Dear Shark Lovers,
We have not spent a lot of time at sea this past month but the days that we have been out there have certainly been interesting and exciting whilst we have
spent time with the Great white sharks inshore of the Gansbaai area.
With the onset of summer we have also been frequenting the beach seine net fishing area and have been able to release a number of large bronze whaler sharks due to the responsible fishing practices that two of these fishermen currently practice.
Finally, see below for Apex Christmas Specials for 2010.
Great Whites Inshore
Over the last 20 years of working with sharks not only our knowledge but the knowledge of Great whites in general has indeed come a long way. Since Chris began working at Seal Island back in 1996 it was apparent even then that around September each year the sharks were leaving Seal Island only to return again in early autumn. Chris had always suggested that the Great whites were patrolling the inshore waters of False Bay over this period as his own as well as anecdotal evidence suggested this. This was evident from his work with the treknet fishermen whereby not only had they caught and released a number of Great white sharks in their nets but also the amount of available food in terms of various species of fish, other species of smaller sharks and rays was apparent. Also on occasion other sharks or large fish had bite scars from what in all likelihood were Great Whites.
For years Great whites have also been spotted close to shore over our summer months in various ways. For example by passing helicopters, fishing boats close to shore and sometimes by water users such as surfers. In fact in Dec/Jan 1987 the Muizenberg beach was cleared of bathers for 6 weekends in a row ( the helicopters only patrolled on weekends and holidays in those days) due to sharks spotted by the John Rolfe rescue helicopter.
Over the years people’s awareness of Great whites close to shore has increased tremendously and with people actively looking for them the sharks are sighted on a very regular basis from September to March each year. These sharks have however always been patrolling these areas and it is only now with increased interest and vigilance that they are been seen inshore.
There are a number of theories why the Great whites are patrolling these areas but no concrete information. Our feeling is that they must be moving with the large biomass of prey items that move just beyond the backline, especially after days of onshore conditions. Some areas in False Bay are littered by broken reef systems and the white sharks could actively be feeding here as the biomass of larger bony fish often congregate here.
Surrounding the broken reefs are large patches of sandy areas close to shore and it seems as though once the sharks have fed they spend time slowly cruising these areas in a relaxed manner. Perhaps being close to the surf, the water is highly oxygenated and is often warm after days of onshore wind. Both of these attributes would help aid digestion and the conservation of energy.
There are of course other things happening that we do not understand yet. We have spent some time filming the treknet fishermen this month and on one good weather day we were filming them from sea so that we could film the back of the net coming onto the beach. After some successful shots we were headed back to Simonstown when we heard over the radio that a large Great white had been sighted in Fish Hoek. We were only 5 minutes away so we made a quick turn here. In such flat conditions the shark stood out like a sore thumb and we approached for a closer look to see if we could identify the animal. It was quite a sight. The beach had already been cleared by Shark Spotters and the shark was now cruising along Jaggers Walk on the western side of Fish Hoek Bay. People who were walking along Jaggers walk could clearly see the shark and from our point of view we had shark, people and then houses directly above.
It really drives home the fact that we need to be able to co-exist with sharks in our waters.
The Shark Spotting program is a very proactive way of doing this. Basically there are spotters who sit on the mountain above Fish Hoek and Muizenberg to keep watch for sharks. Fish Hoek and Muizenberg are two areas that the sharks are patrolling frequently so people really need to be aware of this at this time of year. There was an especially high rate of sightings in Fish Hoek over November. A simple flag system on the beach lets beachgoers know the situation and if a shark should be spotted close to bathing areas the water will be cleared by use of a siren.
Here's Where It Gets Interesting
In recent times people working in other Great white shark hotspots in South Africa have found the same movement patterns.
So, each summer the Great whites are leaving the seal colonies in Mossel Bay and Dyer Island and are also moving inshore. Both inshore areas have these broken reef systems, similar to that of False Bay, that provide a great alternative of fish and elasmobranch species for the Great whites to feed on.
That may leave you wondering why the sharks would change their diets when they could be feeding on seal pups that are born around November and December each year.
This is something that is really surprising. When the seal pups are born there are thousands of easy meals floating and bobbing mindlessly away whilst they attempt to swim. Surely this must be the easiest of all meals for the sharks? Again this is all theory but we assume that the new born seal pups do not contain enough body fat to make a good meal, they are pretty much skin and bone. (Things are quite different 6 months down the line having fed off their mother’s milk). Also the large adult male seals that could easily pose a threat to the white sharks are present at Seal Island this time of the year for annual mating.
At places such as Guadalupe you clearly see large adult seals harassing the great whites as we witnessed in September.
Another idea is that the kabeljou, elf and yellow tail (fish species) and the smooth hound, soupfin and bronze whaler sharks inshore may be proving other nutritional value that the white shark needs in its diet.
Chris was able to spend some time with Alison Towner, a marine biologist from Marine Dynamics in Gansbaai this month. Alison is in the very beginning stages of a study of the Great whites in the inshore area off Dyer Island. She is trying to understand how the sharks are using this inshore area as well as the triggers that stimulate them to go inshore.
