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Shark Bytes

May 2012 Shark Bytes

written by Monique Fallows

A pod of Orca's in False Bay, Cape Town.

Posted on Thursday, 31 May 2012

Dear Shark Lovers!


It certainly has been a different May both for the good and the bad. May is historically one of our peak months for Great White Sharks at Seal Island and one of the months that we record the highest numbers of sharks around the boat. This May has been almost devoid of sharks at Seal Island. Chris & I always feel we have a good bead on what is happening at Seal Island but with this past month’s sightings we honestly can’t even come up with a theory as to what is going on.

The good news is that it has enabled us to enjoy the other wildlife in False Bay and we have had particularly exciting sightings of a pod of Orcas which have been among  our best wildlife encounters to date.


False Bay May Orca Report

You may all remember me writing in April last year regarding how we were on the lookout for Orcas in False Bay. In April 2009 and 2010 we had the very good fortune to see a number of pods in False Bay and as such we were really hoping to pick up on them again. These sightings were of 5 different pods and one pod in particular we had seen 3 times.

We were disappointed in 2011 as we did not see the orcas but the good news was that other boats had by chance come across them on a few isolated occasions.

In April this year Chris & I travelled all the way to Argentina to see Orcas hunting sea lions off the beaches at Punta Norte. It became an inside joke between us and our crew that the crew would see the Orcas in False Bay while we were away. Well, the good news is that whilst they did not see them in April, we have just had probably one of the best wildlife encounters ever with a special pod of Orcas for 2 weeks this May.

The first sighting was on 5 May whilst Chris was on an Afternoon Trip. He called me in a great panic and could barely get out the word “Orcas”! Even though I was not on board I was really thrilled that they were back in False Bay, and even better, it was the Pod that we had already spent some special time with in 2009 and 2010.

We have now called this pod “A Pod” and they are made up of 2 adult females and 2 juveniles. We are pretty certain the juveniles are a male and female. Over a 2 week period we have had 6 separate sightings of them and have recorded and observed 18 predatory events on common dolphins. On many of these sightings we have spent up to 4 hours with them so we feel that we are starting to get to know each individual character, their hunting techniques and also that we can easily identify each of them off the bat.

My particular interest in wildlife has always been observing unique behaviour as well as learning the character or personality of an individual animal so this has made the 2 week period of Orca watching particularly exciting.

My first sighting was 3 days after Chris had first seen them. It was a perfectly flat calm day in False Bay and by chance we had found a school of about 400 common dolphins just 1 mile from Seal Island. When I saw how relaxed the school was I did not hold out much hope that the Orcas were around but to my great surprise I heard one of our American crew shouting in Afrikaans (that was a surprise too!) that the “walvis” were close behind the dolphins! I can’t tell you how excited myself and our crew where to see these 4 black and white shapes plough towards the school of dolphin. Our guests had no choice to join in even though at this point they did not really realise how special this sighting was.

The dolphins seemed completely unaware of the orcas when they first arrived and the orcas, although following only 50 to 100 meters behind the school, did not seem to be in full hunting mode. They just effortlessly tracked with the dolphins and gradually worked them in a full circle about 2 miles from Seal Island. We started to assume that a full on hunt was not going to take place when out of nowhere one of the adult females did a full blooded breach into the back of the school. It was out of this world spectacular, a nearly 6 meter, 3 ton animal completely airborne! What an amazing sight!

Each time the Orcas attack the school of dolphins, the dolphins react in the most intense way. The speed that they flee the scene once they are aware of the threat is astonishing and the best way to describe the scene is a frothing mass of churned up water. It certainly seems to be every dolphin for itself in this mass of chaos. This behaviour is very easy to identify and now that we know what it means it does help to understand if Orcas have been in the area recently or not. There definitely is a level of stress that one can read in the school from our observations the last few weeks.

Getting back to the event, Cleopatra, the adult female and main huntress, was not successful so this seemed to put the orcas into a different mood as they gradually peeled away from the school of dolphins.

In this particular Orca Pod the other female has a very special place in my heart. She has a bulbous protrusion on her back which we assume to be a birth defect; it also makes her radically stand out. Three years ago we named her “Mannermerak”. This is after a South African cartoon character who is a likeable but very funny looking alien! The name may not be too flattering but everyone knows her now and I believe she will be one of those animals people will always talk about.

We believe these False Bay Orcas to be dolphin specialists. The seals often swim with the orcas and there have been many opportunities where the orcas could easily have caught and eaten a seal, but this does not seem to be their preferred meal. Transient Orcas (orcas that feed on mammals) are not known to be particularly comfortable with boats. Mannermerak is a different story, and this is why everyone loves her!

On all the occasions we have seen her she seems to seek the boat out and ride alongside extremely close to the back of the boat. I must stress that we do not go to her but she comes to us altering her course in doing so.

On this sighting we were waiting for her in hope… We had seen her about 150 meters behind us when she disappeared.  I was kneeling at the back of the boat with one of our guests, explaining what may happen, when suddenly there was this huge noise of an orca breathing out which even though I was half expecting it, gave us a huge fright! What a feeling…. For the next 10 minutes she rode with us coming up maybe 15 times right next to the boat. We all took turns leaning over the back of the boat and being maybe just 1 meter away from her every time she came up. It was extremely special to have such a close interaction with an amazing animal, and one I will remember for the rest of my life.

