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Shark cage diving operators in Gansbaai have taken a financial hammering over the past three weeks following the disappearance of the apex predators from the bay. Following a bumper December season in what is seen as the great white shark capital of the world, the apex predators have all but disappeared.

©Janine Avery
©Janine Avery

This week, for the first time in 21 days, there have been one or two sightings but nothing like the numbers that tourists expect.

Brian McFarlane, the owner of Great White Shark Tours, says he has lost about ZAR1.5 million to ZAR2m over the past three weeks. “It’s the first time in 20 years we’ve experienced something like this.”

He said November and December had been one of his best periods, with up to three trips a day and at least 12 sharks sighted a time. “Then a month ago they disappeared.”

He closed down his operation for three weeks because he did not want to disappoint tourists, 99% were from abroad and here for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

McFarlane was hopeful that the sharks would be back and is cautiously optimistic after spotting one on Tuesday. Shark experts are not sure what is causing the phenomenon.

©Janine Avery
©Janine Avery

Alison Towner, a marine biologist with the Dyer Island Conservation Trust, said the last detection she had of an acoustically tagged white shark was on 4 January.

She was unsure of what caused their absence, but believes it is related to El Niño. “We are currently in the middle of a major El Niño event and just looking at the floods in Europe and droughts elsewhere one can see that climate conditions are abnormal. As a result, ocean temperatures were warmer along many coasts. This may well alter the prey species distribution for white sharks and thus they follow them into other areas.”

Towner said December, January and February were quieter months and that sharks migrated along the east coast in summer, as far as Mozambique, Madagascar and across to the Seychelles and Kenya.

©Janine Avery
©Janine Avery

Towner said it was interesting that Western Australia was reporting a similar trend, with hundreds of tagged great white sharks slipping off the radar, with just one detected in the past two months.

Charmaine Beukes, of White Shark Projects, said it has been devastating for their business. “We are very worried. This is our tourist season. Some choose to come anyway and we do a trip around the island.”

In peak season, operators do several trips and, depending on the size of the boat, take about 40 people per trip at an average of ZAR1 700 each.

Brenda du Toit of Marine Dynamics, which specialises in great white shark diving excursions, said they had been forced to cancel a number of trips. “You don’t want to disappoint people. For many people diving with white sharks is on their bucket list.”

Dr Alison Kock, research manager at Shark Spotters, said sharks have still been spotted in False Bay. Sightings depend on environmental conditions and prey.

Kock said when the south-easter blew it caused a steep drop in temperature. “The water gets cold very quickly. The temperature drops overnight which may cause the sharks to avoid the area.”

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