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Freediving With Sharks In South Africa

diving with sharks
Image by Zara Prew

“There’s a bait ball close to shore at Smitswinkel”. I looked excitedly up at my friend, who offhandedly said those magic words.


National Marine Sanctuaries, Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

One of my dreams is to see a bait ball – a large group of small fish that swim in a spherical formation which attracts larger predators such as large fish, seabirds, dolphins, seals, whales and sharks. I had never been in the water around big sharks before, and while I felt extremely apprehensive, I knew it was an experience I couldn’t pass up. My friend who had informed me about the bait ball was more experienced with being in the water around sharks, so I knew he was a good person to go with. He agreed to go with me so we grabbed our gear, packed the car and drove to nearby Smitswinkel Bay where this alleged bait ball could be found.

The Dive

diving with sharks
Image by Zara Prew

Located near Cape Point National Park, Smitswinkel is made up of a small collection of colourful houses and a small beach, accessible only via a 20-minute hiking trail down the mountain from the main road above. We parked just off the main road and slowly made our way down the mountain to the secluded beach, the sand shimmering in the warm December sunlight. Once we made it to the beach, I opened up my bag to change and what do you know? No swimming costume, or towel! There was no way I was hiking back up the mountain and driving home so I opted to dive in my underwear and the pair of denim shorts I was wearing (as I said, this was too good of an opportunity to pass up!).

Once our masks, snorkels and fins were on, we headed into the waves (where my GoPro stick then broke) and swam toward the dark patch to the right of the beach that we had scouted above from the main road. We only swam about 25 meters before we came upon a dark shadow in the gloomy water – a mass of small silver fish, ebbing and flowing like a single colossal organism.

The Sharks

Floating above this swarm took my breath away. Pretty soon, I realised we were not alone with the tiny silver anchovies. A Cape fur seal weaved its way in and out of the mass, causing the fish to occasionally break its seemingly solid formation. It was a spectacle to witness the seal’s unbridled joy while feasting on an endless supply of silvery seafood. As we swam around, the seal once again moved through the bait ball, this time, creating an opening in the bait ball large enough to reveal the ocean floor. I looked down. Something long and dark caught my eye, slithering just above the white sand. I looked again, swimming a bit further down to make sure.

Sharks. So many sharks, littered along the ocean floor.

They all appeared to be bronze whaler sharks, which grow to over 3 meters long. Small sharks, yes, but sharks nonetheless! Constantly being on the lookout for anything larger than these ‘bronzies’, we spent the next 20 minutes diving down through the bait ball, taking the most incredible photos (featured in this article). The murky water, coupled with the bait ball hiding any larger sharks prompted us to slowly begin heading out, knowing these were not ideal conditions to be in what some would classify as “shark-infested waters”.

Once safely back on the beach, we stared at one another in awe and high-fived – acknowledging the life-changing experience we had just shared.

Freediving With Sharks In South Africa

diving with sharks
Image by Zara Prew

Freediving with sharks in South Africa is an exhilarating experience that combines adventure, respect for marine life, and strict adherence to safety protocols. South Africa is renowned for its diverse shark species, including bull sharks, great whites, bronze whalers, ragged tooth, hammerheads and many more. Freediving or SCUBA diving here offers unique encounters with these fascinating predators in their natural habitat, providing an unparalleled opportunity for underwater adventure, photography, videography, and scientific research.

When freediving with sharks, understanding their behavior is crucial, sharks are intelligent and can distinguish humans from their usual prey. However, certain species, like bull sharks and great white sharks, are known to be more aggressive compared to other species. The key to safe interaction lies in respecting the sharks and their environment. Attacks on humans are rare, and they usually occur when sharks mistake humans for their normal prey. In their own territory, sharks often recognize that humans are not typical prey.

Safety First When Freediving With Sharks

diving with sharks
Image by Zara Prew

To ensure safety while freediving with sharks, several guidelines should be followed:

1. Shark Awareness: Before diving, one must understand different shark behaviors, as they can vary significantly between species.

2. Experienced Company: Always dive with an experienced shark freediver or a buddy. This is especially important for those new to shark freediving.

3. Proper Equipment: Use specialized freediving wetsuits and fins. While a wetsuit won’t protect against a shark bite, it can protect you against other risks like cuts, scrapes and bruises.

4. Observation and Caution: Initially, observe the sharks from a distance to gauge their behavior. Remain vigilant and aware of the surroundings at all times to avoid unexpected encounters.

5. Stay Calm and Relaxed: Sharks can sense distress. Staying calm and not splashing about is crucial to avoid attracting unwanted attention.

6. Avoid Interfering with Marine Life: Stay away from dead fish or other marine animals, as these could attract sharks. Never attach caught fish to the body while spearfishing.

7. Follow Professional Guidance: On organized shark diving experiences, it’s important to follow the instructions provided by the guides or operators.

In Conclusion

diving with sharks
Image by Zara Prew

The experience of freediving with sharks in South Africa is not just about the thrill; it’s also an opportunity to understand and respect these incredible animals. With the right knowledge, precautions, and respect for the sharks and their environment, freediving with sharks can be a safe and unforgettable adventure.

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