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Richard Peirce

At the end of January 2016 the small town of Gansbaai in South Africa's Western Cape was in panic. The income from Great White shark tourism makes up a large part of Gansbaai's economy and the sharks had disappeared. The last shark was seen on January 5 and they did not reappear until February 13. What caused the sudden 39 day disappearance of the shark was a mystery, and remains so to this day.

When the sharks returned, the cage diving operators, their employees, hotels, B & B's, restaurants, shops and others breathed a huge collective sigh of relief. At the time of writing (1 year later) there are again plenty of sharks and plenty of tourists. However for some people nagging questions remain; what if the sharks disappear again, what if they are gone for longer next time, and why did they leave last time?

Gansbaai is at one end of Walker Bay, and for the bay's other towns and villages Southern Right whale watching has long been a mainstay of local tourism, and one of the reasons visitors come to towns like Hermanus. Whale watching, as a tourist attraction, preceded shark cage diving by decades, however in recent years the two have complemented each other with cage divers going whale watching and vice versa. Excuse the pun, but after the sharks returned everything was going swimmingly until later last year when the whales disappeared as well. Just as Gansbaai's shark dependant had worried about the disappearance of their big attraction, now on the other side of the bay in Hermanus those involved in whale tourism started to have concerns.

Walker Bay's future is inextricably bound together with Great White sharks and Southern Right whales. There is still no generally accepted explanation for the disappearance of the sharks in early 2016 or for the whales at the end of the year.

Natural events happen all the time but there are many who don't think the disappearance of Gansbaai's sharks was necessarily a natural event. There was talk of nearby poaching activity, and of experiments with sound waves in the waters around Dyer Island. For now there are still only questions, and many people in the Walker Bay area remain keen for answers.

PS UPDATE 22/02/2017

Once again Gansbaai sharks have disappeared and no sharks have been seen by cage diving operators for 19 days! More to follow when more is known.

Just how do you make an interesting book out of a fish swimming over 22,000 kms by itself across trackless oceans? A challenge indeed, but when the fish is a Great White shark named after a Hollywood star called Nicole, and the story of the swim is fully documented, fascinating, and changed history, then mission impossible/very difficult becomes mission possible/very exciting.

My next book is, perhaps unoriginally, called 'Nicole, the Great White Shark' and tells the story of Nicole and how her epic journey helped secure CITES protection for Great White sharks.

She was tagged off Gansbaai in November 2013, and swum to Australia where the tag came off. She then made her return journey to exactly where she had been tagged. Nicole was accurately navigating all the way, broke speed records, and is known to have dived to over 3,000 feet (980m). As I wrote the book Nicole became an obsession, and I joined those who had been involved in her research programme, hoping that she would reappear one day.

'Nicole, the Great White Shark' will be out in the UK in early summer, and will be available from many book shops, and online from Amazon, peirceshark.com and NHBS.

Eleven years ago in 2006 I ran a pilot scheme to test the viability of a possible new eco-tourist activity in Cornwall and other areas on the west side of Britain involving cage diving and free diving with blue sharks. It worked and we (Shark Cornwall) did it for a couple of years to make sure the idea got around and took off, not being tourism operators we then bowed out and left it to others. There are now 4/5 blue shark operators in Cornwall, and others in Pembrokeshire and southern Ireland. I was delighted this caught on because I have long believed that giving animals a "live" multi usage value, as opposed to a one time "dead" value can be a valuable contributor to conservation.

It would not be right for me to push one operator over another, but two of the leading Cornish operators are personally known to me and I can highly recommend them. Basking shark watching is now also well established in many places including Cornwall, The Isle of Man, The Western Isles, and other mainland west Scotland places. So enjoy your sharks, IN BRITAIN!

I am writing in February in Hermanus (South Africa) where I have just been approached by a guy working for one of the Great White shark cage diving operators who wanted to show me some rather disturbing images. The photos are of sharks tagged in South Africa by Ocearch in 2012, and show considerable damage to dorsal fins and other areas. At least one Ocearch tagged shark is known to have died, and now it appears many others may have been damaged. I am still collecting evidence so can't jump the gun, but once I have a complete series of pictures, if the theory of damaged sharks is proven, then I will write the story watch this space!

I deliberately avoid telling tales of shark diving exploits in this column, as they are ever present in the diving magazines, and I try to do something different. However each year from November to April I live in South Africa and am often diving in shark waters at Walker Bay, False Bay, and around Durban. So if you are in South Africa at this time of the year, find out where I am, and maybe we can share a shark dive, or a beer.

Go well, keep safe, and enjoy your sharks.

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