May 2012 Shark Bytes
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.