Posted on Wednesday, 10 August 2016
It is with a great sense of relief that I can sit down and prepare to write about a full month of shark viewing at Seal Island!
July has been a very exciting month in False Bay with the predation activity kicking off; the presence of some truly huge animals and a famous regular shark returns to Seal Island …
Huge Female Great White Sharks at Seal Island
The beginning of July was a little quiet however we were still seeing sharks around the boat that were interactive enough to give all our guests good surface viewing and good shark cage diving.
The tempo definitely increased from about the 10th onwards with the arrival of a handful of extremely impressive and massive female sharks.
I remember the first day of these large sharks very clearly…we called this day “Monster Sunday” where we recorded seeing 4 sharks between 4.3 meters to 5 meters around the boat. During the 2014 and 2015 seasons we didn’t see any particularly big sharks so it was extremely exciting to suddenly be surrounded by these mammoth predators.
We normally find that the very big animals are not particularly interactive around the boat but all 4 of these sharks were extremely active. You know it’s a red letter day when a 5 meter female is making its presence and dominance known to the other giants that want to come in and look at the baits!
Big sharks look very different to the sharks we are used to seeing, and bear in mind that the sharks that frequent Seal Island are on average larger than the sharks seen in Mossel Bay and Gansbaai.
Once the sharks hit the 4.5 meter mark their “neck” area, or rather the area just below their jaw, enlarges very noticeably and they begin to look like rotund wine vats swimming around.
I can’t think of a more impressive animal on the planet! Knowing how special and rare it is too see sharks of this size I think our excitement levels far exceeded that of our guests, and that’s saying something as the guests were all going crazy too!
The big sharks don’t normally stay around Seal Island for any good length of time but we were recording them over a period of about two weeks. We saw the 5 meter female around our boat on about 8 trips, and also had other sightings of the big sharks over that period.
We also observed them hunting most mornings and although we did not see too many aerial breaches we did see many spectacular lunges and half breaches. Most of the times these big sharks were successful in the hunt; interesting indeed and almost certainly says how much experience plays a key role when it comes to hunting seals.
See sequence shot below.
A Predatory Event to Remember
This leads me to share a predation event that has left a huge impression on me.
We headed out to Seal Island in a strong South Easterly wind. (We had long stay guests on board who were used to rough seas). The South Easter brings about the most uncomfortable seas in False Bay and is not normally that conducive for seeing intense predatory events. On this particular morning we only saw one event but it certainly was memorable.
The sea was uncomfortably churned up on top of a running swell but from about 500 meters away we caught the spray from the characteristic initial strike on a seal. Due to the rough sea it took us a while to get to the event but even en route the shark chasing the seal was obvious.
Huge plumes of water were being pushed around and spray was flying everywhere.
On arrival we saw it was one of the big girls hunting. This particular shark was about 4.8 meters in length and she meant business.
The best way to describe her in action was that she totally commanded the hunt. There were no wasteful breaches or lunges involved and her determination to succeed was raw to witness.
She ploughed through the water, creating huge bow waves, as she pursued the agile seal. The pure power and strength that was on display was phenomenal.
At one point I saw her huge jaw open wide in front of the seal, through the crest of a wave. She had missed but there was still no giving up. She continued her relentless pursuit until finally the seal made a grave error by jumping the wrong way and the deadly game was over.
It was a difficult event to photograph but wow, to witness… I will never forget it.
Predation Events Kick Off at Seal Island
Each year we host a 10 day Predation Specialty Expedition that focuses on observing and photographing the unique and intense Great White shark vs Cape Fur seal predatory events at Seal Island. This is our flagship expedition that both Chris and I host as we, like our regular guests, don’t want to miss a day at Seal Island at this time of the year. We try to time the expedition over what is historically our busiest period for seeing this behaviour and when we look back at the records it is incredible just how often this time period truly delivers something amazing. This is the value of us painstakingly keeping detailed records of every predatory event we have witnessed over the past 20 years.
Leading up to this expedition we were seeing hunting events most mornings but with only a few days before the start of the trip the hunting activity turned up a notch and suddenly 12 to 15 events per morning become the norm. When typing 12-15 events one becomes blasé, but think about it. If you put this into perspective and equate it to terrestrial terms, we can go weeks without seeing a single active hunt in the bush, where both predator and prey are visible. In our situation we are talking about an unseen marine super predator and we are still able to see 12-15 events in a single day. This is what makes Seal Island truly a remarkable natural history venue.
The Predation Expedition started very successfully with 16 events on the first morning and activity began to build from there. In the middle to end of the trip we had four unbelievable days that have been the best of the season so far.
We recorded 17, 19, 22 and 23 events over this four day period. Not only were the numbers high but the events spectacularly awesome. We seemed to pick the right seals to watch and the result was seeing and photographing incredible events.
I always stress that we have respect for both the sharks and the seals and that we are merely there observing what happens in nature; I feel it’s important to mention this as I write above “pick the right seals to watch”. I feel extremely sensitive to both predator and prey and understand the life and death battle each face on a daily basis. I always do my best to pass these impressions onto our guests and feel it’s important to do so.
All you need is Kelp!
An interesting side bar of information and something we observed one morning over the Predation Expedition is how the presence of kelp had a big impact on hunting activity.
There had been a fair amount of wind and swell the day before and as a result a lot of kelp strands had drifted into the waters around Seal Island, in particular in the high impact zone.
There were a lot of seals returning from fishing that morning but no predatory events.
The reason was quite simple… the seals were using the kelp as a unique protection device against the sharks! Although a piece of kelp may seem pretty insignificant it does provide a “barrier” of protection for the seals. The sharks don’t seem to want to go through it or rush up towards a seal that is hiding behind it. Using the kelp most of the seals sneaked back to the Island going from kelp to kelp. Not only was it interesting to see how much of an effect the kelp had, but also that the seals were intelligent enough to use it.
It was not our most active day but was certainly a great piece of behaviour and natural history to observe and take note of.
Shy Guy Returns
I am perhaps saving the best news for last, and that is a record 13th season return of “Shy Guy” to Seal Island. I’m sure many of you will remember that Shy Guy is true to his name. He has a damaged tail fin that makes him easy to recognize and over the years of the probably 60 plus times we have seen him, all but one occasion have been at hunting events and not around our boat. In other words, in 13 years of seeing him at Seal Island he has only ever come up to the boat once. We will see him hunting in the morning, and know he is present, but it seems he just has no interest at all in the boats (or most likely the baits). He is a great example to anyone who thinks that the moment you put a bait into the water sharks become conditioned to it.
We did not see him in 2015 so were over the moon to see him again this season.
We observed him on three hunts over a week-long period and always in the same quadrant of the Island. In fact the same quadrant where we always see him! It is extremely rewarding to keep detailed data at Seal Island, especially in a case like this. Does Shy Guy perhaps have a very specific preferred hunting area around the Island?
A great idea to ponder over…
Aside from very good shark activity False Bay is alive with activity at the moment.
We have been seeing big schools of common dolphins on a fairly frequent basis. There is a lot of anchovy around and this is obviously keeping the dolphins in the Bay along with good numbers of Brydes whales and Cape gannets.
The Southern Right Whales have also recently arrived on their annual migration from Antarctica and it has been great to see these gentle giants back in False Bay.
There are also some humpback whales around so wildlife abounds!
Looking forward to sharing our news with you all next month.
To read our last three Shark Bytes click on the link below:
June 2016 Shark Bytes
May 2016 Shark Bytes
April 2016 Shark Bytes