There’s always been something illusory about Cape Town’s False Bay, the body of deep blue sea cradled between the outstretched arms of Cape Point and Cape Hangklip. The bay owes its deceptive charms to early mariners who, thinking they’d reached the safe harbour of Table Bay found themselves on the ‘wrong’ side of the peninsula, and even today it hides its secrets well.
For while day-trippers and holidaymakers quickly fall in love with the quaint coastal suburbs that line the bay’s western fringes – the likes of Kalk Bay, Simon’s Town and Muizenberg – few stop to consider the watery wilderness right in front of them.
Bathers at the area’s popular tidal pools may relish the warm(ish) waters, yet few realise how the delicate interplay of currents, climate and geography have made the seas beyond the wall one of the most diverse marine environments South Africa has to offer.
Don’t believe me? Lend me your fingers while we count: Whales. Great White Sharks. African Penguins. Beneath the waves, over 80 species of colourful Nudibranchs. Cape Fur Seals. Common dolphins. Seven-Gill Cowsharks. Snoek. Orca… the list of wildlife that calls this remarkable bay home goes on. And happily, it’s easier than ever to experience first-hand…
The men in grey suits
There are few animals that inspire fear and awe in equal measure like Carcharodon carcharias. And False Bay is one of the best places on the planet to see the Great White Shark in its natural habitat, with day trips out to the sharks’ stomping ground a major draw card for tourists and adventurous locals.
Winter is the prime time for observing Great Whites here, as the sharks congregate around False Bay’s Seal Island. As young seals leave the 60 000-strong island colony to hunt shoals of fish offshore, the sharks lie in wait to pounce on the unwary.
And the best person to see them with is photographer and naturalist Chris Fallows. Over the past 16 years on the bay he calls the “Serengeti of the seas” Fallows, together with wife Monique, has worked with everyone from the BBC to National Geographic. His company, Apex Predators, runs twice daily trips out to Seal Island, weather-permitting.
The up-close-and-personal cage dives are perennially popular, and a wonderful way to view these apex predators underwater, but it’s also worth keeping your eyes on the surface. False Bay is famous worldwide for the dramatic breaching of Great Whites as they hunt Cape Fur Seals, flying up to three metres into the air as they chase down the agile prey. Incredibly, the sharks don’t always win.
In late-Autumn mega-pods of up to 1000 Common Dolphin can be seen on shark excursions, and in recent years they’ve been followed – on rare occasions – by another mega-predator: Orca. According to Fallows, five different pods of Orca have been seen in the Bay over the past two years, with sightings peaking with the appearance of the dolphin pods.
Beneath the waves
Despite the sometimes-chilly water and belief that there’s a shark around every corner, False Bay offers incredible scuba diving. Yes, the water can be cold, but that’s why wetsuits were invented. Visibility is often below 10 metres, but that’s down to the sheer fecundity of the water; nutrients providing a platform for a host of life up the food chain.
“False Bay can be dived year-round, but the rule of thumb is that winter time gives us cleaner water and better visibility,” explains Mike Nortje, owner of Pisces Divers in Simon’s Town. A PADI Five-Star dive centre, the well-equipped shop offers equipment sales, air fills, gear rentals and guided dives off a spacious dive boat.
False Bay offers a superb range of dive sites, from navy frigates scuttled into artificial reefs through to naturalist dives in the waving kelp forests, or a hunt for the 80 species of endemic Nudibranch that call the bay home.
For certified divers there are two excursions not to be missed: a dive with the playful seals of the small colony off Partridge Point, near Cape Point Nature Reserve; and a shallow in-shore dive with Seven-Gill Cowsharks. These prehistoric sharks – notably missing a main dorsal fin – can reach up to three metres long and are found on almost every dive off Pyramid Rock. It’s a unique opportunity to get a close-up underwater look at one of False Bay’s apex predators.
And what about those Great Whites?
“Everybody asks about the Great Whites,” chuckles Mike, “But the simple truth is that we don’t see them while diving. They are certainly around inshore, but they just don’t approach scuba divers.”
Cast a line
Since the first sailors dropped anchor in False Bay, the waters here have provided rich fishing grounds. When the fishing’s good, boats will land their catches of Snoek, Yellowtail and Kabeljou at harbours around the bay… ready to be packed into crates and sent to kitchens across Cape Town.
Kalk Bay is the best place to visit if you’d like a fish for the pan, and the harbour is famous for its colourful fishing fleet. But it’s also a good bet if you’d rather try and catch your own.
“We have what we call a chuggie boat, a traditional Kalk Bay fishing boat,” explains George Mandalios, who runs the popular harbourside eatery Kalky’s. “Monday to Friday the boat goes out with commercial fishermen, so that they can earn a living with the boat. On the weekend, we take out trippers who want to fish.”
Trips leave before dawn and return at lunchtime, but don’t expect any modern equipment. On Star Life it’s hand-lines all the way, with vingerlappies to protect fingers from the hard-fighting Snoek. If the Snoek aren’t running, it could be Red Roman, White Stumpnose, Kabeljou, Cape Salmon… whatever Neptune decides to offer.
In winter and spring Southern Right Whales return to Cape shores. After their long annual migration from Antarctica, where they spend the summer feeding, the Cape waters are a welcome nursery and breeding ground.
While many tourists head for the Overberg to watch whales, False Bay is never short of sightings as whales breach, lob-tail and spy-hop a few hundred metres from the shoreline. The seaside pathway at Sunny Cove, rocky outcrops near St. James, and Clarence Drive beyond Gordon’s Bay are some of the best places to watch.
Whale trips are also on offer from the Simon’s Town Boat Company; the only operator offering boat-based whale-watching in False Bay. In addition to whale-focused excursions, owner Dave Hurwitz also offers half-day trips out to Seal Island and remarkable journeys around Cape Point.
No longer a Jackass
When stacked up against whales, sharks and orcas, the humble African Penguin – once known as the Jackass penguin for its donkey-like bray – may seem a little unexciting. But just off the road to Cape Point you’ll find one of the few places in the world you can get up close to this endangered bird.
The colony at Boulders Beach has grown from just a handful of birds in the early-1980s to over 1000 breeding pairs. A boardwalk leads through the busiest part of the colony; ensuring tourists don’t disturb the nesting birds, but you’ll just as easily find them warming their feathers among the suntanners down on the beach.