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Shark Bytes

May 2006 Shark Bytes

written by Monique Fallows

Posted on Wednesday, 31 May 2006

Dear Readers

 

May has been a jam packed filled month of sharks, and finally the long summer of an absence of great whites at Seal Island is over.

From the beginning of the month we had sightings on all of our Seal Island trips but by the last 2 weeks of May the sharks had arrived en mass.

I know I explain this every year but for the benefit of new readers it is interesting to note that the white sharks seem to feed on the cape fur seals only during the winter months. We think that this is because the seals may pose a threat to the white sharks. When they are caught they put up a huge fight by biting and scratching the sharks. They are also not the easiest prey item to hunt down and the sharks have to spend a fair amount of energy in their pursuit of the seals.

In the summer months summer migratory fish and shark species feed in False Bay, but as soon as the temperature cools down these species migrate up the east coast of South Africa. With the bay devoid of these prey items the white sharks only have the choice of seals to feed on. Seal Island is home to 60 000 cape fur seals so this makes it an obvious hunting ground for the sharks. We of course are then able to view the intense hunting behavior (natural predations) at Seal Island for the months of May to September.

This change in the season coincides with the young of the year seal pups who are being weaned of their mothers. These young seals have to venture out on their first feeding sorties and this inexperience makes them vulnerable to a hungry great white. We have found that nearly 90% of all natural predatory events take place on these year 1 seals.

Up to this point the natural predations have been sporadic. Some days we have seen as many as 8 different events, and other mornings nothing at all. But, we when anchor and attract the sharks to the boat for identification work and viewing we have been seeing as many as 15 different animals on a day. At the beginning of the month they would come up to the boat very briefly and not stick around at all but the last week has been unbelievable. On some occasions we had as many as four sharks around the boat at one time all giving us fantastic views. It is also very interesting to see more that one white shark together just to see have they behave around each other.

We have found that they like their own space and the bigger shark is more often than not the more dominant individual. Sometimes a shark will display certain body language or sudden bursts of speed indicating that there is another shark close by. We were treated to a number of these observations and each time it happened another shark would appear.

We have seen a number of very large animals. Rob was very lucky to see a 5 meter (16.5 feet) female up close. If we are lucky we see one, maybe two of this size shark per year. Apparently she made 2 passes and then was gone! But it was enough to give everyone a good look.

 

More good news is that we have already seen a number of sharks that we know well from previous years and as well as a handful that we identified in 2005.

The most well known of these is a female shark we have named “February” whom we saw 4 times in May.  We first saw her in 2001 and then did not see her in 2003 and ’04. Last year she had a nasty, fresh wound to her dorsal fin, but seeing her now we can see that it has healed well. She is about 4, 3 meters (14 feet) now, and looking very big and healthy.

The second shark that we know very well that has returned is a 3, 6 (12 feet) meter female called “Scratchy”. (A lot of our previous guests will remember her!). She also looks in great health and we were particularly excited by her return.

I can tell you that one of the most rewarding aspects of working with sharks is to recognize individual animals and see them return to Seal Island each year!

We have had only one breach on our decoy, so that has been very quiet. You can see the images on the website on Photo’s of the month.

This does not mean that the sharks have not been breaching to catch seals. At one particular predatory event we saw a shark breach through the middle of a group of seals that were leaving the Island. This large shark launched itself through the middle of the group and in the process knocked one seal from the group into the air with its snout. That was the only attempt by the shark and the seal got away.

Most of us were looking in the right spot at the right time, and I reckon that this will probably be one of the most spectacular sights of the season.

We are staring to notice that most of the spectacular breaches are taking place on groups of seals rather than single seals.

We have not managed to do many pelagic shark trips because the weather has been a little lousy off-shore. When we did get out we have seen only blue sharks, no makos. The water has also been on the cold side. This is a further indication of winter on its way as the Agulhas current moves further off-shore. 

We did however have fantastic views of the pelagic birds. In the middle of the month we saw a Wandering Albatross. This is only our second sighting and we were able to get very close to it as it sat on the water. We also saw a Northern Royal Albatross, a first for us! 

On a separate trip when we were looking for makos we somehow attracted a whole horde of pelagic birds around our boat. We had 3 different species of albatross, white chin petrels, sooty shear waters, pintado petrels and a giant petrel. We had some frozen sardines on board which we were supposed to use to dive with the tuna but most of it ended up going to the birds! A guest on board as well as me even managed to hand feed a black-browed albatross…it was as exciting as the sharks!

Added to all this non-shark excitement Chris sighted a pod of pilot whales. We approached them very cautiously and we soon found out that they were completely unfazed by our boat. About 30 of them surfaced right next to us and some of them even dived below to have a closer look at us. It was an extraordinarily special moment that left me very emotional with a lump in my throat…Nature has a habit of doing that to me sometimes!

In False Bay we had many sighting of common dolphin and brydes whales. The best sighting was about 3 days ago when a school of about 500 common dolphins passed next to Seal Island. It was a very foggy day with completely flat seas and the entire school was packed very close together. As they moved through the Island they must have picked up on a number of white sharks because once in a while the whole school would suddenly speed up dramatically and jump really high out of the water. I am sure that they would have been in no danger as the sure size of the school and the disturbance in the water what have completely bamboozled any white shark!

So, those are the highlights for May. In June we have 3 more pelagic shark trips to look forward to and plenty of white shark trips too.

On “Photos of the Month” we have put photos of a variety of highlights. You’ll find white sharks, a breach, pelagic birds as well as dolphins. You will also find a variety of new photographic prints available for sale on all different pages of our website. 

Hope that you enjoy!

Until next month,

 

Best wishes

Monique Fallows

 

 

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