“The Great fish moved silently through the night water, propelled by short sweeps of its crescent tail”
These were the opening words to one of the most famous books ever written, JAWS.
The fact that Peter Benchley purposefully chose to further heighten our fear of the great white shark by choosing night time as the scene for the opening attack and setting the trend for the rest of the book is significant.
To the uneducated there can be nothing more frightening than being stalked at night by a huge predator capable of devouring you in an environment that most of us are not comfortable in.
It may therefore come as a surprise to many that it would appear that the white shark does not actually use the cloak of darkness as its veil of cover to do most of its hunting.
Since 1991 having worked with great white sharks on an almost daily basis, having engrossed myself in their world on the African, Australian and North American continents has not only taught me much about them but also left many unanswered questions.
One of these unanswered questions was what does this super shark do when the sun sets and the ocean becomes a dark featureless world?
In 1996 along with Rob Lawrence, we discovered that just 25 minutes from Cape Town city centre there was a place where great white sharks were in large numbers, but more interestingly they actually breached out of the water when catching their prey.
Seal Island, False Bay in South Africa is home to over 60 000 cape fur seals and during the months of May-September there was no better place on earth to see the sharks in action. We learnt a great deal about how and why the sharks hunt. For the first few years all of our observations were made in the day but as we started seeing more and more predatory evidence before sunrise we became interested to learn what happened at night. We also knew from a Brydes whale carcass where we watched 28 different white sharks consume in 18 hours that the sharks certainly fed on a large food source like this at night.
In June of 2001 I decided it was time to find out if the sharks could actually catch a fast moving prey at night.
On a flat calm winters evening we arrived at Seal Island and went about anchoring at an area known as the Launch Pad on the Southern end. We placed a large tuna tail in the water as a tempting morsel to attract any hungry great white shark and we prepared for a long wait.
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As dusk turned to darkness our senses appeared to become more acute. The seals cavorting on the island with endless barking, coughing and fighting seemed deafeningly loud. Although our anchor held firm the waves crashing into the rocks 80m away now sounded perilously close. Everything was somehow that much more intense.
After a few minutes of trivial chatter we heard the sounds of splashing very close by and were astounded to see that the seals were leaving the island by the thousands unlike the dribble of small groups we see in the day. All around us seals porpoise as they headed out to feed. After 20 minutes of cavorting seals, a huge torpedo like shape broke into the curtain of light our halogen lamps threw on the water. Our invited guest had arrived, the great white shark.
Initially the shark circled on the edge of our vision with the lights casting beautiful dancing shafts of blue light off its back.
As the great fish turned to come straight towards the boat it’s eyes caught the light and turned an eerie green. The sight instantly threw us back millions of years to when great beasts roamed the earth in all shapes and sizes and this prehistoric looking green eyed creature would have been perfectly at home.
The shark made several more passes and then took the bait and without much effort bit threw the thin natural fiber rope securing it to the floating buoy. This was a momentous occasion for us as there was little evidence other than what we had seen with the Brydes whale that white sharks fed at night. Many scientists believed that the rod to cone ratio of the great white’s eyes did not make it a likely nocturnal hunter.
Soon the first shark was joined by another and on that first evening we recorded no less than 5 sharks. Strangely not all the sharks wanted the bait and some even appeared to be completely uninterested in us. By 21h00 only one shark still showed any interest, and the others had left as quietly as they had arrived.
Seeing these amazing great white sharks in the darkness was fantastic, it added a whole new dimension. They looked even bigger by night. We did several more trips in the dark hours with mixed success. We noticed that almost without fail the sharks seemed to leave the area we were working in a few hours after darkness and returned again in the hours preceding sunrise.
On some nights the sharks showed more interest in us than on others but generally they seemed to just patrol in an area where the seals departed from occasionally paying us a visit on one of their circuits.
What was interesting though was the fact that the sharks appeared to be trying to hunt at night as well. Initially we just heard splashes or smelt the tell tale smell of a fresh kill.
We also were surprised to see the kelp gulls which pick up pieces left by a kill..How these birds could see at night amazed me. Were they able to also listen and smell like we were and then hone in on the source?
On one evening we sat idly waiting for a shark when little more than 50m away a shark blasted clear of the water with a clearly audible swoosh of water. A few minutes later the tell tale signs of a kill drifted past as the entrails of a freshly killed seals were the only reminder of what had been a living animal a short while back. This was irrefutable proof of the sharks hunting at night.
During the daylight hours we often towed decoys for short periods and saw spectacular full breaches. Whilst it is incredible to see these huge sharks in the air I do not like to tow the decoy for more than a half an hour as this wastes the shark’s energy if it jumps to often and gets no food reward.
I did however think it would be interesting to see what the sharks would do if a decoy was pulled over them at night where they would not be able to see the shape but only hear or feel it’s splashing and vibration. After only a short while we were left in no doubt that the sharks actually had little problem in finding and catching a potential prey item in complete darkness. A 4,0m great white shark rocketed out of the water, mouth wide open as it snatched the decoy off the surface of the water without any evidence of being an inferior nocturnal hunter.
Today we believe that the sharks are perfectly capable of catching seals at night but the problem is that there are very few individual targets available for the sharks unlike during daylight hours. The endless stream of outgoing groups makes for a confusing and difficult target for the sharks to isolate a single animal whereas in the daytime single young of the year seals make for a far easier and less threatening prey item to catch.
By the early 2000’s we had a very good idea of what was happening at Seal Island at night. We had also undertaken a telemetric tagging project in 2000/2001 with Dr Rocky Strong that had shown the sharks did indeed leave the island as we suspected after a few hours after night fall and then returned in the hours before dawn.
What I now wanted to do was to dive at night with these massive sharks. The thought of being in the water when one of these formidable animals arrived excited me.
The sharks looked so beautiful with the lights of the boat dancing around them that I simply had to give it a shot and to be quite honest being in a cage is not exactly dangerous.
We were at Guadalupe island in Mexico and I had spent nearly 8 hours in the cage off our good friend Steve Drogin’s boat Destiny with a massive 15ft female circling me every 15 minutes or so. It was great. Steve’s boat had fantastic underwater lights and as the day’s last rays disappeared and darkness set in I expectantly waited.
For twenty minutes there was nothing other than the ever increasing feel of cold against my skin, was my friend of the daylight hours mysteriously gone?
As if by magic the huge shark suddenly just appeared out of the blackness and cruised slowly past the cage, magnificent, silent and with an unperceivable ease of movement.
Once again the great eye had a sheen of green and her elephantine girth seemed exaggerated by the shadows which danced along her flanks.
The great white sharks I saw at night both in Cape Town, South Africa and those at Guadalupe Mexico seemed to cruise even more slowly by night than during the day. The sharks seemed to simply melt in and out of the shadows and certainly had little interest in me. There was no malice, no aggression, just a beautiful creature passing it’s time in a medium that it was so beautifully part of.
This was what it was all about. To have the world’s most formidable shark just feet away, all on my own in a world of darkness with only my thoughts as company was fantastic.
I eventually reluctantly climbed out of the cage my hands and feet wrinkled but my face alive with smiles.
The foreboding veneer of darkness may strike a cord of fear for many but for those of you open minded enough to plunge into the inky world of the great white shark you will be entering the next realm of spellbinding adventure.
For more information on expeditions to view the famous breaching great white sharks https://www.apexpredators.com/.