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Shark Bytes

May 2011 Shark Bytes

written by Monique Fallows

Posted on Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Dear Shark Lovers!

 

This is a long one as we have had a great month with a whole variety of sightings including Great White Sharks, Pilot Whales and the first ever Apex Sardine Run Expedition. So, maybe it’s best if you grab a cup of tea or coffee so you can relax and enjoy our updates!

 

Great White Sharks, Pelagic & Seven Gill Cow Sharks 

To start the month we had guests with us that have been regular guests now for over 10 years. We were really hoping they would get good sightings and over the 5 day period they really did. Every day was so different and had its mix of good activity around the boat and some really interesting predatory activity.

The high was definitely towards the end of their stay. We had great weather and the flat seas made for perfect shark viewing conditions. After a bit of a wait around the boat we had a couple drive by’s and then an extremely feisty 3.3 meter male. As Woods had been absent I was back on decoy duty. I tell you, this little shark really put me through my paces. He would approach the decoy with a fair bit of intent and as I would pull it away from him he would turn in the direction I was pulling the decoy and then race after it. He really was a crowd pleaser!

As we were enjoying this shark I saw a rather large head and throat of a shark as it very gently approached the decoy from below. The neck and head kept getting larger and as she eventually came up to the surface we got the full appreciation of this magnificent 4.3 meter female shark.

These big animals do not normally stay around the boat for long and it is rare for them to be interactive. But, she was a beauty and did about 6 great passes. She was so relaxed it appeared she was moving in slow motion and we got a great look at her sheer girth. She is definitely the biggest shark we have seen in 2011 and we hope that some of her fellow sized toothy friends do us the same great favour by visiting “White Pointer”.

Activity was slowly on the increase and by 17 May we embarked on our first dedicated 10 Day Expedition of the Great White Shark season. This trip was hosted by Dr Neil Hammerschlag and the focus of the trip was to see a variety of shark species including Great whites, Mako & Blue sharks and sevengill cow sharks.  The beauty of having the same people on the boat each day means that we can focus on getting the most out of a 10 day period with a specific goal each day. It is also so much fun when the group bonds and most times everyone walks away friends for life having shared very special sharky moments together.

Again, every day was so different and overall we had great shark activity around the boat. On one particular day we had a 3.8meter shark for virtually the whole morning. She was just amazing and as she was completely comfortable around the boat she made continuous close passes at the cage. Everyone on board was thrilled to experience a shark like this.

We also had other sharks that would do my favourite “white belly” approaches. It is pretty rare to see the blazing white belly of a great white so when they do steep vertical approaches to the decoy or bait it is very beautiful. 

Although we did not have too many high flying breaches we did get to see some interesting predation events. One event in particular took place not more than 2 meters from the side of the Island. As the swell pushed away from the Island the shark actually glanced the rocks. One of our team members would spend the morning just looking for predations and she was the lucky one to see this very rare event. There were a lot more predatory events on the shallow side of the Island which seems to follow the trend so far this season.

Some very exciting news is the return of “Shy Guy”. This is a just under 4 meter male and is called Shy Guy for a specific reason. He has a damaged tail which is easy to identify once he makes a seal kill and he is feeding on the surface. In 8 seasons of recording his hunting behaviour he has only approached our boat in a baited situation once. So, he is obviously a shark that is just not interested in boats. We did not see him in 2010 so you can imagine our excitement when we spotted him on 21 May, of course on a predation event. Chris, Poenas and myself where screaming like little kids in our excitement! Luckily our group knew us well by this time and did not think we were too mad!

We did manage one very good pelagic trip with the group and although it was not the flattest sea day we had 2 mako sharks to the boat and about 5 blue sharks. Everyone got to see both species while diving so it was another 2 sharks notched up for the trip.

The group also had 2 great dives with The sevengill cow sharks. This is a unique dive in False Bay where there is an opportunity to dive with Sevengills in shallow water in the kelp forest. It is a world class dive and we highly recommend this for anyone who is a shark fanatic or photographer.

 

So, the expedition was an amazing success and everyone at Apex was really sad to say goodbye to all the team members. A special thank you to Dr Neil Hammerschlag for organising the trip.

Pilot Whale Sighting

The waters off Cape Point are extremely nutrient rich and not only support the sharks and birds but also a large amount of cetacean species. 

On May 15th we did not have any guests booked and as the weather forecast was so good we decided to head offshore with just the Apex crew to enjoy a good day’s sharking together!

On the way out one of our new crew members, Amy, was asking me about what whales or dolphins we could possibly see. Not 30 minutes later, we came across a school of about 100 Dusky Dolphins. We had not seen this species of dolphin for nearly 3 years so it was really exciting to get close to them again.

