Cape Town: A perfect base for a sea adventure with the marine 'Big Five'

Dive with sharks, watch seals splash or take the plunge with a ‘freedom swim’ from Robben Island

The stench of seal is part fish, part farm. It wafts around Cape Town’s Waterfront when the breeze blows, curling the nostrils of those dining at terraced restaurants trading in more palatable scents like herbs and garlic. Cape fur seals haul themselves onto the pontoons beneath the Waterfront’s walkways and collapse their huge, beanbag mass across the decks just yards from the eateries in the most popular part of town.

One of the most infamous places in South Africa is named after them. When the Dutch arrived in Cape Town in the 1600s, seals draped all over a low, oval-shaped bulge in the bay, and the settlers named this island after them, "Robben" being the Dutch word for seal. A few years later these first colonists decided Robben Island would house their prison.

Visiting the island’s museum to learn more about Nelson Mandela’s incarceration there is among South Africa’s most common tourism activities. A less common activity is trying to swim back again, but once a year, on the Saturday closest to the country’s “Freedom Day”, a local company organises the “Freedom Swim” in which a few hundred hardy souls take on the 7.5km crossing to celebrate Mandela’s extraordinary legacy.

The water temperature (normally around 12- 14 degrees in April) and turbulent conditions make this one of the world’s toughest annual swimming events, but the recent addition of relay and wetsuit categories have made it a little more achievable for the rest of us.


As a lifelong thalassophile, wildlife lover and open water swimmer it was the perfect excuse for a trip, combining a serious physical challenge with the chance to see some of the world’s most brilliant animals.

One of these animals – the Great White shark – adds considerably to the mystique of the Robben Island crossing. Just a few hours down the coast a thriving shark dive industry promotes interaction with the scariest sea creature on earth, but the Great Whites don’t tend to come into the northern waters off Cape Town as frequently, and there has never been a shark “incident” during the Freedom Swims

Extraordinary setting

It’s worth the risk. Being on, or in this case, in the water provides the best views of the city’s famous backdrop, framed as it is by the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean beneath and the towering triumvirate of Table Mountain, Lion’s Head and Devil’s Peak above. It’s an extraordinary setting, and this city is the perfect base from which to bag the “Marine Big Five”.

Mirroring the long-promoted land equivalent in which tourists are promised glimpses of lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo, the Marine Big Five are cape fur seals, whales, dolphins, penguins and Great White sharks, and promoters are waking up to the fact that ticking off this list can be as enticing for visitors as anything on terra firma.

At the right time of the year you can see the lot within a few hours of the city. The seals can be sniffed and seen without leaving the comfort of the finest restaurants in The Waterfront; humpback whales and southern right whales spend much of the second half of the year off this part of the South African coast; there are several types of dolphins in the waters all year round; and at Boulder’s Beach, less than an hour’s drive from the city centre, there is a colony of African penguins that share the sand with sun-bathers.

But the most surprisingly accessible, and top of the marine list for many people, are the sharks. The waters around Dyer Island and Gansbaii, just a two-hour drive east of Cape Town, have the densest population of Great Whites in the world. Around 80,000 people a year now travel to this area for the thrill of being lowered into chum-baited water in a cage, and the hope of a face to face encounter with one of the most magnificent and misunderstood predators on the planet.

A quarter of those travel with Marine Dynamics Shark Tours, a commercial and operational arm of the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, which is committed to researching and protecting many species in the area, including the penguin, whale, dolphin and shark populations.

The industry took a hit last year when the common perception of the Great White as a monstrous Apex predator was shaken up by the discovery of carcasses washing up in the bay with huge chunks taken out of their sides. A pair of orca had been tracked in the area by the Marine Dynamics team, and were quickly identified as the culprits.

New findings

For Alison Towner, a scientist with the company who has been studying the shark population there for the past decade, the killings presented a once in a lifetime chance for new findings even though the absence of their greatest attraction could've threatened the tourism funding on which the conservation and research work depends.

“Never before had white shark carcasses been available for necropsy after predation by orca, which created an amazing opportunity for science,” she says. “Each white shark had its liver removed. Selective feeding on energy-rich prey is a common tactic in orcas. Post these events white sharks vanished from the region and remained away for almost six months. They have slowly started to return to the area but not in their usual numbers.”

For marine biologists like Towner, the orca predation may represent an amazing research opportunity, but for marine tourists like me being lowered into water in which Jaws is the hunted rather than the hunter represented only an amazing opportunity to truly evaluate my own lowly position on the oceanic food chain.

Back at the company base our briefing had included some facts aimed at bringing balance to the whole Jaws hysteria thing. My favourite was that although up to 10 people a year die from shark attacks, around 400 a year die from incidents involving domestic toasters. I tried to remember that as I climbed down into the cage, locked my feet under the lower rail and felt the cold water surge through my wetsuit.

Within minutes a silver mass passed underneath the gloomy water beneath us and then the most recognisable dorsal fin in the world came into sharper focus cruising silently past the cage just yards away. It was remarkable and exhilarating, but strangely unfrightening. It may have been the thickness of the cage bars, or the sedate pace at which the shark was moving, but there was no feeling of malice or menace. I’ve felt much more fearful being close to some domestic dogs.

Over the next couple of hours five Great Whites swam regularly round our boat, the chum attracting them and the decoy seals occasionally fooling them into an awesome lunge. The biggest was nearly 5m long. I loved them.


Towner later told me how she feels that exploding popular misconceptions about sharks is a key part of the whole cage diving experience. Getting close to these ancient creatures helps people realise that they “are not mindless man eating monsters, but actually remarkable predators with a crucial role in ecosystem health”.

A national Great White population survey is under way now, and Towner expects the results to show that in South Africa the species is still under pressure due to overfishing, lack of enforcement and many other threats. She thinks wildlife tourism can play a role in helping conservation.

“I often compare white sharks to mountain gorillas. Both species are heavily threatened and cannot be put into captivity. They face the real threat of being poached by the poor communities they share their habitats with. Conservation literally keeps them worth more alive than dead in the eyes of the government, which is huge.”


Marine Dynamics have been running shark diving tours for 20 years. A marine biologist accompanies visitors on each trip offering information about the species and recording data for their conservation work.

Dyer Island Cruises specialises in the Marine Big Five, helping visitors see whales, dolphins, seals, penguins and sharks. They are based in Gansbaai, two hours drive from Cape Town.


Graham Little stayed in Cape Town at the Radisson Red, Silo Square, V and A Waterfront.

It is just five minutes’ walk from the Robben Island ferry terminal.

For room rates and availability check