ARRIVING AT A SMALL COVE at Miller’s Point, I found it hard to reconcile the flat-calm sparkling sea with the high-adrenaline dive I was about to do, in an area that is the epitome of shark-diving worldwide.
Miller’s Point is near Simonstown, False Bay, a 45-minute drive from Cape Town. I had been told that this dive was possible from a shore entry, but better from a boat, due to the unpredictability of the currents.
Pyramid Rock, a small outcrop surrounded by kelp forests, lies about 75m from shore. My dive was to be with sevengill sharks, prehistoric-looking predators that fear nothing but great whites and killer whales.
The sharks can be found at this site year-round, especially from November to May, when up to 15 may be around.
Unusually, the summer (November-May) water temperatures of South Africa are colder than those of winter (April-October), because of melting Antarctic ice flowing through on the current. They range from 9° in summer to 15° in winter, but a 5-7mm wetsuit with hood, boots and gloves is sufficient to keep out the cold.
Visibility in summer reaches 8-20m, compared to 2-10m in winter.
Broadnose sevengill sharks (Notorynchus cepedianus), nicknamed “wolves of the sea” or “cow sharks”, differ from other sharks by having two extra gill slits and no dorsal fin.
They are found around the world, mainly in colder, temperate and turbid waters. Their sharpnose sevengill cousins (H Perlo) prefer warmer waters.
Adult sharks prefer to remain more than 500m deep, while juveniles reside in shallower water in bays and estuaries.
Why then do adults regularly congregate near Pyramid Rock It has been suggested that they come to rest or mate, or that they might be a resident community, but no scientific evidence supports any of these suggestions.
Adult female sevengill sharks can grow to 3m; males to 2m. They live to about 50, and are very slow reproducers.
Males reach sexual maturity at around the age of five and females at 11.
Fairly little is known about mating and gestation, but the mating is thought to occur in autumn/winter, and the gestation period is around a year.
The females are ovoviviparous, retaining the egg-cases in their bodies until they hatch. They then give birth to live young in the shallows.
The young shark remains in the shallow nursery grounds for its first few years before moving into deeper offshore environments.
Sevengill sharks are voracious predators, feeding heavily on rays, bony fish, seals, dolphins, and even other sharks. They will also consume mammalian carrion.
The teeth in the lower jaw are large and comb-shaped, used for tearing and cutting into prey. Those in the upper jaw are sharp and jagged, used for holding thrashing prey.
These sharks are powerful swimmers and opportunistic hunters, sneaking up on prey from behind, attacking very quickly and even hunting in groups to attack larger predators.
I kitted up on the shore with equipment rented from Pisces Dive Centre in Simon’s Town, and joined its RIB for the three-minute journey to the Rock. The sharks come inshore on high tide, then retreat to the offshore depths.
The break in the reef outside the harbour is very small, and during high tide large swells rise up and over the reef. We were briefed to hold on very tightly while the captain sped up the swell at great speed, rising over the top and coming to rest on the flat calm seas I had noticed from shore.
A short distance later, we were positioned over a sand gully that could be seen from the RIB.
Tall kelp fronds danced around just under the surface. I couldn’t believe how good the visibility was.
I had been briefed about the dangers associated with sevengill sharks, and also that they are extremely curious and will come very close.
They often see you before you see them, so it’s imperative to stay aware of your surroundings and to keep eye contact with them.

I FELT SOME TREPIDATION as I back-rolled off the RIB and descended, passing through the long kelp strands to a sandy bottom scattered with boulders at around 12m.
There, the group split into threes or fours and swam slowly around the gullies and sand spits, weaving in and out of the kelp fronds, peering into the distance to try to see the sharks.
I had been told that the likelihood of seeing a shark was around 85%.
After a few minutes, I was distracted by the amount of marine life living around the kelp forest. The dive site is part of the protected Castle Rock marine reserve, which means that the area is filled with many fish species such as red steenbras, red romans and galjoen, South Africa’s national fish.
Sharks of the spotted gully, puffadder shy, brown and leopard cat, and pyjama varieties are reported as present.
My eyes strained into the distance, finally settling on a strange-looking creature swimming slowly but purposefully towards me.
I sank onto the sand and waited. The sevengill shark swam on a straight line, passing a mere half-metre from me.
As I settled into the sand, being rocked gently by a very slight surge, I looked around and spotted another two sharks heading towards me, also passing me at arm’s length.
The sharks seemed to disappear into the bluey-green murk, only to appear a couple of minutes later from another direction.
At least 10 different sharks visited me and the other divers over the next 40 minutes. The interactive experience of staying still while the sharks come to check you out, eyeballing you before gliding serenely past, is like no other natural encounter I have experienced.
Shark-baiting or feeding is the only other way I have known sharks to come so close.
Sevengill sharks can be seen by divers in places such as the Mornington Peninsula in Victoria, Australia, or La Jolla or San Diego off California’s southern coast, but very infrequently – and they are reported to be very aggressive towards divers.
This small, beautiful area near Cape Town is a treasure of which few people are aware. It can be dived and enjoyed even by novice divers, and Pisces Divers even runs try-dives there for the brave.
A few minutes into this dive, the adrenaline I felt at the beginning ebbed away, leaving a feeling of peace, a sense of being at one with the ocean and these incredible creatures, and being a part of a unique experience.

FACTFILE
GETTING THERE: Fly direct from the UK to Cape Town
DIVING: Pisces Divers is a PADI5* IDC dive centre based at Glencairn near Simon’s Town, www.piscesdivers.co.za
ACCOMMODATION: Pisces Divers can arrange accommodation in the vicinity, from budget to mid-range.
WHEN TO GO: Sevengill sharks can be seen year-round, but beware of bad weather during the southern winter.
PRICES: Safari Diver offers six-night packages from £1600 per person, staying at Protea Hotels Breakwater Lodge (two sharing), with seven days’ car hire, four dives with sevengill sharks or up the coast with a seal colony, and one day of blue and mako shark diving (Mar-Nov). www.safaridiver.co.uk
FURTHER INFORMATION: www.southafrica.net