Posted on Tuesday, 31 January 2006
It comes as no surprise to me that January has produced yet another month of frustratingly high winds! That said we have definitely made the most of any opportunity of being out at sea and have a number of amazing encounters.
During this time of year Chris & I spend a fair amount of time working with the local beach seine net fishermen. We basically spend time down at the beach with them so that if they do catch any sharks or rays we are able to tag and release these animals. This summer season has been particularly bad for these fishermen and they have hardly made any worthy catches. Likewise we have only had the opportunity of releasing 3 bronze whaler sharks. They were all large animals (2,5 meters, 8ft) and were in the same net together so they were quite a handful as they thrashed around on the beach.
With this type of fishing there are a number of restrictions placed on this group of fishermen. A type of fish that they have the opportunity of catching over the summer season is Yellowtail. Very rarely these fish swim along Muizenberg beach. In a particular area of the beach the fishermen are only able to catch the yellowtail, but no other fish species. They watch from the mountain and when a shoal of fish is spotted the fishermen below are guided to the shoal so that they can drop their net around the shoal. Up on the mountain the spotters saw a large black patch resembling yellowtail. The net was thrown around this patch and the fishermen then slowly proceeded to pull their catch in.
I am definitely not one to get excited about a whole lot of fish being pulled onto a beach but I know how much these fishermen struggle, and after a particularly bad season they all thought that this was going to be their big pay day. There was an absolute frenzy on the beach, and many members of the public who were at the beach were also eagerly waiting the haul.
As the bag of the net approached the shallows it became evident that the worst possible situation had occurred. Instead of it being a shoal of Yellowtail a large shoal of breeding Kabeljou had been netted. There must have been about 80 fish, all in the 10 to 15 kg range. These days it is extremely rare to see such large numbers of this size fish, and even more rare to have been able to spot the shoal from the mountain. Because they had caught this fish in a closed area all these fish now had to be released. Chris has tagged nearly 200 of these fish over the years and has never had a re-capture indicating that they do not recover well after being caught. A lot of the fish had already died in the net so this would have to be sold with the proceeds going to Government Fisheries. The others were released but many of them ended belly up in the water. We were all trying to “swim” the fish in order to revive them but it is highly unlikely that they will survive. For days after this I just felt sick as to what had happened. A shoal like this is so valuable to the species and the treknet fishermen were crushed due to loss of income as well.
Back to sharks…we were lucky enough to spend a weekend where in the summer time there seems to be a nursery area for smooth hammerhead sharks. We tried to time this visit with good weather and on the first morning out we were treated to flat calm seas! As we approached the point where we sometimes see them we found ourselves surrounded by hammerhead pups. A lot of their time is spent cruising on the surface and if you can find the right area for them you can’t miss them. Looking around it seemed like there must have been 100 plus pups and one could just see little dorsal and tail fins breaking the surface. Sometimes if they unknowingly got to close to our boat they would get such a fright and dart off in the opposite direction with their little hammers moving from side to side.
We put out a small tuna bait to attract them to the boat and although not all of them were interested in visiting we had a few individuals that really stuck around giving us a great show. The water was unfortunately too dirty to dive so we don’t have any photographs, but we were still very excited just to see them again. It was really encouraging to see so many pups as this must surely indicate that there is a fairly good adult population.
As the bag of the net approached the shallows it became evident that the worst possible situation had occurred. Instead of it being a shoal of Yellowtail a large shoal of breeding Kabeljou had been netted. There must have been about 80 fish, all in the 10
The following morning the weather turned nasty and although we were still able to get out we weren’t able to sit comfortably where we were the day previously. There were no hammerheads in sight but we put a bait in the water anyway in the hope that they would find us. After about 30 minutes we had a fairly large ragged-tooth shark shoot up to the bait. We were really hoping that we would see one, but when she did arrive it happened so quickly that I didn’t get a really good look. Fortunately she did make a few more passes and we think that a second ragged-tooth also came and gave us a look. They were both quite skittish so we didn’t try and get in the water as we doubted that they would stay around. Still very exciting though to have the opportunity of seeing a raggie on the surface!
