Growing numbers of travelers to South Africa are braving the high seas to commune with whales and swim with the sharks. What efforts are being made to make these high-risk tours safe for man and beast?
Now that upscale tour companies have made safaris seem less a matter of chutzpah than cash, more and more travelers are seeking the authentic Hemingway experience off South Africa's coast. There they can go eyeball-to-eyeball with southern right whales and the less friendly, certainly more deadly, great white sharks that prowl the Atlantic. Amid growing cries from environmental groups about the fate of these protected species, and alarming reports of attacks by great whites in popular beach spots, the South African government has finally begun to regulate tour operators. Open season may be coming to an end.
A Whale of a Time
Southern right whales split their year between Antarctic waters and the chilly Atlantic off the Western Cape peninsula. According to Peter Best, senior research officer of the University of Pretoria's Mammal Research Institute, the worldwide ban on commercial whaling has worked. By his estimate, the population has increased by 7 percent annually over the last 20 years; there are now some 6,000 southern rights in the world, and one-third of those frequent the cape. South African law mandates that swimmers, scuba divers, boats—even navy ships—maintain a distance of 300 meters from the whales.
That's okay, because in the Western Cape, the whales come to the landlubbers. From July through October, Cape Town residents make regular Sunday pilgrimages to the village of Hermanus to sit in quayside pubs, sip Southern Right Sauvignon Blanc, and watch the whales. The southern rights swim close to shore and breach (leap out of the water into a dive), "spyhop" (stand vertically with their noses out of the water) and lobtail (slap their tails). Particularly breathtaking is the sight of whales calving in Walker Bay, within 100 yards of shoreline guesthouses.
Until he died last March, fisherman turned tour operator Peter Esterhuizen had always claimed a mystical relationship with the southern rights, maintaining that he'd rescued a beached whale in St. Sebastian Bay in 1992. "From the day I saved that whale, something special happened," he said. "Now, whenever I desperately need a whale to stick its head up because the cameras are ready, all I have to do is concentrate."
Was it Esterhuizen's mystical powers or the success of the whaling ban that allowed us to spot 32 southern rights the morning I went out with him?One mature male fixed on us with his huge left eye and started to move toward us. "Easy now, easy now," Esterhuizen said. I wasn't sure if he was talking to the whale or reassuring us. The southern right came within three feet of the boat, then rolled off underneath us. "Eeep," gasped one tourist weakly, looking over the side and trying to remember just how Moby Dick ended.
Although whales do not commonly attack humans, they are hardier than the average vessel you're likely to find yourself in. This spring, rough seas in the whales' mating grounds threw Esterhuizen from his boat. He didn't live to fight the government-imposed restrictions on boat-based whale-watching in the area; so far three kayakers have been arrested for crossing the 300-meter limit. The government is now issuing permits that will allow one tour to operate from each of 13 designated whale-watching areas along the coast. This should make the waters safer for the whales and their fans.
Adventure with a Serrated Edge
If whale-watching trips promise a soul-to-soul communion with a peaceful mammal, great white shark "seafaris" are all gore, machismo, and adrenaline. My own experience could easily have been labeled a nonevent until the shark gliding deep beneath The Master of Happiness suddenly launched itself at the bait floating on the water's surface. Its aim was Minuteman perfect. The moment the jaws snapped shut around the mesh bag filled with frozen sardines, Skipper Jackie Smit hauled the 15-foot-long great white to the railing; there we stood, within three feet of very present danger.
The great white's tail slapped the deck by our legs while the little boat pitched nauseatingly in the swell. Somehow we had forgotten we were teasing a very dangerous creature in treacherous waters. "They've bitten onto the diving platform before," Smit said, pointing to a metal grate at water level just two feet behind the tourists' perch. It wasn't very reassuring.
Others want to get even closer to the great whites. Cape Town diver David Miller and his girlfriend decided to go down in Smit's handmade underwater shark cage, even though Miller prefers to avoid the sharks when he's spearfishing. "I want to see them in their natural environment," he said, "without being preoccupied by fishing." The cage was dropped about 10 feet from the boat so the shark could approach it from all sides. Just below the surface, the experienced Miller breathed easily through his snorkel. His girlfriend had a more difficult time.
