An Historic Bank where Needles Meet

‘Thus life by life and love by love
We passed through the cycles strange,
And breath by breath and death by death
We followed the chain of change.’

Langdon Smith; “Evolution” (1895)

The Cape Peninsula is often marketed as ‘the place where the two oceans meet’. We are referring, of course, to the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, and anyone standing at the old lighthouse above Cape Point can be forgiven for thinking they are watching the two great water masses collide. The truth is a little more pragmatic, and a lot less dramatic: according to the International Hydrographic Organisation (and they should know), the oceans meet off Cape Agulhas, the geographic southern tip of the African continent that lies 150 km east-southeast of Cape Point. We say ‘a lot less dramatic’, but that is purely in terms of the landmass at Agulhas, which looks pretty much the same as all the other rocky promontories along that coastline. It’s offshore that the drama lies. Cape Agulhas is a treacherous place, and at its heart is the reason why the IHO demarcate it as the meeting point.

The wreck of the Meisho Maru near Cape Agulhas. Photography by Lengau

Agulhas is the meeting point of two mammoth ocean currents; the cold Arctic Circumpolar Current and the warm Agulhas current that moves southwest down the coast of Southern Africa. (A popular misconception has it that the Benguela current is the current that bumps into the Agulhas current; this is not the case. The Benguela current is an Upwelling Current, and is an offshoot of the Southern Atlantic Gyre, moving northwards along the west Coast of Africa.) The conflicting currents, with their vast temperature and density difference meet over the relatively shallow Agulhas Banks, and this can create enormous waves: a contributory factor is the westerly winds of the Roaring Forties, which drive straight over the Atlantic ocean into the Agulhas current. Rogue waves of up to 30 metres are reported, and there have been at least 150 shipwrecks in the area around the Cape. As an aside, Agulhas means ‘needles’ in Portuguese, and while people might think that these refer to the rocks that have ripped the hulls of boats apart, this is not the case: it was named by Portuguese explorers in 1500 who noticed that at that exact point in their travels the compass needles’ magnetic north coincided exactly with True North.

The Agulhas Bank, the stretch of shallow sea that lies offshore from Cape Agulhas, has a history that impacts directly on those of us who live here in the Cape Peninsula. The bank itself extends about 800 km from Port Alfred to False Bay, reaching out to its furthest point – about 250 km – off Agulhas, which gave it its name. It is an important part of South Africa’s heritage for a lot of reasons; the National Spatial Biodiversity Assessment of 2004 recognised no less than 34 biozones nested within 9 bioregions (of which four were offshore). The confluence of the two currents make it an ideal area for life to flourish and evolve, and fisherman who throw their lines and nets into these waters know this for a fact: the Agulhas Bank is one of the finest fishing areas on earth. Hopefully the government will recognise this and keep overfishing protections in place. It only took half a century for the cod in the north Atlantic – once so dense that sailors used to joke that you could walk from Greenland to Newfoundland on their backs – to be fished to near extinction.

But there is another, lesser known, but amazing fact about the Agulhas area. A very high percentage of the people alive today – possibly all 7 billion of them – stem originally from this part of the earth. About six hundred individuals – anatomically correct humans, to use accurate terminology – lived here about 195 000 years ago, and this group of hunter-gatherers spawned a technological and behavioural revolution that led to a cultural complexity that started expanding. According to what Professor Curtis Marean calls the “Cape Floral Region – South Coast Model” for the origins of modern humans, the early hunter-gatherers survived on shellfish, as well as geophytes, fur seal, fish, seabirds, and wash-ups found on the exposed Agulhas Bank. Many old sites have been found around the Western Cape coastline, and these middens and caves are among the most important archaeological sites on the planet, giving scientists an idea of what life was like for early homo sapiens; our forefathers.

We are blessed here in the Western Cape! From spectacular mountains to amazing history; a unique floral kingdom and an ocean teeming with life. A playground and a workplace to be proud of, and Waterfront Charters loves to be at the centre of it all. There is no better way to get a feel of the Cape than from the deck of a boat, offshore in the ocean breezes and on the Atlantic swell. With our seven boats we offer a wide range of cruise opportunities, and amongst these are our Eco-tour options that bring guests up close and personal with the natural world. Add a marine biologist from CapeRADD for extra expert input and you have the perfect cruise: education, sea, sun and fun.

Put together a charter, or book a scheduled cruise. Whichever Waterfront Charters option you take you’ll get a view of the Cape Peninsula that will inspire and thrill. A view that the hunter-gatherers could only dream about…