Posted on Friday, 31 July 2009
Dear Shark Lovers
Greetings from a fantastic month of sharking at Seal Island!
We started the month with literally an explosion of shark activity and the first half of the month was filled with all behaviour. Daily natural predations, good breaches on the decoy and then really busy activity of sharks around the boat seeing between 8 and 15 sharks per trip in the early to mid part of the month.
For almost all guests that visit Seal Island with us their main hope and expectation is to see a breaching Great white shark. This is undoubtedly one of the most spectacular sights in all of nature…an almost one ton animal being able to launch itself completely clear of the water. But as this is hunting behaviour it only forms a small part of what the Great white shark is all about. My favourite way to see the sharks is on a glassy calm day with a shark just gently cruising around the boat. On these days, with the sun shining giving great visibility, I believe one is able to make a very special connection with the sharks and become completely taken with these magnificent creatures. On these good days it is possible to take in all their detail and also start to learn the character of each animal.
We had many of these great weather days in July and of course made the most of each shark sighting.
A Special Shark Encounter
One of the highlights of the month was an encounter with a 3.4 meter male that we named “Marshmallow”. On one of these clam days we had waited a while for the first visitor up to the boat and then a short while later Marshmallow arrived. I have often spoken about “Rasta”, a female shark we saw for 8 years and what made her so special and endearing was her relaxed manner. It has been a long while since we have seen a shark display similar behaviour to her. Well, Marshmallow was just incredible. He would swim ever so slowly around the boat and in order to get a closer view he would on multiple occasions put his head out of the water, often very close to the boat, to have a look at us. He was also intently interested in the cage and spent most of his time grabbing onto anything he could of it, and literally hanging off the side of the cage. The guests in the cage must have been completely exhausted after their dives as every few moments we would yell at them to hold their breath and go down to have a look at him! And as for Marshmallow…he would just keep going around and around and around again looking at the cage. I have to say that it has been many years since we had an encounter like this one…
But this story does have a sad side to it I’m afraid. Upon returning home one of our very loyal guests who visits Seal Island every year had a closer inspection of his images of Marshmallow and has discovered that this shark has a very badly damaged left eye. When he was around our boat we could see that he had in the past had a bad encounter with a boat and had scarring on his face but we did not realise that his eye has actually been damaged. Poor vision is a major problem for a shark, not only causing difficulty when hunting but it can also cause it to be a lot more vulnerable to its own kind. We do feel now that the crazy behaviour exhibited by this shark could well have to do with its poor eye sight.
This season, more than ever, we have seen sharks with bad injuries as a result of boat interaction. Although Great white sharks are the Apex Predator it is still a vulnerable animal and as operators Chris & I feel the full responsibility of being privileged to work with them and we know that when we are out there we need to respect these great sharks at all times.
We did see Marshmallow for about a 10 day period and we are hoping that he managed to successfully hunt in order to aid his recovery.
Once again we have had the fascinating experience of seeing a large number of natural breaches. These are normally spectacular breaches for no apparent reason. They often happen very close to the boat and Chris thinks they may either be trying to have a better look at us or are trying to communicate something. My feeling is that as these breaches often happen when we have a lot of activity around the boat this may be some sort of social reaction of sharks being too close to one another.
I can still clearly see a number of the breaches in my mind. For these events you just have to be looking in the right spot at the right time. Very often we will hear someone shout out in amazement and we will know that we have missed something pretty spectacular. They only breach once, so lucky for those that see it.
Now the bad thing is as that these natural breaches tend to happen close to the boat there is a real possibility of a shark landing in the boat with us. This would probably be a fatal event for the shark and a good possibility of terrible injuries for us on board. On one of our trips in July a 4 meter male did a full breach a meter from our boat and landed against the side of it. Very fortunately, the shark landed back in the water but it gave us all a big scare. We have had a guest spend the whole month with us and he was the one who was eye-ball to eye-ball with the shark…I did not see him spending too much time sitting on the gunnels of the boat after that!
As we do not know the reason for this kind of breaching and because there is no warning, there I not much we can do about preventing this.
My Crazy Husband
I do not know any one who is more passionate about sharks and nature as Chris. As such he tends to do a few things that are a little crazy in order to have a special and unique experience.
One particularly busy morning we had 12 different sharks around our boat in about 2.5 hours. We also had an afternoon trip booked so we needed to return back to Simonstown to drop off the morning guests and pick up the afternoon guests. Chris got this idea in his head that it may be fun to stay at the Island in the cage until the boat returned back to the Island. He also had no trouble convincing another of our other “annual” Seal Island guests to join him. With a little trepidation from loved ones (!) we left them at the Island for some serious bonding time.
It turned out to be a very interesting experience. In the just over 1 hour period they had 3 great whites come up to the cage, one of which circled them about 10 to 15 times. The also had a Southern Right whale approach fairly close to them which was unique.
Predation & Breaches
We have noted that in general we are seeing less natural predation this season. Having said this we have still had a number of days where we have recorded 25 plus events and many with more than 10 events. The predations have varied from the sharks being deadly accurate with just the initial strike on the seal to a number of protracted events with the shark in continuous pursuit of a seal. The sharks have also had days where they have had almost no success at all. All our notes and observations show that weather conditions seem to greatly affect the success rate. Tough when one’s life could actually depend on the weather…
Most of the attacks take place on single seals and it is not that common to see events of large groups of seals. This July we have seen more events on groups than what is normal even though the poor success rate on groups has remained the same.
Breaches on the decoy were seen on most trips in the early part of the month but after a 2 day bout of bad weather around the 23rd a large part of the activity has tailed off.
This has been true for seeing sharks around the boat as well and after speaking to other operators in Gansbaai they have also seen some slow activity towards the end of the month.
We should normally be seeing activity up to mid September so we really hope that the season is not going to end early.
Seals & Cetaceans
We always try and impart with our guests that even though we are providing a shark experience it is to their benefit to take in the whole environment and eco-system around Seal Island.
This month we have started to sight the first Southern Right whales that have migrated to False Bay from Antarctica. These sightings should start to increase in August and September. We also had one brief sighting of a school of common dolphin.
Two of our highlights of the month were actually of a whale encounter and a couple of seal dives.
On a particularly bumpy and very rainy day we were drifting looking out for predations when a Brydes whale approached our boat. They are normally a shy species of whale but this individual was very curious and circled our boat for about 40 minutes. It would constantly spy-hop a few meters from us and dive to encircle the boat another time. One of the most memorable things about this encounter was just listening to the whale exhale each time it came to the surface. It was pouring with rain but I was quote happy to stand outside to make the most of this special encounter!
A number of days after this we have very calm conditions with virtually no swell. This created a unique opportunity to dive in a sheltered bay around the Island with the seals. This area was full of the young of the year seals who were very curious of the divers and really wanted to interact with them. Testing nips become a little more than that after a while! I could see that for Chris and the guests that did this dive they really could appreciate how special it was to be able to spend time with the seals underwater and I think also created a stronger bond with the Island itself.
Until Next Month
We have a busy month ahead of us so we really hope that sharks will be at the Island as well! To end off I have to say that we have had an amazing group of guest this past month, many are return guests that visit most years but we have also met others for the first time. It has been wonderful to see how excited people are when seeing the sharks for themselves and also how much they have been able to appreciate the experience.
There were a number of good photographic opportunities this month so be sure to check out Photo’s of the Month.