White Sharks like the beach too!

Article written by Michael Scholl

Published in the local newspaper Gansbaai Courant on the 17th of December 2004

Gansbaai is rarely associated with a beach holiday resort… But every year, thousands of people from all around South Africa come to Gansbaai to spend their summer holidays. Usually, summer means cold water in our region, mainly due to the predominant summer south-easterly wind that draws the cold waters of the Benguela current closer to shore. But the 2003/4 and, so far, the 2004/5 summer seasons have seen a change in normal weather patterns, with an unusual number of winter-like conditions of north-westerly winds bringing the warmer Agulhas current closer to our shores. Instead of cold 8-14 degree water conditions, we now experience warm water temperatures of 18-23 degrees. As a result, many more people are swimming, snorkelling and surfing for longer periods of time along our shores.

Apart from being known as a summer holiday resort for South Africans, Gansbaai is better known worldwide for the Great White Sharks that visit Dyer Island. Gansbaai is now appearing on most international maps and atlases, and thousands of tourists flock to Gansbaai every year to view or cage dive with these Sharks. But these Sharks are not just swimming in Shark Alley as was previously thought until 1997, they are not even restricted to the vicinity of Dyer Island and Geyser Rock island system as was believed until 2000. They do in fact swim very close to the shore… especially during the summer months.

From October through March, very few White Sharks are observed around Dyer Island, and for long, it was thought that they were mostly gone from our area during that period of the year. But in December 1999, we discovered that the White Sharks had not completely disappeared from the area, instead of using the island area, they were shifting their interest to the inshore area of Haibaai (the bay from Danger Point to Sandy Point) from August / September through December / January.

The White Shark Trust has been conducting an extensive study on the transient White Shark population in the area since 1997. Using photographs of the dorsal fins to individually identify the White Sharks visiting Dyer Island and the surrounding area, over a thousand different White Sharks have been identified over the past seven years. But these Sharks only visit our area for a short period at a time, from a few days to a couple of weeks. Some of the Sharks are regular visitors, others only seem to visit once. The reasons behind the shift in space utilization from the ‘offshore’ area of Dyer Island to the ‘inshore’ area of Haibaai remains a mystery to this date.

The White Shark Trust is also conducting a regular surface- and aerial-based shore transect along the Haibaai beach area from Sandy Point to Uilkraalsmond to investigate the distribution and behaviour of White Sharks swimming near the shore.

Visit our photo gallery for images of White Sharks observed during our transects along the beach:

1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 - 11 - 12

White Sharks are spotted along the entire Haibaai beach, often in very shallow waters. Sharks observed swimming through the chum slicks reaching the beach usually do not react and continue their path parallel to the beach, which leads us to think that these Sharks are not using the beach area for feeding purposes. According to the local fishermen who have been using the bay for much longer than the cage-diving industry has existed, the Sharks have always been observed in Haibaai and close to the shore. Hence it would be totally unfounded to blame the chumming boats for attracting these White Sharks closer inshore. This region, as well as most of the South African coastline, is Great White Shark territory, and has always been!

The purpose of this article is not to scare beach users, but rather to make them aware that White Sharks are present very close to our local shores. Keep in mind that Southern Right Whales, Cape Fur Seals, Indo-Pacific Humpbacked, Common and Bottlenose Dolphins are also frequent visitors along the same beach area, and not every shadow is a White Shark. The White Sharks observed close to shore seem to swim close to the surface and their upper body colouration is usually dark to black. Thus beach users are very unlikely to be surprised by a Shark, as they are easy to spot. On a personal note, even though I work with these Sharks every day and I know how close the Sharks get to the beach, I still go swim and bodysurf at the beach on a regular basis with my research assistants, and only once have I encountered a White Shark while swimming there…

A few advices to reduce the risk of Shark encounters:

  • Remain west (on the Gansbaai side) of the Uilkraalsmond river mouth, since most Sharks are observed east (towards Pearly Beach) of the mouth;
  • Remain in groups – Predators will always seek out solitary animals first to minimise confusion and risk, as a single individual represents a much easier target;
  • Remain in shallower water where you can stand – The current at the Uilkraalsmond beach can be strong and drag you out to sea;
  • Avoid the early morning hours after sunrise and late afternoon hours before sunset (and night time) as Sharks will have to rely on other sensory organs than their eyes to identify their potential prey which might lead to confusion or mistaken identity;
  • Avoid going into the water with a bleeding or open wound, or if menstruating;
  • Avoid wearing shiny jewellery, which may attract the attention of Sharks like a lure;
  • Avoid wearing or using brightly coloured clothing or equipment, as Shark’s eye sight is particularly sensitive to contrast;
  • Refrain from excess splashing and do not allow pets in the ocean – Movements create vibrations and noises that Sharks can sense from far away, and may be associated with injured or dying prey;
  • The presence of Dolphins does not indicate an absence of Sharks – The sight of Dolphins, Seals or Sea Birds usually indicates the presence of fish, and Sharks will be close also;
  • Avoid the beach after heavy rain, as the Uilkraalsmond river will bring effluents from land into the sea, acting similar to a chum slick attracting the Sharks;

A few advices in case you encounter or observe a White Shark while in the water:

  • Warn other swimmers and advise them to follow the following advices also;
  • Remain calm and do not move – Noise, erratic movements and vibrations will attract the attention of Sharks – You will not be able to out swim the Shark anyway;
  • Stand straight, keeping your legs together and arms against your body – If you have a surfboard or body board, keep it stretched out in front of you between you and the Shark;
  • Slowly walk backwards back to shore, keeping your eyes on the Shark;

White Sharks are stealth hunters, and any White Sharks you might observe will most likely be drawn by their curiosity, not by their hunting instinct. Stay calm and try to relax! The Shark might approach to have a better look, swim around you maybe, and then most likely swim away again. For the pessimistic people out there, remember that White Sharks are very unlikely to swim into the Uilkraalsmond lagoon and river, so you are much safer from any Shark encounter within the river.

The fact that we have White Sharks in our waters should not be a deterrent for people to use the ocean. Even large Sharks are rarely interested in humans, but as with all wild large predators, some caution should be exercised. The advices mentioned above are just common sense. If the necessary cautions are taken, there is no reason not to use the water. Bear in mind that we are the ones trespassing into the Sharks’ natural environment, not the other way around. We are indeed very fortunate to have these endangered Sharks in our waters. Sharks should not be feared as mindless killing machines as so often portrayed in the media and movies, when they are in fact ancient, fascinating, beautiful and perfectly adapted marvels of nature.
Picture above and below: Pod of Dolphins swimming in the surf

In December 2005, three information posters were posted at the Uilenkraalsmond beach and river mouth, and also in the Kleinbaai harbour. These posters inform people that White Sharks are indeed swimming along the beaches of the Western Cape, sometimes in very shallow waters, and give some tips on how to avoid unfortunate incidents.