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Shark Bytes

February & March 2011 Shark Bytes

written by Monique Fallows

Posted on Thursday, 31 March 2011

Try as I might this is the first opportunity to sit down and what about our adventures since we returned home from India. So, sorry for the late news but now it’s time for a double dose!

In this newsletter you can read our trip report from Sharks of Southern Africa, our Snow Leopard Expedition in India and finally an update on the Great white shark activity at Seal Island.

 

Sharks of Southern Africa

Every couple of years Chris & I host a special expedition which focuses on finding and diving with as many different shark species that we can find in the Southern Cape. Most people associate Great white sharks with South Africa but there is such a variety of other sharks, both big and small. This trip is aimed towards the true shark and nature lover.

We started off by taking a 4 hour drive from Cape Town to spend the first 5 days with our long-time friends Tim & Hilary. In this area in the Southern Cape our aim was to dive with smooth and scalloped hammerhead pups, large ragged tooth sharks, bronze whaler or copper sharks and a variety of small cat shark species.

However, Mother Nature sometimes has her own plans! We arrived to gale-force winds that followed us all the way up from Cape Town and this beast continued to blow for the first 3 days of our trip. It was disappointing but our group was very understanding and we made the most of what we could do.

On the first day we did something that Chris & I have wanted to do for years now. There is a commercial fishing harbour a couple hours away that has some resident short tailed devil rays in very shallow water. On our arrival Poenas immediately spotted the first very large black shape as it glided past the harbour wall. Then very quickly a second ray was spotted. This ray can get to 2 meters wide and can weigh up to 200 kgs.

The water was unfortunately pea soup green and there was no way we could snorkel with the rays. The next best option was to stand in the shallows and interact with the rays in this way.

We all stood on a long line, with me on the outside. Almost immediately an extremely large ray approached me. I had no idea what it was going to do and the next minute it had bumped into my hip, giving me one great fright. The restaurant on the wharf feeds the rays every day and thus they are quite happy to ask anyone who is around for a snack.

Once we caught on to what was happening we were all competing for that end spot so that that we could have a close encounter with the rays. It was so much fun and every time a ray would try nibble on someone we were rewarded with some very girly laughs and shouts!

During the bad weather we also visited a nature reserve close by where we could snorkel in the rock pools at low tide. Due to the high winds the conditions were pretty miserable but we did manage to see our first 2 species of shark…the seldom seen leopard cat shark and then a striped pyjama cat shark.

When we finally got to sea on the fourth day Mother Nature had another cruel realisation for us. We have visited this spot so many times over the last 10 years and every time has yielded amazing shark sightings. We choose this time of the year as the water temp is normally 20 to 23 degrees C and the hammerheads, ragged tooth’s and bronze whalers are normally found here in great numbers.

To our absolute shock and horror we got out to sea to find that the water temperature was a freezing 10 degrees C.

The wind was obviously a concern for Chris & I but we never in a million years thought we would find freezing water and no sharks! Forced into being experimental we worked our way quite a bit further out and found water that was a little warmer, 14C. With not too many options left we decided to try our luck and after about 20 minutes of having a bait in the water we got our first tiny smooth hammerhead up to the boat. We could only stay further out to sea for about an hour and a half as the sea was still very choppy from the gale force winds. Before being forced to move closer inshore we did have about 5 hammerheads at the boat. It was great to see them but the cold water really affected their behaviour and they did not interact with us for too long.

Once we moved closer inshore, and back to the 10C water we did not find any hammerheads but a highlight was to have a large ragged tooth shark come up to the surface to take a large gulp of air, not something that is seen too often.

On the following day we headed out into very flat water with our fingers mightily crossed that warmer water had pushed in.

It was not to be…we decided to take a boat cruise into the marine reserve and into an area we not been to before. Sea conditions often make this piece of coastline out of bounds but the beautiful conditions meant we could navigate through. It was a spectacular drive along this deserted area and as we approached a very long piece of beach Chris and Poenas spotted a small school of dolphin. As we got closer we found them to be about 20 large bottle-nose dolphin. We had an awesome encounter just from the boat as the dolphin knifed through the perfect glassy water, and then would surf and jump though the breaking waves. It was a very special experience and just goes to show that you can still have a great time if you make the most of what Mother Nature presents to you.

We did eventually anchor on a piece of reef. As we drove over the reef system we could see a number of ragged tooth sharks sitting down below. Yes, they were actually sitting and not moving at all. We tried really hard but we could not get them up to the boat, is was as though all the sharks were pretty much frozen with the cold water temp and their only interest was to hunker down and conserve energy.

So, we headed back to Cape Town for the next part of the trip. Even though we did not have great success with what we had been looking for we certainly made the most of what was there and had a great many laughs in between.

We have seen a great variety of sizes ranging from 2.8 meters

Cape Town

Once we got to Cape Town our luck did a complete 360 degree turn. The weather forecast for the week was for great conditions, and we were to have the best Pelagic trips of the season so far.

