Posted on Sunday, 31 May 2009
Dear Shark Lovers
Finally I am very happy to say that our sharks are back at Seal Island! It certainly has been a month of up and down sightings but before I get to that I would like to talk about a very tragic event that took place last Saturday. It is very much in the news right now and I am sure that many people have opinions on what happened.
Mass False Killer Whale Stranding
We received an early morning call from our friend, Ian Klopper from the NSRI last Saturday saying that members of the public had just come across two false killer whales that had stranded on Kommetjie beach in Cape Town. As we were getting ready to leave for Kommetjie we received another call that about 30 more whales were approaching the beach. This was sounding like a major emergency so en route Chris & I phoned as many friends and colleagues that we could think that would be capable to helping in this situation.
On our arrival we came across about 40 whales flapping helplessly on the beach. There were already about 20 volunteers trying to help drag a number of whales back out to sea. The scene that we took in immediately gave rise to an emotional lump forming in my throat. This lasted only a fraction of a second as Chris & I immediately immersed ourselves in the rescue operation and it was a further 5 hours before I even stopped to think about everything again.
False Killer whales are a species known for mass strandings. I am not going to go into the reasons, which are largely unknown but as this species has a very strong family bond within the pod it is theorised that if the leaders of the pod were to strand the rest of the pod will very willingly follow.
Within in a short time it was established that there were a total of 55 whales on the beach. An astounding number of volunteers had also arrived to assist with the rescue. There were so many familiar faces from the diving and surfing community and just about every person who has a commercial interest in the sea from the surrounding area was also there to help. It was overwhelming.
The authorities overseeing the operation such as the NSRI , various scientists and whale experts were also amazing with their efforts. I know they certainly had no intentions when they were wet, chest deep in freezing water working together with the public of the terrible outcome and decision they would later correctly need to make.
But I am very sad to say that this story does not have a happy ending. The conditions could not have been worse. There was a 25 knot onshore wind and large breaking swell prevailing.
These wind and swell conditions made it extremely difficult to take the whales into deeper water where they may have had a chance of returning to the ocean.
Each whale needed to be dragged back to the water and when deep enough we needed to stabilise them. Once rested we would then need to swim them out into the deeper water. As mentioned this was extremely challenging and virtually impossible to get them into water that was deep enough and calm enough.
Over a 5 hour period I handled many different individual whales. I can tell you that not one of them had any desire to get back out to sea. The only time they showed any sort of fight was when they would turn back around and race towards the beach.
Sadly on many of their return attempts they swam over rocks and got cut up adding to their stress. Attempts were also made to try a group release of the animals but this failed due to the conditions, whales that wanted to be with remaining ones still on the beach and also a few groups of people who persisted in trying to help individual whales rather than grouping them and trying to release the bulk of the herd together.
My experience with animals is that they always fight for survival but this was a very different situation. They just wanted to be back on that beach with their family members.
A couple hours into it Chris & I both started to realise that our efforts were fruitless and that the best thing would be to euthanise these whales. Ourselves, other volunteers and the head scientists kept trying until the decision was finally made to shoot them. At this point we departed with very heavy hearts but knowing with 100% conviction that this was the right thing to do.
This decision has come under extremely heavy fire from both locals and internationals. Two contentious issues were the manner in which the whales were put down and also that we should have been able to succeed in getting the whales back out to sea.
As for the fist issue the local authorities had been trying to close the beach since 8.30am that morning. Members of the public, that were not helping in the rescue were there due to curiosity…not something I would like to take my kids too, nor do I think is appropriate. Even when announcements were made about the proposed shootings people still stayed to watch. I think it was really irresponsible of parents not to listen to these warnings, and then to complain about it afterwards.
As for the rescue operation itself... the conditions were just against any sort of successful outcome and getting help from boats etc was impossible. It was just not meant to be.
I can say that many people have learnt from this situation and I hope that next time the outcome will be different.
What I really feel terrible about is that in our efforts to help the whales I know that we (very unwillingly) put them under tremendous stress and I think that last few hours of their lives must have been very frightening…it is an awful feeling to carry around.
Back to Happier News: Great White Sharks
I have to admit that the first 10 to 12 days of May were very very quiet from a sightings point of view. In fact it was a little worrying until we decided to have a proper think back to past seasons. The last 3 years leading up to the 2009 season had amazing shark sightings from the beginning of April. So much so that I think we became a little too comfortable just expecting that this year would be the same. In fact in the 2004 Season we did not see sharks until early June…so there really was nothing unusual about the slow sightings. … It was just disappointing. We of course love seeing the sharks and also our guests on board are obviously disappointed when we do not see anything. Having said that we always try to make the most of anything that we see out there. Not many people have the opportunity of spending time out at sea and to see whales, dolphins, seals and various birds is still special.
The sightings started with a few very brief glimpses as the sharks would briefly inspect the bait or the decoy. Day by day the sightings started to pick up and I do feel now that the season is in full force.
We have been seeing some natural predation events but not enough that this is guaranteed on each trip. The breaches on the decoy have also been fairly infrequent but we have been very lucky with a couple very spectacular leaps.
One of the highlights of the month was a period of exceptional visibility (for Seal Island) of about 15 to 20 meters…this is a real treat for us! We had just started seeing sharks so it was great for our guests that were diving.
A Few Big Ones and a Small One
We have had two very large sharks visit us at the boat. One shark was estimated at about 4.8 meters and a second shark at about 5 meters. To see these big sharks is very rare and a great privilege. Both of them stayed around just long enough for everyone to have a good view.
On the opposite end of that we also had a shark of a mere 1.7 meters at the boat. This is the smallest shark Chris has ever seen at Seal Island and it was just as exciting as the big ones!
A Few Regulars Return
I am also very pleased to report that we have already seen two of our regular sharks. One of these is a shark with a distinctive reverse “C” marking on his dorsal fin. We do not know this shark very well as he does not spend very much time at the boat but he is a shark that we have been seeing for the last 3 years.
Most exciting is the return of a female shark that many of our guests will know, and that is “Amber”. She has grown about a foot since last season and was looking rather rotund. I am sure due to feeding on seals.
We know her well as she really likes to interact with us at the boat. Her favourite trick it is to do a completely vertical approach on the decoy giving us an impressive view of her snow white belly!
One of the best things about working with sharks is to see our regulars return and know that they have survived to reach another season. It is also great to be able to share each shark’s history with guests as I think that sharks having definite personality and characters is one of the most surprising and fascinating aspects about these creatures.
Lastly, we have had a number of fantastic groups on board this month as well as our own brand of “human regulars”. It has been great to catch up with old friends and also to see how much so many of our guests appreciated seeing the sharks. For many people it is a life experience to see a Great white shark and it is very rewarding to help people to do this.
I will of course keep you all updated at the end of June with all our shark news.
Be sure to visit “Photos of the Month”,