The pelagic trips have been good and bad. We have had a couple of misses when the weather turned foul and then actually missed completely on a calm weather day. This does not happen very often so we were a little surprised!
Towards the end of the month we had two exceptional trips.
The weather was fantastic and on the first trip we waited no longer than 15 minutes for a mako shark to arrive. It did not stay for very long and by the time I was into a wetsuit etc and in the water the mako had departed and had been replaced by a yellowfin tuna. These are such magnificent fish I can never get enough of seeing them underwater. While I was admiring the fish I could see that something had given it a fright quite deep below us. I warned the guest that was diving with me and within a minute the mako shark had returned. The mako was very excited, constantly bumping me, and going for my yellow fins. We always dive with flat-ended plastic poles in case we need to fend the sharks with and I was very glad that I had my pole with me! I would fend the mako off and within a few seconds it would be back again. Small sharks often behave in this way, and although I felt completely comfortable it was an exhilarating dive.
Not long after the mako left us a good size blue shark turned up along with a cape fur seal. The blue shark was so relaxed that on a number of occasions I just gently fended her off with my hand and did not even have to use the pole. The seal was fantastic as well. It would swim close to the blue shark and then come and have a look at me. It was just spellbinding to watch how beautifully this animal is capable of moving in the water. To top the dive off all the encounters were in excellent visibility and the water the colour of a rich blue.
The following trip was also outstanding. We had a fairly long wait for the first shark which happened to be a mako again. Our guests were visiting Cape Town with the hope of glimpsing a mako so they were extremely excited when it arrived. The divers quickly suited up and after they had been in a few moments a second mako arrived. The two sharks stayed around the boat together long enough for all the divers to get close views of both sharks. This does not happen very often and added to the fact that the sharks stayed together gave a wonderful opportunity to see how two mako’s reacted to one another. Like a great white shark, the mako is a loner and is not very happy to be in close proximity of each other. One shark was definitely more dominant over the other and so the other usually stayed a few meters below the surface. When they came too close together they would speed off in different directions. The Mako is supposed to be one of the fasted fish in the sea. From observing these two sharks together we could see how quickly they could pick up the pace. Just a few swipes of the tail and already tremendous speed was generated.
As the day wore on we drifted into green water. We know from catch statistics that a lot of sharks are caught in the greener water, probably due to the abundance of bait fish that moves here. For our diving trips we of course prefer to wait in the blue water for overall enjoyment as well as safety.
As we drifted into the green water we started to pick up new sharks and by the end of the day we had seen 5 different mako’s and 4 blue sharks. The exciting part was yet to come. The divers were just getting out of the water when a large dark shape cruised towards our boat. It turned out to be a 2,8 meter smooth hammerhead. We have only seen hammerheads on three other trips in the last 6 years and on all occasions they have had a couple of looks at the bait and left. This shark stayed with us for 50 minutes, constantly going for the bait. The shark was in great condition and a number of times we got very close views at its strange hammer. A hammerhead shark must be one of the freakiest animals on this planet! Funny as it may look the hammer is actually very advanced and is capable of performing functions that most other sharks can’t. For instance it uses its hammer to pin down prey as well as having the added advantage of a larger surface area for it’s array of very sophisticated sensory equipment with which it can track its prey down.
I am sure that it will be a while until we shall have the pleasure of such an encounter so we really made the most of enjoying the presence of this remarkable shark.
Some of you may have noticed that we have had great trouble with our website being down for the last 6 weeks. All the hosting problems are sorted out now and I am very relieved to say that everything is in working order again.
We still have a special going on posters and on “Photo’s of the Month” we have some mako images. We hope you enjoy and I look forward to sharing February’s adventures with you next month.