On our first trip we headed about 20 miles of Cape Point in glassy and perfect sea conditions. I was secretly dreading finding freezing water again (!) but we did find the Agulhas Current with its blue and warm water. After only about 10minutes of waiting we had our first blue shark up at the boat. By the end of the day we had no less than 20 blue sharks and everyone one board had numerous dives throughout the day. Another highlight was extremely close encounters with the Shy Albatross. Thankfully they did not live up to their name and we had them sitting all around the boat and the cage, making for some great photographic opportunities.

We even had a magnificent sighting of a Wandering Albatross. This bird has the largest wing span in the world (3.6 meters) and is absolutely spectacular. This is only the fifth time I have seen one, so it was exciting!

We had great weather conditions again on the second day and travelled to roughly the same area as the day before. Although only 18 hours apart this trip was completely different.  As we approached the area we spotted a number mako sharks breaching out of the water. We do not see this very often so it bode well for the trip. Again, our wait time was very short and we had 3 mako sharks almost immediately up to the boat.  This is very rare and it was superb being able to watch the interactions between the sharks. Mako’s, like Great white sharks, do not enjoy company so it was a great opportunity to see the potential speed of this super-fast shark.

We ended up with 7 mako sharks during the day (the most in a couple of years) and a couple of blue sharks. Conditions were perfect and water vis great so everyone got some great images too.

 

Great White Sharks

On the following day we headed to Seal Island to look for Great white sharks. Being early February the chances were not high of seeing them at Seal Island but our good luck was following us. Within 30 minutes of being on anchor we had a large 3.7 meter female arrive at the boat. She stayed around for a while so we all got excellent views of her. We also amazingly had another 4 great whites up at the boat so it was another fantastic shark day.

On our way back to Simonstown we came across a large school of about 500 common dolphin. It was another great interaction with our second dolphin species of the trip.

 

We had good weather for the last 2 days of the trip so we were able to finish up with a last Pelagic Shark trip and a seven gill cow shark dive.

On the last pelagic trip we had many blue sharks (up to 20 at least) and a quick visit from a mako shark. Everyone had multiple dives again so it was fantastic to make the most of our last opportunity of being out in the deep.

 

Seven Gill Cow Sharks

The Sevengill cow shark dive in False Bay is fast becoming a world class shark diving spot and provides an amazing opportunity to dive with seven gills in shallow water. Chris & I were flying out to India that afternoon so Karyn dived with our group.

They had a great dive with 6 different cow sharks and at least 5 spotted gully sharks, a great way to round of the trip!

 

Time Wrap Up

So, we may have started off with a little bad luck but we all remained positive throughout and had some phenomenal shark encounters once we got to Cape Town.

We ended up with 10 different shark species plus the short tailed devil rays; 2 species of dolphin and brydes whales.

We also had so much fun and want to thank our trip participants for being so enthusiastic and having such a blast with us!

 

Snow Leopard Expedition, India

If you had read January Shark Bytes you will have known that Chris & I would be visiting The Himalaya’s in India on an expedition to find a snow leopard. It was an amazing trip, with lots to write about. I have blogged about the whole expedition but below is an excerpt from our sighting.

 

The Sighting

The Snow Leopard is sometimes called The Grey Ghost, and for very good reason. It is a rare animal found in extreme places and is as allusive as they come. Its colouring means it is completely camouflaged in its environment and can easily be missed.

Jonathan came equipped with 2 top of the range Swarovski scopes and we all had the best of binoculars. Our MO was to climb the high slopes and then spend the hours waiting and watching the adjacent slopes and ridges with the scopes and binoculars. The snow leopard was going to be tough to see and our best chance was to sight it when it was on the move or to watch for signs from the blue sheep.

We did not have a great idea of what we were doing on the first morning (or at least I did not!) and we were still acclimatising to the altitude and dry air.

At about 1.30pm we made our way back to camp, about 800 meters away after spending the morning in the Tarbung Valley. Chita and Sonam (our cook!) stayed at Tarbung for one more sortie. There are no cell phones here or even radios so the plan was to shout down the valley if anything was found.

We had been back in camp for 10 minutes when faint shouting could be heard. Giovanna was the first person to hear the shouts and on confirmation the 2 of us looked at each other and then just starting running down the valley. Our whole team started operating on pure adrenalin as we ran and stumbled down the valley to the source of the shouting. I knew that this could simply be our only chance and no matter how much my chest and legs were burning I had to keep moving, and move as hard and fast as possible.

Jonathan reached the foot of the Tarbung Valley first and located Sonam who was frantically waving at him to get up the scree slope. There was some confusion as to where we had to get too. Chita had stopped shouting as he was afraid he would scare the already nervous cat over the ridge and out of sight.

Chris & I finally realised where we had to get to, straight up a 30 degree scree slope of very loose shale… a tough ask for the inexperienced and Chris was carrying very heavy camera gear.

In the confusion and excitement our team all went different routes.

