were leaping in and out of the water.  We could also see the rest of the pod as it passed by us at our level.  What an incredible sight!  On this same dive we were also lucky enough to see two different schools of Scalloped Hammerhead Sharks.  There were over 40 individuals in the schools we think but the Hammerheads were shy and stayed somewhat out of range from my camera.  Still, schooling Hammerheads was on my diving bucket list so...CHECK!
Not a great photo but that crystal clear visibility also enabled us to see many Guitar sharks cruising along the bottom, probably another 15m below us.

Bull Sharks, called Zambezi sharks in South Africa are very large and powerful looking.  They are not as cheeky as the Oceanic Black Tip Sharks and they seemed to prefer to keep their distance from us divers, following us just below but not often coming right up to the same level as us.  This one was an exception.  It came right towards our guide, Roland, and actually lowered it's pectoral fins in what could be interpreted as a threatening or attack stance.  Roland called his bluff by using his arms to mimic the shark's stance and the Zambezi turned and swam away.

another beautiful Oceanic Black Tip Shark

A rainy day on our last dive day and our last day in our cute apartment in Margate where we stayed for the duration of our time diving Protea Banks and Aliwal Shoal

After our stay in Margate, we drove back to Johannesburg for one more night, said goodbye to Trish and Fern, Charlie, and I flew the following morning to Cape Town.  Once we arrived, we took a taxi directly out to Hermanus Beach, a beautiful seaside town and we stayed at a gorgeous hostel called Hermanus Backpackers for two nights.  Hermanus has a rocky coast, with lots of small shops, and many restaurants with views of the ocean.  We had lunch and Fern and I enjoyed some South African wine while we all watched the waves crash and a big pod of dolphins frolic just off the shore.  Fern and Charlie even saw a Pilot Whale spout but sadly I missed it.

Our second day in Hermanus we went a little further afield to go and see Great White Sharks.  The water was quite cold this far south (only around 16 degrees I think) so we wore 5mm wetsuits, hoods, and boots and got into the cage with only a dive gear.  The large frozen Tuna seen in the picture above were used to attract the sharks.  The staff tied the tuna onto a rope and repeatedly tossed it out into the water and dragged it back onto the boat.  If a Great White Shark was following the bait, someone on the boat would yell out "SHARK, GO DOWN" and everyone in the cage (there were up to 6 people in the cage at a time) would duck under the water to watch the shark pass by very close to the cage.  Visibility was extremely low the day we went so we could only see about half a meter out into the water so these huge, thick, threatening looking sharks would pass by us less than a meter away before we could even see them.  The tuna bait was always kept out of reach of the sharks so that the sharks do not become accustomed to being fed by people and change their habits.

This is a view looking down from the top of the boat to see one of the Great White Sharks next to the cage which is in the water.  Honestly, after diving with so many beautiful sharks for the previous few weeks, the cage dive was somewhat anticlimactic.  Charlie and I both wished we could have been out of the cage which was somewhat claustrophobic and uncomfortable and the low vis made it difficult to see much of the shark in the water.  Viewing was much more impressive from the top deck of the boat.  However, it was nice to see the infamous Great White Shark up close and in their element. 

I couldn't pass up the chance to help the sharks.  Half of the cost of this wine (which was quite good) went towards shark research and conservation.

Charlie, me and Fern at our lunch stop in Hermanus

Fresh oysters and some Chardonnay?  Yes please.

Once our time in Hermanus came to a close and we had completed our shark diving, our official South African Diving Tour was over and Fern left Charlie and I to our own devices in Cape Town.  We stayed at the lovely Ashanti Garden Lodge Backpackers in the heart of Cape Town near the end of Long Street.  It was easy walking distance to lots of shops, restaurants, and a hop-on, hop-off bus stop.

On our first night we took a taxi down to the waterfront to see the sights do a little shopping and have dinner.

The next day Charlie and I got ambitious and walked up towards Table Mountain.  We only got as far as the sky tram because it was so extremely windy that day that there were no trams running up to the top of Table Mountain.  However, it was a pretty walk with lovely views down to the ocean and the city of Cape Town, and wih great views of Lion's Head (the distinctive rock formation behind Charlie)

Every Sunday in the summer in Cape Town there is an evening outdoor concert in the Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens.  If you are ever in Cape Town on a Sunday go and check this out.  People of all ages come with blankets, wine, beer, and a picnic dinner to enjoy a band in this beautiful natural setting.  The artist was Hugh Masekela, a 75 year old South African jazz musician who plays the trumpet, flugelhorn, cornet, as well as sings and composes.  The music was lively and upbeat and sometimes powerful with political stories like his song "Bring Him Back Home" which became an anthem for the movement to free Nelson Mandela.  He also toured with Paul Simon in the 1980's in support of the Graceland album.

The following day the wind had died down somewhat so we took the hop-on hop-off bus through Cape Town to do some sight seeing.  The bus took us right to the base of Table Mountain where we caught the tram up and did a short walk around the top to see the city.  The top photo shows the view looking down on Camps Beach and the bottom panoramic photo shows Lion's Head on the left and downtown Cape Town in the valley.  It is an extremely beautiful city.

Camps Beach, Cape Town - lovely 
Sorry, I don't know the name of this quail/chicken like bird but they were all over Lions Head when we went up to watch the sunset.

Charlie at Sunset, Lions Head, Cape Town

This very colorful part of Cape Town was historically occupied by freed slaves of many nationalities including Malay, Indian, Indonesian, African Tribes etc.  As a celebration of their freedom the neighborhood houses were painted with bright colors.
The following day, March 11th, I had a 28 hour flight routed from Cape Town to London to Miami to Liberia, Costa Rica where I would meet up with Trevor (my boyfriend) for 5 days after which my best friend Jenny, her husband Chris and their kids, Matthew (7) and Caleb (5) would meet us for two more weeks!

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