Once out in the “deep” we had 4/5 blue sharks up at the boat. The guys were enjoying a great dive with these beautiful sharks but this was suddenly interrupted.

About 100 meters away Chris spotted a large disturbance in the water. After a closer look it appeared that a herd of wild horses was galloping towards us, such was the velocity with which this pod of pilot whales was traveling.

Chris, still struggling with his case of “orcalitis” , thought they may have been killer whales but as they raced past we identified them as pilot whales, most likely short-finned.

After a quick decision we decided to leave the blue sharks and pursue the pilot whales. Easy choice as this was only the 5th time we have seen them!

We estimated there to be about 60 animals in this pod, a mixture of adults of juveniles. They were completely unfazed by the boat but we were careful to only stop ahead of them and wait until they came across us. We then turned the engines off and just listened and watched as they cruised at about 8 knots past us. The noise of rushing water was spectacular!

A number of them were pretty curious with the boat and would dive beneath us for a really good look. 

We also tracked alongside them for a while and just really enjoyed & appreciated getting such a great look at these animals.
They really are strange looking animals with a huge bulbous head. This is most likely due to the fact that they rely heavily on using sonar for navigation and feeding. They feed mostly on squid so they also need at times to dive to great depths. (Between 200 and 500 meters).

They have a parrot-like beak mouth, tiny compared to the rest of the animal and a very small eye. It was a little difficult to get a really good view of their eyes and mouth as these are only exposed very quickly while they breathe at the surface. Chris took some good photos and in some of them you can have a good look.

Their dorsal fins also vary from one animal to another. Some are really wide and thick and others are a little smaller. 

There are 2 species of pilot whales, long-finned and short-finned and both occur in our waters. It is very difficult to tell the two apart but having done some reading on both species I suspect that in the 5 sightings we have had, we have seen both species.

I am still not quite sure what species we saw on Sunday but I suspect it was short-finned.

Some interesting info about them is that males live up to 40 years and females amazingly up to 63 years. Scientists do not currently know why the males die at a younger age. Males generally leave their natal school while females remain in theirs for life. Another interesting fact is that some females can nurse their calves for up to 15 years.

From reading all of this there seems to be a very strong bond between the animals in each school.

This is a species that is known to strand on a fairly regular basis and it is said, although not proven, that a single member of the school “pilots” or leads the group and that all members will follow this leader without question, even if it is to its death. 

This was our fifth sighting of Pilot Whales and goes to show they we all need to keep our eyes open on the seas for these special wildlife sightings.

 

 

Apex Sardine Run

Chris & I were fortunate enough to be hosted by friends for 4 days on The Sardine Run in 2010. In that time we got to dive on one bait ball for about 40 minutes. It was so spectacular being “part” of a bait ball that we were utterly convinced that we needed to put a trip together in 2011.

 

The Sardine Run takes place most years along the east coast of South Africa. Although the sardines do not migrate they do follow the cold water pulse as it pushes further north east at this time of the year, creating a feeding corridor for marine predators between Port Elizabeth and Port St Johns. This movement of a huge bio mass of potential food is vital to a whole variety of predators. It provides 9 month old Common dolphin their first big feed and up to 15 000 common dolphins can make up  various mega pods as they frequent this area. Bronze whalers, dusky and black tip sharks also drop their pups in this area to give them the greatest chance to feed. Up to 180,000 Cape gannets also benefit from this mass feeding event and if you are very very lucky divers may even glimpse a brydes whale as it lunge feeds on a bait ball that has so nicely been worked by the dolphin.

 

A lot has to go right to even have the privileged opportunity to dive in a bait ball feeding event. The current needs to have worked its way up the coast, ideally the water temp needs to be 17-19 C. You have to pick to right location to have the activity taking place within rubber duck range, you have to have good weather and as with everything you need to have a good experienced team guiding you. This sounds like risky business but if you strike it lucky the rewards are huge and you will find yourself experiencing the most exhilarating nature experience.

 

Apex had employed the expertise of Mark Addison and our group was the first boat out on The Sardine Run this year. After day 3 we all started to be a little concerned as reports were good from Port  Elizabeth 300km away but not our area . Day 1 was spent being pounded out at sea in a very exposed rubber duck. We were soaked by the end of the day, and not due to diving. On Day 2 there were a few signs of activity with dolphin and gannets in the area, although no sign of the sardines. Day 3 was bad weather… 

So, things were not looking good but we had a fantastic group of people with us who were very understanding with a lot of laughs to go with it.

 

The highlight from Day 2 is well worth mentioning. We came across a humpback whale that was swimming very close to a school of bottlenose dolphin. As we approached we could see there was some interaction between the two so we quickly lined up in the water ahead of the whale. To our immense surprise the humpback swam straight towards us with two bottlenose dolphins just to the left and right of its head. It appeared as if the dolphin were herding the whale and I am certain that the two species were playing with each other. It was a truly beautiful sight and definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me.

