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Shark Bytes

April 2010 Shark Bytes

written by Monique Fallows

Posted on Friday, 30 April 2010

Dear Shark Lovers,

 

I am reflecting back on what I wrote about in April 2009 and find that April 2010 reads a very different story. This time last year we were having a real tough time at Seal Island as the sharks seems to have forgotten that Seal Island was their winter jaunt. Sightings were extremely poor and it was disappointing for all. Poor weather also played its role in limiting Pelagic shark trips. But, in 2010 I am thrilled to report that the weather has generally been great and the sharks have been excellent!

Be sure also to read about our very special encounters will Killer Whales this month. We also have 2 brand new and exciting expeditions for 2011 that have just opened.

 

Great White Sharks

Chris & I returned from a great trip diving with Sailfish in Mexico at the end of March. Poenas and our crew had already been running very successful white shark trips to Seal Island so on our first trip back we headed out fully expecting to have the great whites all over us. We should have known better and 3 trips later we had only experienced 3 brief “drive-bys” and our crew threatening to send us back to Mexico!

I must mention that to already have sightings of the Great whites in March is very early and this does not happen every year. 

As a general rule the sharks seem to move from patrolling for prey species found close to shore over the summer months (October to March) to Seal Island as the season turns to winter. It is here that the Great whites hunt young of the year cape fur seals as they venture out on their first feeding sorties away from Seal Island. We can see up to 600+ predatory events over 5 months, making Seal Island the most intense hunting ground for Great white sharks on mammalian prey.

Having said all of the above we have noted that the season at Seal Island seems to have an irregular pattern to it.

At the start of the season we do not see a lot of predatory events where the sharks are hunting the healthy young of the year seals. 

Instead, we see a lot of scavenges. The prevailing wind in autumn means that many dead seal carcasses wash off at the northern side of the Island. These carcasses would have been a result of mortalities due to illness, under nourishment and seem to be most prevalent towards the end of summer and early autumn. The Great whites seem to be aware of these “easy meal” feeding opportunities and spend time patrolling this side of the Island. As such we have seen multiple scavenge feeding events on almost all of our trips this April.

As more of the young of the year seals become weaned off their mothers and venture out to feed on their own for the first time we would expect the predatory events on this size and age group of seal to increase.

This April, as in years gone by, we have noted a high occurrence of sharks in the 3.5 meter to 4.2 meter range.  (11.5 feet to 14 feet). Seal Island is home to the largest on average size sharks in South Africa of about 3.5 meters, so these sizes are even larger than average. Could it be that the larger and more dominant animals earn the right to the easy meals over the younger sharks or perhaps they have learnt through years of experience at Seal Island that this is the best time to scavenge in these areas?

As the month progressed the numbers of sharks sighted on each trip mostly increased. Early in the month we were seeing between 3 and 6 sharks per trip and towards the end of the month we were seeing sometimes as many as 11 different sharks around the boat. But, I would have to say that not all the sharks were particularly keen to stay around the boat long and even though we were observing high numbers of sharks they were not quite into the swing of things yet. Signs towards the end of April show that the sharks are starting to take more interest in sticking around the boat, so fingers crossed.

We have had a certain amount of success on the decoy and on at least 2 trips per week we have had breaches. I have been sure to keep my eyes on the decoy for each tow and have been lucky to see them all. A flying Great white shark is something that I never tire of seeing…

 

 

Killer Whales; Another Phenominal Sighting in False Bay 

In April last year you may remember that I reported on a sighting of Killer whales hunting common dolphin in False Bay. This was the first sighting that we had in 20 years of spending time in False Bay.

From March onwards this year we had been encountering a mega pod of common dolphin regularly in the Bay. This group consisted of about 1000 dolphin and was magnificent to see. There were sardine schools the size of football fields present all over False Bay and this of course attracted the dolphins as well as numerous Brydes whales and cape gannets.

To see these huge schools of sardines was itself a highlight. In some places the fish were so thick that the echo sounder on the boat was reading the mass of fish from almost top to bottom in 30m of water. The dolphin, gannets and whales would blaze through the sardines leaving millions of sardine scales in their wake.

After a number of these sightings Chris, Poenas and myself began to wonder if the Killer whales would make an appearance since their objective last year was solely to feed on the dolphins. 

