It’s not often that a dead whale is the talk of the town, but at Aliwal Shoal Scuba we’ve been speaking of little else for the past 48 hours. When a whale dies, it becomes a floating buffet for every marine predator in the vicinity – and this weekend, we had the incredible fortune to witness this feeding frenzy firsthand.
Our unforgettable weekend began on Saturday morning, when one of the dive boats discovered the bloated carcass of a humpback whale floating two kilometres from shore near the wreck of the Produce. Word of the sighting spread fast – after all, there’s nothing like a dead whale for creating an instant turmoil of excitement in a diving town like Umkomaas. When it was found, the whale (which appears to have died of natural causes) was drifting shorewards – attracting the predators following in its wake towards KwaZulu-Natal’s lethal shark nets.
The decision was made to halt the whale’s progress, in an attempt to prevent the fatal capture of the sharks we knew would be irresistibly attracted by the pungent scent of decay. The whale was anchored overnight, and then towed five kilometres out to sea and released off Green Point lighthouse, where the current would take it safely out towards open ocean instead. It was on the Sunday that we joined the rest of the boats queuing up to witness this phenomenon for themselves.
It’s not every day that you get to see the ocean’s greatest predators feeding side-by-side on the remains of one of the largest creatures on Earth. Circling seabirds acted as our GPS for locating the floating carcass, and when we arrived, the water around the whale’s desiccated remains was boiling with activity. Great fins scythed through the water, and grey snouts broke the surface as the sharks below twisted and turned in their efforts to separate bite-sized chunks of blubber. The sea was oily with whale fat, and the smell was so strong that it could almost be tasted on the air.
We entered the water, and descended until we were hovering beneath the carcass, out of the way of the scavenging sharks. From beneath, the silhouette of the whale was distinguishable only by its huge fluke, and the curve of its great jaw glinting palely in the murky water, stripped of its fringing baleen plates. The rest was a mass of white and grey flesh – a poor imitation of the magnificent creature that once was. The sadness that we felt for the whale’s passing was short-lived, however, as the adrenalin of being surrounded by the ocean’s top predators took hold.
At first, the scene before us was a chaotic jumble of pectoral fins and sleek grey bodies; of glinting dark eyes and gaping jaws. Then, as our breathing slowed to a more sensible rate, we began to separate one shape from another. There, the distinctive silver and grey bars of a passing tiger shark – there, the beady eyes of a bull and the slender, effortlessly graceful movements of a prowling dusky. Our local residents, the oceanic blacktips, darted in and out, determined to get their fill alongside their larger cousins. And then, the undisputed king of the ocean – the great white, with its unmistakable triangular fin and perfectly countershaded colouring.
We spent the entire day at sea, leaving only when afternoon began to fade into the first suggestion of the coming evening. We saw ten tiger sharks, maybe more – more than we could ever hope to see on a regular baited dive. At least three great whites graced us with their royal presence, while the bull sharks, duskies and oceanic blacktips were too numerous to count. After gorging themselves for so many hours, several of the sharks sported bellies so full that they seemed to be straining at the skin.
With such a feast before them, the sharks paid little attention to the humans in the water. Over the course of the weekend, divers from all over the country came to witness the spectacle brought on by the whale’s death – yet not one accident occurred. The great white, the tiger and the bull shark are consistently rated amongst the world’s most dangerous sharks, and yet we spent hours in the water with all three (in the midst of a feeding frenzy!) and emerged entirely unscathed. In fact, our encounter with these often maligned species left us feeling enriched instead of afraid – proving beyond a shadow of a doubt that sharks are not the human-killers they are so often portrayed to be.