Sitting in a forest holding on to a tree, I wait for the big beasts to arrive. All I can hear is the sound of my own breathing, but there is plenty to see: bright orange and blue creatures crawling around the forest floor, or tucked in rocky crevices waving their metre-long antennae at me.
The trees are uniformly bronze, as thick as my wrist, rising to a mop of flattened fronds that move in a dream-like manner. My buddy, Matt van der Venter, has settled down too. A few small animals hover in front of us, but we are hoping for something much bigger.
Why do people want to fly to Mars, I find myself wondering, when several metres under the sea you can be in a totally alien environment? At that moment, a 3m-long grey shape rises behind the kelp stems and eases itself gently, but powerfully, in my direction.
When asked to name our top three natural wonders, how many of us would consider an underwater option? Compared with dry land, the submarine world usually fails to get a mention. The place where I am diving, False Bay, takes a 30km-wide bite out of the rump of South Africa, right on Cape Town's doorstep, next to land that is a Unesco biosphere reserve because of its unique vegetation. But few people consider the extraordinary diversity beneath the waves. So far, 11 500 species of creature have been found in this one relatively small bay. Contrast that with the global total of 7 500 species of bird.
Serengeti of the seas
Local wildlife expert Chris Fallows, one of the first to realise the potential of this place, calls it the "Serengeti of the seas". And just like that particular star of the natural landscape, with its lions and elephants, False Bay has its own cast of actors. Some are mere bit-part players, like my blue and orange starfish, but some are big box office: the whales, the dolphins and, of course, the great white shark.
The long grey shape effortlessly approaches. A few seconds later and the creature is drifting past me, taking a long look. But there is no sense of alarm or danger: this specimen, a seven-gilled cow shark, has every appearance of a toothless old man out for a constitutional. My main fear is that the current will shove me on to him, because he does enjoy getting too close. Maybe he's short-sighted? Matt had warned me not to touch: "They do bite if they get frightened."
As we sit there, I'm reminded how similar this is to being in the African bush. By simply being still and nonthreatening, we are tuning in to the environment, observing more closely and noticing things we might have missed. In a rocky cleft right next to me is an extremely large crayfish and Matt is signalling "octopus" to me and pointing to an overhang.
Eventually, our air running low, we surface and climb back on to the boat. A stiff wind is clipping the tops of the waves and, as we bounce back to the rocky inlet where we started, I spot a dark shape in the water. A huge stingray is following us in, hoping we might be fishermen with some by-catch to share. Then another appears, more than 2m across, as big as a flying carpet. And next there's a fur seal, weaving in and out between the rays.
Matt and I don masks and slip overboard to take a closer look. Once again, I'm struck by the proximity and the imperturbable sang-froid of the big beasts.
That evening I walk along the well-known Boulders Beach on the outskirts of Simon's Town, on the western edge of the bay, a spot where penguins are gathering for the onset of the breeding season. There are great views right around the bay, past the small towns of Kalk Bay, St James and Muizenberg, to the larger town of Somerset West and on to the huge uninhabited peaks of the Hottentots-Holland mountains.
False Bay coast
A Bay of plenty?
With such fabulous panoramas, False Bay is a place that deserves a far more illustrious title. The origin of the name is obscure, but one story has it that the first European visitors had rounded the Cape of Good Hope expecting warm seas and a high road to the riches of India, only to discover the true southern tip of Africa, Cape Agulhas, lay a further 130km southeast. In their disappointment, they dubbed the place "False" – and it stuck. Had it been dubbed Bay of Plenty, I'd guess world heritage status would have extended to below the waves by now.
Simon's Town is a pretty resort of Victorian vintage with colonnaded shops along the main street and home to the Salty Sea Dog (saltyseadog.co.za), surely one of the best fish-and-chip shops in the southern hemisphere. I sit eating snoek and chips and watch the wind get up.
By morning, I discover the wind has blasted away my chances of another dive, so I set off to explore the coast by car. First stop is Kalk Bay, a small seaside town packed with alternative shops and great little cafés, perfect for storm watching. The cake display at Tribeca Bakery (tribecabakery.co.za) proves impossible to walk past, especially when the heavens open, so I spend a delicious hour in the window seat, watching giant waves and catching glimpses of two nutters on surfboards out in the water.
When the rain stops, I wander on down the street and find Quagga Rare Books & Art (quaggabooks.co.za), an antiquarian bookshop with an impressive collection of Africana. Across the road is a second-hand store with, among other curios, a display of right whale vertebrae. The animal was so named for being the right one to kill and it nearly got wiped out, but fortunately numbers are now increasing and they can be spotted from the shore in False Bay between July and October.