A pilot, who had read my account last year, gave us a call around early April to let us know he had spotted a pod of killer whales attempting to hunt dolphins in the Gansbaai area. After that phone call we were extra vigilant each time we encountered the dolphins. About a week after that a trawler that was working around Cape Hangklip (the eastern entrance to False Bay) reported 9 killer whales in the area. After that we were on even higher alert.

Sure enough on Saturday, 17 April we got the call from a colleague …a group of 4 killer whales hunting the large school of dolphin just outside Simonstown harbour! It was a quick decision between us and our guests to leave the Great whites, lift anchor and high tail it to the Killer whales.

As we approached the dolphins we could see they were highly stressed and the whole massive school of them were travelling at high and erratic speeds just outside the harbour entrance. About 500 meters behind we spotted the large, dark dorsal fins of the group of killer whales. At about this time we started wildly guessing what would happen next. Chris thought the killer whales may even drive the dolphins into the harbour, corner them and easily catch them. He was also worried about a mass dolphin stranding and so it was also quite a tense situation. To the killer whales it seemed like a very ordinary morning to them as they cruised just behind the school of dolphins, carefully bidding their time. Then, just like that they disappeared from view. At the April 2009 sighting we lost sight of them before they breached out of the water while on hot pursuit of a dolphin.

Exactly the same thing happened this time. The adult female breached completely out of the water, knocking a dolphin into the air. This was followed by 2 more three quarter breaches after the dolphin. It was a very tense situation but we were amazed to witness the dolphin escape as it swam for the rocks on the shore of Glencairn. I saw that a number of cars had stopped on the road and they would have also seen this phenomenal event.

The killer whales could not have felt comfortable in the shallows so they left the single dolphin and casually proceeded after the mass of the mega pod.

After having a very good look at the Killer whale pod we were tremendously excited to note that this was the exact same pod we saw in April last year. It consisted of 2 adult females. The most conspicuous of them has almost like a “hump-back” deformity and the other female has a distinct nick out of her dorsal fin. As we noted last year, these two were the huntresses and the 2 juveniles hang in the background. There were 3 juveniles last year so either there was part of the pod elsewhere or this one just did not make it through the year.

We moved with the Dolphins, followed closely by the Killer whales for 2 hours. There was a second unsuccessful attempt underwater and at that point the game was over for a little while.

On the days following this we encountered the dolphins and although we did observe them to be agitated, there was no sign of the killer whales. 

3 days later............on the way to Seal Island Chris spotted the dolphins again and we motored closer. Usually when several hundred meters from the dolphins they turn and come racing towards us to bow ride and engage the free ride that the boats bow wave gives them. There was none of this and Chris moved away from the school as they clearly did not want to interact. We sat and watched them go past us and Chris suggested we wait a few minutes as the dolphins were not happy about something. For 5 minutes we waited but could not see anything so continued onto seal Island.

We then spent a wonderful sun soaked morning at Seal Island with 9 sharks coming up to the boat. We were just thinking of heading back to Simonstown when we saw the school of dolphin about 2 kilometers away moving very quickly.

Suddenly as one the dolphins exploded through the water. We knew this to be only one thing…a few moments later we sighted a killer whale breach out of the water 3 times, obviously hunting a dolphin.

Lucky for us this was close to the Island so we raced over. On arrival it was apparent this was the same pod from 3 days ago and this time they had been successful in the hunt. The four killer whales really took their time in consuming the carcass. It was interesting to note that all the feeding took place underwater rather than on the surface. There were about a dozen seals in this feeding area and they would follow the killer whales as they fed underwater. As I am sure you know Killer whales in other areas in the world feed on seals. It seems like these killer whales have no interest in them at all and seem to be “dolphin specialists”. The same interaction with the seals was noted in the 2009 sighting. The seals seemed to be aware that they were in no danger. Don’t ask me how they would know this…the intuition that nature often shows us is something that I would love to know more about.

The feeding took about 20-30 minutes and then the adults lead a very definite departure from the area. After we followed them we were able to gently cruise alongside them. To our great excitement the female with the humped back began bow riding the boat. It was incredible to have this huge animal right alongside and to hear the great breathes she would take each time she would surface.

She had also done this a few days earlier and whilst the other pod members momentarily joined her they for the most part moved on their chosen path away from us and we did not approach them. We have heard that it is uncommon for killer whales to bow ride so not only were we extremely lucky to experience this but, and again this comes down to observing strong character in the animals we come across, it was only the hump back female who did this. And yes, you guessed it, it was only her who did this last year too!