Jonathan got to the spot first. He had put so much effort into finding this animal that we are so thrilled that he got the first sighting. After a very quick look he started very urgently shouting at John to move it.

I could tell from the urgency in his voice that the cat was close to moving out of sight and I felt my level of desperation increase dramatically. Then, the shouting stopped and urgent hand waving started and I really thought it was over.

Jonathan could see through the scope that the snow leopard could hear him and was not happy. It looked directly at him and was on the point of just nipping over the ridge and out of sight.

At this point I thought it was over, but as John got there he got a great view and then both he and Jonathan were urging us up. We got to a scope lower down the scree slope, but as it was not of a very high quality we could not see a damn thing through it. We looked up and had another 50 meters to climb up the slope to Jonathan and John. Chris got there first and got his look. I felt so desperate as I pushed myself to climb higher.

Eventually I got there and my first moments of the sight of this most amazing of all cats so overwhelming. It think that coupled with the relief that I had actually made it and then the privilege of seeing such a special animal that is so rarely seen was just too much for me. I am not ashamed to admit that a couple of heavy sobs came out of me as the emotion just welled up inside.

The snow leopard was on the ridge about 800 meters away from us. The sun was behind him so he was magnificently back light and at times we could clearly see his hot breathe as it vaporized in the freezing air.

The famously unique long tail curled behind him as he reached his spraying rock and then continued along the ridge. This was a large male and we got a fantastic look at how heavy bodied and thick coated they are.

At one point we could clearly see him almost chest deep in the snow as he navigated to the very top of the ridge. This is a powerful and yet agile animal that makes his home here in the Himalayas.

As he continued along the ridge he sighted some blue sheep that were a little higher up than him. Immediately he adopted the typical cat crouch that we have often seen his African cousins do. This was short-lived as the blue sheep were on to him right away. As the cat relaxed he continued on his slow path and for an hour and 15 minutes we were able to view him from afar before he finally dipped over the ridge into the valley on the other side and out of our view. His departure left us wondering if what we had just seen was really real…

Absolutely everything went right for this moment.

Firstly, we were not even supposed to be here as we had planned to spend this day acclimatising in Leh. Most sightings of snow leopard are very brief, but this one was long enough for everyone in our team, and the camp staff, to get a great view of him.

When Chita had initially found him he was a mere 100 meters away and the cat almost spooked without anyone getting a view. So, we are so very lucky to have had this experience.

This is one of my most emotional moments in all my wildlife encounters. I realise how privileged we were to see this animal. There are perhaps no more than 500 Westerns that have ever seen a snow leopard alive and we were able to share the sighting with people who likewise love nature and could grasp how amazing this was!

 

Great White Sharks, Seal Island

Every season at Seal Island is different. This year we have had a great surprise with the sharks making an early return to Seal Island. We think that great white shark movement depends mostly on what they are feeding on. In the summer months most of the shark activity is close to shore where they feed on a diet of other species of shark (smooth hound and soupfin sharks) as well as migratory fish species such as Yellowtail, Kob, Elf etc. All these species move into False Bay with warm water currents. During this time we do not run white shark trips, simply because there is little to no activity at Seal Island. As soon as the seasons change and the migratory fish and sharks leave False Bay the Great whites move to Seal Island where they predominantly feed on young of the year Cape fur seals. This normally happens around early to mid-April each year.

In 2011 we have been seeing sharks at the Island since early February which is fantastic news for us! I hope I don’t jinx myself now, but we have seen Great whites on all trips since the middle of Feb.

Obviously some trips have been better than others but we should not lose sight of the fact that Great whites are extremely rare and any way to see one is special. Initially the sightings around the boat have been quick but as we approach the end of March activity is definitely starting to pick up.

We have even had a couple of very interactive sharks that we have not seen before. One is a small male that has more than half of his left pectoral fin missing and then another smallish male that has 2 very bold white markings on both sides of his dorsal fin. We are all going to be on the look out for their return. They are awesome individuals and will be easy to identify again.

We have seen a great variety of sizes ranging from 2.8 meters to a fair number of large sharks of between 3.7 and 4 meters.

Since we have been at the Island in early Feb there have been almost daily scavenges. The sharks seem to be waiting on the leeward side of the Island where they are picking up on dead or sick seals that wash off at high tide. These carcasses are not as good a meal as a healthy seal but they use very little energy compared to what is used in a full blown hunting event. But, as we approached the end of March we have noted a couple predatory events on healthy seals so we are always keeping shark eyes on what is happening around us.

An added bonus to our white shark trips were a number of great encounters with common dolphin in False Bay. False Bay is alive with baitfish which is obviously attracting the dolphin. The schools we have been seeing range from as many as 200 to 1500 strong.

 

We are all excited heading in April. I would assume white shark activity will continue to pick up and we have a number of Pelagics planned. And with all the common dolphin in False Bay we hold a secret hope that the Orca’s from the last 2 years will put in an appearance.

 

Until then,

Best wishes

Monique Fallows

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