White Shark Habitat

Did I really write that? White shark “habitat”? Last week I mentioned that when I was in South Africa in March, we went to three different habitat types for different shark species. But what is white shark habitat? After all, these fish travel all over the world. They are found in deep water, shallow water, green water, clear blue water, and murky water where you’d never have a chance to see them coming. White sharks (Carcharodon carcharias) can be found in almost all coastal and offshore waters with water temps between 54 and 75°F. That’s a whole lot of ocean.

Ha! Made ya look. Anyway, one of the few places in the world where you can get in a steel cage and come face to face with white sharks is in the waters off of South Africa. We stayed in Simonstown and tried our luck experiencing these incredible animals at the local Cape fur seal nursery on two separate days. The water was only about 30 feet deep where we were anchored, and viz was 10 feet or less. Add the steel cage, and there you have today’s working definition of “habitat.”

You don’t have to be a diver to experience the white sharks at Simonstown. You don’t even need a snorkel. The truth is, this is a tourist experience – it is something anyone can do. And a lot of people do it for the adrenaline. But just because anyone can do it, doesn’t mean anyone should miss it.

There’s a lot of water around Simonstown. And, there are a lot of Cape fur seals. (I’ll  prove that to you next week). So why aren’t the white sharks aren’t nosing around us everywhere we go?

The Cape fur seal nursery near Simonstown, South Africa.

The Cape fur seal nursery near Simonstown, South Africa.

Unlike other islands and shorelines with Cape fur seals, the particular tiny island we go to see them hosts a fur seal nursery. Read: completely vulnerable tasty baby treats for sharky sharks. The seals come to this island to have their pups for whatever reason (I’m not an expert), and at some point the young helpless hapless pups have to go off island. They have to leave and go find a life for themselves somewhere else. And the sharks know it, so they come here. And let me tell you, there are a lot of seals and a lot of pups at this place. (You want to be upwind. Seriously.) This all means two things: (1) the white sharks are here very reliably, and (2) they already have great snacks all around, so we have to work really hard to get their attention. And by “we” I mean the crew. Not me. Unless you count hoping, hoping, hoping.

There are a few different types of shark cages. Some and scuba, some are snuba, and some are otherwise. We were in the otherwise. Because my group was a bunch of divers, we already had our own wet and drysuits (okay, everyone had wetsuits and I had a drysuit). We had our own masks and cameras, too. That and a heavy weight belt was about all you needed.

Ready for white shark action!

Ready for white shark action!

The way it works is you get in the cage, which is only about two feet wide and long enough for 5 people to cram in side by side, and the cage remains tethered to the boat at the surface.

Shark Explorers' white shark cage.

Shark Explorers’ white shark cage.

One member of the boat crew is tasked with throwing out a decoy – it’s a 2-dimensional rubber fur seal silhouette on a rope. It’s supposed to get the attention of the white sharks. Meanwhile, someone else is throwing out bait – big unidentifiable chunks of something that was once a part of a large fish tied to a rope. The idea is not to feed the sharks, just to draw them in. So the crew member throws the chunk out, pulls it in, throws it out again, over and over, ad infinitum. There’s also a guy standing up watching the water. (There’s a lot going on at the same time.) But the important part is that when a shark does show up, the person towing the bait pulls it in fast and directly at the cage, where we small mortals await. The idea is to bring the shark right up to us, those of us in the cage. The crew does their best to lure the shark along the front of the cage so everyone can see. Of course, it rarely works exactly as planned. But hopefully over the course of one or two days, everyone will get at least one great look.

When the spotter spots a shark coming, he yells “DOWN CAGE!!” And if you’re in the cage, you take a big breath and stick your head underwater. If you are lucky, you get a great view of the ocean’s magnificent apex predator swimming right at you, mouth wide open. And yeah, it is a hell of an adrenaline rush.

Great photos are another matter altogether, as you can see from my paltry attempts. It all happens super fast, and you’re holding your breath, and then in your adrenaline frenzy that is not unaffected by your close proximity to all the other incredibly excited humans, arms flailing with their own cameras, you’re hoping that your camera is in the right position — presumably inside the cage but without bars or ropes blocking the view.

It’s pretty awesome watching from the boat, too, as the sharks tend to come out of the water as they lunge at their prey. They are also known to breach the surface – some seasons they do this more than others. I would love to be there for that, as it would be spectacular. Regardless, it is an undeniably awesome experience to witness them, whether from the boat or in the water, whether you come away with a single decent photo or not.

A white shark at the surface -- this one snagged the bait, but usually the bait is pulled away before they get a chance to actually eat it.

A white shark at the surface — this one snagged the bait, but usually the bait is pulled away before they get a chance to actually eat it.

And if you’re in the water, and if they swim right at you with their mouths open – there is nothing like it. It’s like you’ve died and gone to shark heaven – but without the dying part.

About Jen Vanderhoof

I'm Jen Vanderhoof. I’m an ecologist with a wildlife background, and I spend a lot of time outdoors near water looking for signs of beavers and, when I'm lucky, photographing beavers. I am also a birder, scuba diver, and accordingly bird, nature, and underwater photographer. I write and draw, and I also enjoy carving beaver-chewed wood. I hope to spread the understanding, acceptance, and love of the most incredible animal species I know, the beaver.
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1 Response to White Shark Habitat

  1. Pingback: Nearshore diving, Simonstown, South Africa | SeaJen

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