As we moved across False Bay it was very apparent that the killer whales had a definite destination in mind. Chris kept asking Poenas to try spot the dolphins from the roof of the boat but even though it was a flat calm perfect day he could not find them. With Poenas’s amazing eyes he can see dolphins from a good few miles away 

( we think he is part gannet) We thought this would be the obvious target for the Killer whales.

Sure enough after about nine miles of tracking with the whales we could spot the dolphins about a mile from us with the Killer whales dead on track. Please try to put this in perspective. The killer whales had already eaten one large dolphin and by this time the dolphin school was completely gone from the area and nowhere in sight. There is no doubt in my mind that the killer whales knew exactly where they were in the Bay, even though we could not see them, and headed straight there in order to hunt again.This was a total distance of nearly 11 nautical miles ( 20km).

Once we spotted the dolphins it all happened very quickly. A small group of dolphins had broken from the mega school and the Killer whales were onto them just moments after we spotted them. This time it was just one breach and the dolphin was caught, and this was followed by a slow feed whereby the 4 killer whales shared the dolphin underwater. This time there were nearly 100 young seals following the goings on underwater and a few times the killer whales actually surfaced right next to the seals.

So, I guess there are a number of surprises for me after this encounter. We were completely blown away by how easily the Killer whales were able to find the dolphins again and we were also surprised that they would feed on 2 dolphins in 2 hours. Also, the manner in which they feed really reminded us of wild dogs. These pack animals feed peacefully amongst each other just like we have observed the Killer whales to do. There is no fighting over the meal and it seems that the good of the pod is what is most important.

We do certainly understand what fleeing and highly agitated dolphin behaviour looks like and what is most likely hot on their tail. We have now observed a total of 9 hunts 5 of which have been successful. It is still too early to say that this is becoming a annual event but the killer whales certainly seem to know the layout of the bay and the fact that False Bay is a hot spot for dolphins in April. The fact that we saw a second pod in August 2009 hunting dolphins shows that for the time being False Bay might just be becoming a regular feeding spot for the pods of KW’s. The good thing was that the shark activity did not take a dive this year and it appears that the sharks were unfazed by the KW’s presence unlike at the Farralon Islands.

To see 1000 dolphins being hunted twice by 4 killer whales, have 9 different great whites come up to the boat in 3 hours, watch a natural predation on a seal, observe 60 000 seals and multiple sea bird species incl penguins and see a few Brydes whales all in one morning, WOW I don’t think there are too many places that have that and we all felt very privileged!  

 

Pelagic Shark Trips

In between the crazy sightings of Killer whales and very good Great white shark trips to Seal Island we did another 5 Pelagic shark trips this April.

All trips were fantastic. The weather was mostly good and the sharks were great on all 5 trips. The whole season we have averaged 10 to 20 blue sharks per trip and this month we had between 2 and 3 mako sharks per trip. Every year we have refined our techniques of finding these sharks and by keeping data on each trip and also experimenting it appears that we seem to now have a good recipe.

In May we have 2 more trips planned so we really hope the weather holds for us as these will be the last of the season until this coming November.

 

New Trips Launched with Apex

Every year we get asked by so many guests as to what we recommend they go and see as their next wildlife adventure. As such we have decided to put together two very different trips that we feel are very special and really will tick a couple of boxes on the bucket list.

The first of which is to see one of the world’s most spectacular game fish The fastest fish in the ocean , the Sailfish. If the sailfish on their own were not good enough this is an opportunity to see groups of sailfish feeding on bait balls, just like Planet Earth!

After seeing it for ourselves this past March we can vouch for the fact that it is truly special.  

Apex will be hosting this Sailfish Trip in Mexico in March 2011.

Places are very limited so please be sure to contact us ASAP if you are interested in doing this amazing experience.

If a variety of sharks in a beautiful setting with only 6 other guests joining you sounds good then we would love you to join us on our personalised shark expedition special for 2011.  Back by popular demand we are hosting “Sharks of Southern Africa” in February 2011. This 10 day trip focuses on diving with at least 10 different species of sharks and it is a fantastic expedition for those wanting to see a great variety of species with like minded people in a laid back and rustic environment.

All info can be found here.

Contact us for further info!

As we approach May we are getting into the height of the Great white season. I will be sure to keep you updated in next month’s news. You can also keep up with our news and sightings on our Facebook page, “Apex Shark Expeditions”.

 

Until then,

 

Best wishes

Monique Fallows

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