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Seal Island: South Africa

Seal Island: South Africa

A Smorgasbord for Great White Sharks

If you’ve ever tuned into Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, chances are you’ve already seen Seal Island. Sixty thousand cape fur seals inhabit this rocky outcrop near Cape Town, and that constant supply of fresh red meat is a honey pot for the ocean’s most fearsome predator—great white sharks. Their spectacular hunting behaviors, which involve those aerial feats so often shown on sensationalist nature programs, are not found in any other white shark habitat in the world—bad news for the seals of Seal Island.

The great whites that feed in False Bay, which surrounds Seal Island, are especially famous for their surface breaching: The sharks launch their entire bodies out of the water in order to snatch an unlucky seal from the surface. Whales normally leap all the way out of the water like this, for reasons unrelated to killing prey, but breaching takes on a whole new terrifying dimension when it’s a menacing 2,000kg shark doing the deed. Air Jaws became the most successful shark show in history when it introduced TV audiences to the unique shark breaching off Seal Island. What’s also striking is how close to shore these shark-on-seal attacks take place—almost within sight of Simonstown harbor in some cases.

For those who care to witness this extremely violent link of the food chain in person, there are plenty of charter outfits along False Bay, near Cape Town, that operate boat excursions to Seal Island—though the boats seem alarmingly small and flimsy given the size and acrobatic capabilities of the sharks touted in their marketing materials. (If surface viewing is all a bit too tame for you, very adventurous types can also find outfitters that will put you face to face, through a shark cage, with carcharidon carcharias.)

Within a certain distance of Seal Island in each direction, there’s a sweet spot called the “Ring of Death” where the sharks wait for unsavvy seals—usually, the young, old, or infirm ones—to make a mistake. If the seals cross the Ring of Death near the murky bottom of the bay, they’ll pass under the sharks unnoticed and make it to the open sea safely. But if they swim too near the surface, it’s only a matter of time until a great white attacks, and that’s almost always a fatal encounter.

Though you can get close enough to hear and smell the teeming seal population there, Seal Island itself cannot be visited—and you probably wouldn’t want to, anyway. The attraction here is undoubtedly the wildlife interaction offshore, not any sort of natural beauty onshore. The rocks are thick with seal guano, and there’s no soil or vegetation on the island, which reaches a maximum “elevation” of just 6m (20 ft.). To lay eyes on Seal Island from the water, it doesn’t look like land at all, just a heaving mass of intertwined seals that have survived another day inside the Ring of Death.

www.capetown.travel.
Tours: African Shark Eco Charters, Simonstown ( 27/21/785 1947; www.ultimate-animals.com). Boat Company Tours, Simonstown ( 27/83/257-7760; www.boatcompany.co.za).
Cape Town (35km/22 miles).
Transport available via tour operator (see below).
$$ Four Rosemead, 4 Rosmead Ave. ( 27/21/480-3810; www.fourrosmead.com). $$$ Mount Nelson, 76 Orange St. (27/21/483-1000; www.mountnelson.co.za).

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