Recap – Penguins and Sharks Highlights

The drive back to the coast from Montagu felt like a drive through Napa Valley, vineyards, vineyards and more vineyards. We hit Hermanus around lunch time and excitedly went to the visitor info office to book our whale watching and shark cage diving tours. No boats were going out today or the next day due to weather. You can put your name on a waiting list and we will call you. Maybe Friday. Better chance on Saturday. And, oh yeah, the whales are long gone so you won’t be seeing any.

There She Doesn’t Blow

So the reports were true. A couple we met warned us that they saw no whales while in Hermanus. The whales were the only reason we were here and had heard that it’s like “whale soup” out there during the height of the season. So we were disappointed to hear that the whales had moved on. At least the Great Whites were still out there.

Hermanus is considered one of the best land-based places to see whales especially the southern right whales when they come in large numbers from June to Nov to breed and frolic in Walker’s Bay. With nothing to do except wait we explored the town and walked the cliff trails hoping to spot some wayward whales out in the distance. No such luck, they really are gone.

Hermanus did remind us like Mendocino, lush and green thanks to rain and fog, a rocky coastline pounded by cold swells, and no shortage of cute shops and restaurants. Have we already mentioned that the Western Cape reminds of us of home?

Jackasses of Stony Point

After killing the second day mostly indoors due to rain, we caught a break on day three and headed to Betty’s Bay to check out the African penguin (AKA Jackass Penguins) colony at Stony Point Nature Reserve. The reserve is one of only two shore-based breeding colonies in the country, with the other being at Boulders Beach near Simonstown. There is a boardwalk that winds its way through the reserve that provides close-up views of the penguins in their natural habitat. Damn they were cute and they really do sound like jackasses when they call to each other. Hee haw!

South Africa Western Cape

At the end of the park trail we also saw dassies (AKA Rock Hyrax) and nesting cormorants with chicks.

Men in Grey Suits

At last the boats were going out on Saturday. With the whales gone the shark cage diving tour was the only option. We were lucky to get on an 11:30am tour with Great White Shark Tours as there had been a last minute cancellation. (WTF, the tourist office failed to call us and it was by hunch that I decided to stop by and check on the status.)

Our meeting place was at the company’s crew house near Gansbaai about 30 minutes east of Hermanus. We were soon joined by our fellow shark bait mates, 26 students from Azusa Pacific University in Cali, a lone American and three Aussies. With the exception of the three everyone on the boat was from the US. After a video and safety briefing we were ready to go and offer ourselves to the sharks.

Our boat, the Apex Predator, breaking through rocking waves headed towards Dyer Island about 7km away to a spot ominously called Shark Alley.

South Africa Western Cape

Shark alley, a narrow channel between Dyer Island and Geyser rock, is a favorite hunting ground for great whites looking for cape fur seals and those cute African penguins. 15 minutes and some queasy stomachs later, the boat anchored while an 8-person shark cage was attached to the boat. The cage itself floats on the surface and has hand- and footholds inside.

We received another briefing on the do’s and don’ts of cage diving:

(1) everyone puts on a wetsuit and is outfitted with a weight belt and diving mask;

(2) we climb into the cage eight at a time for about 20 to 30 minutes;

(3) while Dira (the “master chummer”) pours chum out of the back of the boat to attract the sharks and Gert (the “master bait operator”) casts a fish on a rope in front of the cage to lure the fish to the divers;

(4) when a shark approaches the boat, the master bait operator throws the fish near it and pulls it toward the cage while yelling “Divers down!” The divers then hold their breath and pull themselves underwater to try to catch a glimpse of the shark while making damn sure to keep limbs INSIDE OF THE CAGE.

Once everything was set up, Dira did his chumming and 10 minutes later a shark showed up. A fish head was cast and the shark chased it, coming up to surface allowing us to get a close up view from the safety of above.

Divers Get Ready, Divers Down Now

It was shark time and the first group of eight got suited up and got into the cage. We watched as the sharks got close, bumped the cage and lunged out of the water. When it was our turn, G & I went down to get suited up. Unfortunately, the swells were rocking the boat making it difficult to get a tight wet suit on. Eventually all the struggling and bending over to get the suit on made G seasick. Instead of going in with me he sat out until the next rotation.