 

Mark had told us that the bad weather could just be what we needed to change the conditions. Heading out on Day 4 we knew it could go either way. The immediate change we saw was 3 times the amount of cape gannets. They were all mostly rafting on the water but it was a good sign as we headed further south.

After about 10 kms from our launch site the engines on the rubber duck suddenly kicked into over drive as Mark & Chris spotted what  we were looking for, Gannets diving!

Things happened really fast once we arrived in the area as dive kit was thrown on and we were all yelled at to get in as quick as possible!

I felt quite stunned at the first sight I saw. It was a large sardine bait ball that was being neatly herded by dolphin and the dusky and bronze whaler sharks from below. Sardines use the school as a defence, the safety in numbers theory. They also do better in their escape from predators deeper below but the dolphins try their best to school the sardines to the surface. They do this by sonar stunning them and blowing bubble curtains.

Once the dolphins school the sardines the various species of sharks are able to rush the ball and catch what they can. When both dolphin and sharks go into the ball, the ball itself parts like a curtain and despite the carnage it is actually a beautiful sight to behold. 

The first ball we had was large so although there was a huge amount going on the energy did not quite reach fever pitch. After a while the dolphin and sharks stopped working the ball and it was all over.

Just as we came up Mark spotted another bait ball in progress which we yet again raced over to at great speed. This one was a little smaller and had both dolphin and sharks working it. Added to this a big (as in size as well) surprise was on its way to us…a brydes whale. This was the first time I have ever seen a brydes whale underwater so the excited scream through my snorkel was pretty loud! This animal was so fast and came blitzing past us like a freight train. In a few gulps the ball was gone. This was just a mind blowing thing to see and I can still feel my excitement as I sit here writing.

I guess diving in a bait ball that is being attacked by all sides by such a variety of predators is a risky thing to do. However, I never felt threatened by the sharks, they were just pretty intent on what they were doing and only gave the divers an occasional inspection. The dolphins were unfazed by our presence and we got amazing views of their hunting prowess. I tell you what though, sometimes you can’t help moving into the ball either as it moves towards you suddenly or the current takes you in. When that happens you are left with a very unsettling feeling while you imagine that huge open mouth of the brydes whale as he completely swallows the ball. In all seriousness, being swallowed by a whale was by far the biggest risk!

After having 2 very good bait balls we felt our trip was more than a success. We still had 2 days left and although the next day was quiet we managed to finish the last day on a major high by finding and diving with another 3 fabulous balls. 

One ball actually spit into 2 and we dived on them for 2 hours. The balls were smaller and the action was much more frantic. The sardines were trying to use us for cover and the dolphin and sharks would flash by with great bursts of speed in pursuit of them. Sometimes the action would quieten down and then pick up again as the dolphin stepped it up a notch. These ebbs and flows persisted until it was all gone and the scales of the sardines were left drifting down to the depths below.

Another amazing event we came across was a “shark bait ball”. Normally the dolphins do all the hard work and the sharks are able to benefit from their balling.  From afar I spotted a brydes whale spouting, on closer inspection the sea was a froth of disturbance as about 30 bronze whalers and large dusky sharks were working a very small bait ball on the surface. I am not sure how rare this is but it is only the third time Mark has seen it in 16 years. The brydes whale had also picked up on the activity so we all knew it was biding its time before stealing the ball. 

Everything was happening really fast and people were anxious to get in. I jumped over board first with Espen and although the brydes whale was my main concern we were suddenly surrounded by a feeding frenzy of sharks! It was manic, there is just no other way to describe it. Within 10 seconds the whole boat was screaming at us to get back on board. The sharks did nothing to us but we really did put ourselves is a bad situation. It was a good thing we could just laugh about it afterwards and nothing worse than that as sharks snapped wildly at anything including the rubber duck ( semi rigid inflatable boat)!

Shortly after we were back in the boat the brydes came through the ball 3 times. Not only was that the end of the bait ball but also very sadly the end of our Sardine Run Expedition number 1.

To end off I have to say that our experiences underwater on The Sardine Run rate as one of the most intense and exciting wildlife experiences I have had. When it comes to predatory behaviour in wildlife you are either on a boat watching or watching safely from a car. Here, you are in the ball and part of the activity. As with most wild animals, the various predators here, and prey, were very accepting of our presence and I take it as a great privilege to have been able to witness and be a part of this. I for one can’t wait for 2012 Sardine Run!

I Hope you all enjoyed hearing about our adventures in May and I look forward to touching base with you all in June.

 

Until then,

 

Best wishes

Monique Fallows

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