He called me in a great panic and could barely get out the word “Orcas”!

When I have special wildlife experiences I always try to make the most of the moment as you never know if you will get a chance like this again, and as we watched the orcas move away from us I felt inside that maybe this was to be our good luck for the year. But, there was more to come …

The following day we took out White Pointer with just Chris & I and our staff and crew. We did not have a firm plan in place but did a lot of miles around False Bay looking for the dolphins in the hope that the orcas would be with them again. There was no sign of the dolphins but as we started to head into the bright afternoon light I caught sight of a white tail fluke. I knew exactly what this meant and immediately jumped off the roof to tell Chris. Of course it had already disappeared and as we waited a few minutes I think everyone doubted me! Then, out of nowhere, the 2 juveniles appeared and started to move alongside us. This was the best look we had ever got of them and now have ID shots of both their left and right side. In any case both Chris & I can identify them anywhere now by sight. We are almost certain they are a male and female (time will tell!) so we have named them Bonnie and Clyde. They are both comfortable with the boat and easily ride alongside us as they travel.

About 30minutes later Mannermerak and Cleopatra joined them, seemingly out of nowhere. Cleopatra seems to be the main huntress in the group and she is the only Orca in this pod we have seen doing the full breaches. Bonnie is also a great hunter and we have seen her make a number of kills so far. Interestingly her attack plan is different. She seems to attack from sub surface and we have not seen her breach before. 

Our next observation is what I find particularly interesting. The Orcas were just cruising along in a pretty relaxed fashion when they suddenly made an abrupt left turn and picked up a great amount of speed. Shortly, we could see why. About 3 miles away was the large school of common dolphin which the Orcas must have heard from this far away. So, it was amazing to see the complete thought process take place.

They easily caught up with the school and immediately upon coming up to the dolphins Bonnie initiated a sub-surface strike and was successful. A brief period of food sharing ensued and then they began to chase down the dolphins again. Bonnie split away from the other 3 and again made a successful kill. When we came upon the other 3 Orcas they too had made a successful kill. So, in the space of 2 hours they had killed 3 dolphins, incredible!

At sunset we sadly had to leave them… it was a beautiful sight, 4 tall black dorsal fins outlining a pink sky, and again we wondered if we would see them again.

Chris had another brief sighting 3 days later on a shark trip. The Orcas were hunting the dolphins again. By the time we went out 30 minutes later the Orcas had already left the dolphins and we could find no further sign of them. 

The following Tuesday we would have our final epic day with the Orcas, and it would turn out to be the best and most intense day yet.

We came across a school of about 500 dolphins early on this particular morning. Almost as we approached the school we saw 2 dark and large shapes moving towards them, the Orcas were in hunting mode again…

They almost immediately approached the back of the school and shortly here after Cleopatra dived from view. We knew now what to expect and were watching and waiting for her to breach into the school. We were not disappointed and she shortly breached completely out of the water, her full body exposed with beautiful morning light highlighting her magnificence. She had in fact missed and this meant that she and the rest of the Orca pod were almost immediately in pursuit again. In the next hour and a half she did 4 more breaches, all equally spectacular. Just like with the white shark predation events I could not help the involuntary scream that escaped me each time!

Whilst Mannermerak was in the background on this day both Bonnie and Clyde were also actively hunting.

As I mentioned before Bonnie has a different hunting technique which seems to be a sub-surface attack. On this occasion and we suspect now on a few other occasions she successfully hunted a tiny and perhaps even new born baby dolphin.

After this hunt the Orcas continued to move with the dolphins for another hour but after remaining unsuccessful they left the school and seemed to go into a resting phase. At this point we decided to leave them to rest and this is the last time we saw them.

It has indeed been a very special 2 weeks spent with them and I can only hope we can keep getting to know them and observe them should they return to False Bay again next year. For sure we are going to be on the look out!


Other Wildlife in False Bay

All this time spent looking for the Orcas has also given us great opportunities and encounters with the whole eco system in False Bay. Masses of shoals of bait fish have been around which have attracted the dolphins here in the first place. It seems to be one mega school of about 1000 common dolphin that fracture and then come together at times. Some of the bait ball feeding events have rivalled the Sardine Run and thousands of gannets have also been feeding at these events, we even had a 2 meter bronze whaler shark feeding on the surface of a tightly contained ball of sardines that simultaneously had cape fur seals controlling what was going on.

We have also had our best ever encounters with African Penguins. These sea birds are notoriously difficult to get close to underwater but through a lot of patience and understanding the behaviour of these cute little guys, Chris has had some great photographic opportunities and a lot of fun at the same time.


So, although the great white shark activity has been slow we have kept ourselves busy by enjoying the magnificent wildlife that is very special to False Bay. In a funny kind of way it has made us appreciate these other opportunities more than what we usually do, and we can’t wait to spend more time out there like this.


Having said this, we do certainly hope that the great whites find their way back to Seal Island where they should be this time of the year! I have no idea what to expect in June, but fingers crossed it will be a good month.


There is only one spot left on our Great White Trail Expedition in August (21 to 28 August). This 10 day trip will take you to all 3 Great White Locations in South Africa, so for a true shark enthusiast, this is a trip for you!



Until next month …


Orcas, Marine Life

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