They got extremely lucky with perfect conditions of clear skies, great visibility, and no swell with pancake flat sea conditions. Under these conditions they could take the boat right into the shallows and extremely close to the beach as they followed a number of sharks that were already in the area. Always keeping a respectful distance they were able to very easily observe the sharks without changing their course or movement.
Amongst others, they came across a large 4 meter (13 foot) female. As they observed her, she went so close to the beach that her belly was scraping the sandy bottom as her dorsal fin and tail fin protruded out the water. The back drop of beautiful sand dunes and a turquoise sky set the scene for this dramatic encounter.
Alison is really passionate about her work and we wish her and the rest of her team the best of luck with their study. Of course we are also really interested in what she will find out too!
Ok, Now It Gets Even More Interesting
I do not know a lot about the following situations but there is information that not only are the “South African” sharks coming close to shore but Great whites in California, Mexico and Australia are showing the same movements and I would assume for the same reasons. Sadly however in Mexico these sharks are being caught in large numbers and one fishing camp alone is said to catch over 50 juvenile great whites per year which are turned into mercury and neuro toxin laden taco’s, bon appetite!
We feel the next few years are going to be very interesting as people around the white shark world start to understand what is happening in this fascinating situation. So, watch this space…
With the advent of new water users (such as ocean kayaks, kite boarding, Stand up paddle boarding etc) and also the number of people using the ocean increasing all the time human interactions with sharks will logically continually increase. To add fuel to the fire the prey source of the white sharks in decreasing all the time with over fishing and for us the biggest potential problem in the shark and human conflict situation is being ignored in favour of arguments such as chumming and population explosions which have been clearly proven scientifically to be unsubstantiated.
It is likely and logical that the Great whites now have to work harder to look for food and it also may stimulate them to patrol new areas in their search for food.
This will ultimately have an impact on shark/human interactions and we all need to be aware and comfortable with this if we decide to use the water.
Over the past year Chris has kayaked with over 30 different great whites, free dived with multiple sharks at a time of over 14ft and stand up paddle boarded with several of them. He has done this for various documentaries to show that these sharks will not simply rush up and attack you, no matter what form of recreation you pursue.
At no stage have any acted aggressively towards him and this clearly shows that under most circumstances these very capable predators pose relatively little threat.
Before others are tempted to try it must be remembered that Chris has been doing this for a very long time and obviously has a good idea of the right conditions to do this under.
Ironically the inshore habits of the great white place it in far more danger from us than we are from them and in South Africa there is a group of beach fishermen who actually target these protected sharks in the Mossel Bay and False Bay area and the rumour is that it is happening in Gansbaai as well. To catch, kill or disturb a great white shark without a permit is illegal and carries a huge fine, however irrespective of this the fact that these animals are a threatened species you would hope anyone with one iota of conscience would steer away from potentially harming them.
Whilst most sharks are released in varying states of health many of these carry hooks and traces and we have seen an alarming increase in the number of these hooked sharks that appear to have lost body condition and carry open wounds, the only likely reason being catch trauma and associated injury.
From a water users perspective we have many risk free options and common sense goes a long way to being safe.
Always look carefully at the conditions and if anything makes you uncomfortable about a particular day, choose not to use the water. We have this choice, sharks don’t.
Sharks in the Treknets
I have mentioned that we have been frequenting the trek nets this month. The strong South Easterly winds that have been blowing have produced ideal conditions for bringing sharks such as bronze whalers, smooth hound and ragged tooth sharks into concentrated fish areas close to shore. Unfortunately these sharks are caught as by catch by the local treknet fishermen. But, the good news is that two of these fishing crews off Muizenberg beach are fantastic with releasing sharks and rays and Chris has worked closely with them over the last 20 years to do this.
This month we released a number of sharks and rays including a large bronze whaler that was just less than 3 meters in length.(9 foot). It was quite a handful but exhilarating and extremely rewarding for Chris to jump in the net to retrieve and release it.
We have had a tough month with Pelagic shark trips due to very windy conditions meaning we had to cancel all but one trip. It was the first trip of the season and we had 1 blue shark up at the boat amongst seeing various other marine animals. We can’t wait to get into December as we know there will be plenty sharks from where those come from!
If you are like me, the idea of braving busy shopping malls during the Festive Season is not a good way to spend time!
We have just released a number of Christmas Specials online that cuts out mingling with the masses.
A 20% discount is now available on selected photographic prints from the 2010 shark season as well as a selection of beautiful Black&White images that we have not sold before..
So, save yourself a trip to the mall and purchase the perfect gift for shark and nature lovers here or even that unused wall in your home or office!
We have also just released the dates for our Premium Trip for 2011 Great white sharks at Seal Island. This 10 day trip, hosted by Chris & I, focuses on the unique natural predation events and is limited to 8 people only. Right now there are just 4 spots left so click here for more info.
Until next month…