South Africa Western CapeSouth Africa Western Cape

Once in the cage, I waited in the frigid water for our cue. After 5 minutes, I heard the now familiar, “Divers Down Now”. Taking a deep breath, I submerged my head in the icy water,  and stared out wide eyed only to see a grey shadow pass about 2 feet in front of us. I think it was a shark it was hard to tell as visibility that day was only 2 meters. The next few dives got me some better views of the sharks but nothing like those pics on the brochures. It wasn’t until the last dive when I came face to face with a curious shark, probably shopping for its next meal, looking straight at me with black inky eyes and mouth wide open baring its razor sharp teeth. What a rush to have a great white check you out. When G went in he also had a shark ram its face with mouth wide open into the cage exactly in front of him. All he saw was a mass of bubbles going straight at him.

Overall it was a really a cool experience. The only downside was the relentless swells that grew over the 3-4 hours we were out there. At least half the passengers used barf bags, including G. My iron stomach held out luckily. The boats weren’t going out again the next day, so we really didn’t have a choice. Maybe some day we’ll come back for a calm day.

Whether you think shark cage diving practices irresponsible tourism or contributes to the conservation of these animals, it was fascinating to observe these magnificent but misunderstood predators up close.

Tour Company:

Great White Shark Tours
Kleinbaai, South Africa
http://www.sharkcagediving.net

Great outfitter for getting you and out of the water. Top-notch crew who ensures you have a great and safe experience. Ensure everyone had ample time in the water.  Towels, waterproof jackets, dive gear and snacks and drink provided. Videographer on board to record the event. We bought the DVD since there is so much you miss when in the water.

Accommodations:

TwentyFour 17 Inn
Room 7
Hermanus, South Africa

Convenient location tucked away in a small office park of the main road. Few blocks from the harbor, shops and restaurants. Entrance is hard to find, a narrow driveway in the middle of the block. Have own parking area which is good so one doesn’t have to park on street and pay. Rooms was really small and cramped but clean.  Room 5 was next door to the office so it was really noisy with people coming in and out. Provide great voucher for breakfast at the fantastic cafe next door though so that made up for any shortcomings. For its location it was a bargain.

Windsor Hotel
Room 40, Room 504
Hermanus, South Africa
https://windsorhotel.co.za

Because of the delay in getting on a shark cage boat we had to change hotels and rooms a couple of times. We moved to the Windsor Hotel after TwentyFour 17 Inn.  Our first night (Room 40) we had a view of the ocean and a balcony. The room was huge and comfy.  It had an old-timer feel.

Our 2nd room (Room 504) was in the newer annex at the back of the hotel. Rooms were big, clean and more up to date.

Breakfast included. Great location on the water if you’re lucky enough to get a room facing the ocean. Lots of rooms and caters to tour groups. For its location it was reasonably priced.

Eats:

The Eatery
Hermanus, South Africa

Our breakfast voucher from TwentyFour 17 Inn was for this cozy cafe. This little bakery and cafe was a great find. Great food, baked goods and atmosphere. Free wifi. We spent most of the afternoon here during our 2nd day when it was raining.

Fisherman’s Cottage
Hermanus, South Africa
http://www.fishermanscottage.co.za

Cozy restaurant with yummy comfort food.

Just Pure Bistro
http://www.justpure.co.za/bistro.php

An excellent bistro located in a Just Pure skin body shop. Who would have thunk? Patio seating overlooking the ocean. The food was so good that we ate here twice.

Cattle Baron
Hermanus, South Africa
http://www.cattlebaron.co.za

A steakhouse chain serving good steaks, ribs and burgers.

Tikka Palace Hermanus
Hermanus, South Africa

I know, I know. Indian in Western Cape? The food was tasty though and they had the best garlic naan I ever had.
Burgundy Restaurant
Hermanus, South Africa
http://www.burgundyrestaurant.co.za

Upscale restaurant serving International cuisine with some South African dishes. We had the South African dish Bobotie.

 

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