Moving on, I pull in at Muizenberg as the bad weather starts to clear and the wide beach fills with people. The seafront here has been through some bad times but is now on a resurgence, powered by surfing: shops and schools are opening up in abundance. Not that it's a new thing: Agatha Christie surfed here in the 1920s, the town's previous heyday. Now the lovely seafront buildings are being renovated and there's a real buzz about the place.
I park and wander past brightly painted beach huts, then on to the sands, enjoying the cheerful vibe of a young and sporty crowd.
Khayelitsha and the Apex Predator
Further round the bay, I pull off the coast road into Khayelitsha, Cape Town's largest and, some would say, most notorious township. It's certainly not on most tourist routes, but I want to meet up with two friends from the local cycling club, Luthando and Sean, who introduce me to the favourite local lunch: meat. Under tin roofs, we sit down and order a huge plate of sausages and cuts, which are then grilled and served with some dynamic chilli sauces.
The coast road out of Khayelitsha leads past the leafy groves of upmarket Somerset West. I am aiming for the eastern shore of False Bay. The simplest way to see it is to visit the Harold Porter botanical gardens (sanbi.org/gardens/harold-porter) around the coast on Betty's Bay, where I wander very happily for a few hours. The storm has eased and the late afternoon sun is out.
The next morning, I am back on Simon's Town quayside and boarding the Apex Predator, a boat belonging to Chris Fallows, who came to Cape Town in 1991 from Johannesburg, hoping to volunteer on a shark conservation project. It proved to be the start of a lifelong passion and some amazing discoveries, all in False Bay.
"In 1996, I took a little inflatable boat out to Seal Island," he tells me, "We towed an old life jacket behind us. Within 30 seconds it happened."
St James town. Photography by David Harrison, M&G
We motor out past the Simon's Town naval base, taking a small diversion to watch a pod of more than 400 dolphins galloping through the waves at breakneck speed. Pods of up to a thousand are not uncommon and divers occasionally witness gangs of dolphins weaving funnels of bubbles around huge shoals of fish, the prelude to a feeding frenzy.
"What False Bay has is lots of nutrient-rich upwellings," says Fallows. "Then there's a big variation of water temperatures, so we get everything from butterfly fish to cold-water species. They're all here."
Now we can see Seal Island ahead of us, and smell it too. With about 60 000 animals on this tiny rocky outcrop, the stench is incredible. But despite the overcrowding, the seals seem loth to stray far from the shore, playing and bathing in the breakers, but never far from land. One of the deckhands, Owen, spots a baby seal that has died and drifted away from the island. The gulls take an interest, then there's a swirl of water and a black dorsal fin appears followed by, for an instant, a 4m-long toothy shark. It's a great white.
"When we came here," says Fallows, "Nobody knew about the great whites – it was just a hunch I had. We spent a long time working out how we could bring people here without disturbing the sharks."
With only about 3 000 individuals left and a slow reproduction cycle (a female only reaches sexual maturity at 15), every single living great white is now a key component in the species' survival.
An encounter with a shark
A cage is manoeuvred into position and two bait balls go out, attached to ropes: one on the surface and one a few metres below. I pull on a wetsuit and climb down inside the cage. The water is cold but bearable. I wait, face submerged, seeing nothing. Visibility is not good after the storm. A long time seems to go by, marked only by the slap of Owen throwing and rethrowing the decoy. Then, suddenly, he's yelling: "Bottom bait! Bottom bait!"
I shove myself under water in time to see a huge shark sweep past. It's gone in a second, but then another noses in, this time in a leisurely manner, sniffing the bait and diving under the cage. They don't jump out of the water – that's a behaviour seen only in July and August – but the thrill of being so close to one of nature's most impressive predators is incredible.
When I climb out, I'm a convert to cage diving – at least Fallows's style: no dramas or forced behaviour. Anything that increases awareness of these creatures must be good for their survival.
That night I know where I want to be: Kalk Bay. There's a great choice of places to eat: locals swear by the Olympia Café (134 Main Road) and the Café Matisse (76 Main Road), while a friend had recommended the fish at Harbour House. But I head for a little restaurant on the seafront, Cape to Cuba (capetocuba.com), for a platter of seafood with spicy salsa. From there, it's a short stroll to the Brass Bell pub (brassbell.co.za), which sits right on top of some tidal pools. In summer, these are wonderful paddling pools for children but, at this time of year, it's about watching big swells whomping into the sea walls and drinking a glass of sauvig-non blanc from one of the many vineyards that are stacked up on the hillsides across the bay.
On my last day, I drive to Cape Point and walk up to the lighthouse. On the beaches below, ostriches and baboons are picking through the washed-up kelp, the cliffs are sporting ragged pennants of sea spume and the wind is snatching at tourists' hats. From the lighthouse I can see the entire span of False Bay, surely one of the greatest marine environments on Earth – and a place still waiting for recognition. – © Guardian News & Media 2013