"The shark's whole pectoral fin was in the cage while it wrestled with the bait," Miller said later. "I didn't expect it to come that close. My girlfriend wanted out. She didn't care how. I had to hold her back." Eventually, the shark swam away, the cage was pulled in, and it was safe to climb back into the boat.
Smit's motorized catamaran was anchored in Shark Alley, a deep channel between Dyer and Geyser islands just off Danger Point, a two-hour drive from Cape Town. The channel is home to the tubby Cape fur seals that are the great whites' preferred winter meal, and to an ever larger number of boats. Competition between great white seafari operators—most of them fishermen who find it easier and more lucrative to catch tourists than tuna—has been so fierce that sometimes it seems the biggest sharks are on board. It's a miracle there have been no accidents or attacks on tourists in Shark Alley itself. The closest this year was more than 35 miles away.
"We've had complaints about overcrowding of tourists in unlicensed boats, and that sharks have managed to get their heads in the cages and people were lucky to escape," said Jeremy David, a conservation officer with South Africa's fisheries department. Some vessels do not have operating marine radios or an adequate crew—or even life jackets. Shark Alley is often so congested that the boats knock dangerously against one another, with divers stuck in the shark cages floating in between and great whites awaiting their chance below.
The practice of chumming—dropping bloody bait into the water to bring the sharks into viewing range—only adds to the danger. "They can smell one part blood in ten billion," says Smit. "That's like a drop of blood in a swimming pool."
Under the new Marine Living Resources Act and related regulations, shark touring boats must meet Department of Transport requirements for tour operators, the shark cages must be government-certified, and divers in the cages must use snorkels or scuba gear (no air hoses connected perilously to the boat). Operators have agreed to a code of conduct: they cannot chum in Shark Alley without a permit; no seal, horse, or pig heads are allowed as bait; and they must "buy time" from the government to take tours into the channel, with a limit of three operators per day.
"Dyer Island is manned by one of our chaps, who has all the surveillance equipment necessary," said Duncan Heard of the government agency Cape Nature Conservation. "As far as we can see from shore, [tour operators] are now behaving themselves. We've weeded out the cowboys."
But not everyone thinks the government has done enough. A record 15 attacks on humans by great whites were reported in South Africa from last December to August; two of them fatal. In the ongoing fight to stop tour operators from chumming in waters frequented by bathers, surfers, and divers, real estate agent John Munnik has created an anti-seafari group called Save Our Swimmers and Sharks. Munnik argues that the chum used by many tour operators is carried farther than intended by the cape's strong winds and currents, bringing great whites into favorite vacation spots. He also takes exception to the mantle of science that is sometimes draped over shark tourism. The South African White Shark Research Institute, run by the Ferreira family, organizes shark-sighting tours dubbed "research expeditions" (you go as a "volunteer") that include cage diving. But there isn't a single scientist at work in the "institute."Under South Africa's new marine law, not just anyone will be permitted to carry out shark research. The government will determine who is eligible, based on applicants' track records and the submission of research protocols.
There is an easier way to spend time with sharks. For $45, a scuba instructor will equip divers and take them into the predator pool at Cape Town's Two Oceans Aquarium. You can swim with the much less dangerous ragged-tooth and spotted gully sharks, rays, turtles, and deepwater fish, while the instructor guards against attacks. Just don't take the dive offered on Sunday afternoons. It's scheduled right before feeding time.
To find certified tour operators awarded whale-watching and shark seafari permits, contact the Cape Town tourism office, Captour, at 27-21/418-5202, fax 27-21/418-5227. Jackie Smit, South Coast Seafaris, 27-28/344-1380; $160 per day per person. Two Oceans Aquarium, Dock Rd., Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, Cape Town; 27-21/418-3823.
Kate Dunn is a reporter based in Cape Town who contributes regularly to the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek.