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Shark Bytes

October 2008 Shark Bytes

written by Monique Fallows

Posted on Friday, 31 October 2008

Dear Shark lovers,


Chris has always been lucky with sharks but 2008 is now the third year in a row where we have not seen great white sharks at Seal Island on his Birthday! So, up until 21 September we were still seeing good numbers of sharks but since then it has been very quiet.


The End of the Great White Shark Season

The end of the season at Seal Island usually ends very abruptly and our first indication of the end of a season is when we arrive at the Island and there is a dramatic change in seal behavior with seals happily cavorting in areas where they previously feared to swim.

This change in behavior is usually the precursor to waiting the whole day and not seeing sharks. During the winter months when the Great white sharks are hunting the cape fur seals the seals stray only a safe distance from the Island where it is too shallow and turbulent for the sharks to venture.

When the sharks are no longer at Seal Island the seals seem to know this and they venture much further out and sometimes hundreds of them can be observed lazily floating on the surface in normal danger zones. 

The departure of the Great white sharks also coincides with the return of the bull seals. These males are formidable predators in their own right and we believe that they must pose considerable risk to the Great white shark if the two had to come into contact.

The large bull seals can weigh up to 300 kgs (660 pounds). They return to Seal Island at this time of year for the breeding season, having spent the rest of the year offshore in their feeding grounds. They establish large harems with the more dominant males establishing these on the high parts of Seal Island.

An interesting fact is that the females are also pupping at this time. When they mate with the males they are able to retain the sperm and only fertilse a few months later. This allows them to get the timing of the gestation right and only pup at the suitable time in October/November the following year.

A number of Great white sharks have also been sighted close to the beaches along False Bay which is typical summer behavior for the sharks. We first made note of this in 1997 and the behavior has been consistant ever since. This is yet another indication of the change of seasons. With more great white sharks, as well as other migratory species of sharks, moving close to shore water users do need to be aware of this as there is a greater chance of an encounter.


A Tragic Event

I am sure that many South Africans will have read in the news that a 4.6 meter (15 foot) male Great white shark washed up dead on Macassar Beach in False Bay last week.

The cause of death is not known but is seems to be too much of a co-incidence not to suspect foul play. This is exactly the same area a similar sized shark washed up a few years ago after it was caught in an illegal gill net set at night.

Macassar is a well known commercial shark fishing spot (mostly for Bronze whalers,  soupfin, and smooth hound sharks). The commercial fishermen are made up of line fishermen fishing mostly for soupfin and smooth hound sharks as well as a shark longlining operator.

Against all wisdom and general scientific consensus this license was issued in 2008 without any research. The longline is set exactly where the great whites patrol in summer.

In conjunction to this many sport anglers also fish for sharks from the beaches here. Is it a co-incidence that we are seeing dead sharks washing up and other well known sharks seen regularly for over a decade missing, perhaps, perhaps not


The Great white shark is protected in South Africa and these sharks may not be caught or harmed but as compliance and enforcement is currently not up to scratch it would appear that some people are trying to do their best to kill these majestic and charismatic animals for a set of jaws and dried up fins.

Alison Kock, who researches Great white sharks in False Bay, had actually had the shark that was killed up at her boat in 2005 and earlier this year. We had not seen this shark before but it was very sad to hear how she described this male as a very interactive shark around the boat. To see a large Great white shark like this is very rare and even more so because it was a male of that size.

At 4.6 meters this shark would have definitely been sexually mature. This would have made it an extremely valuable individual in terms of his role in reproduction and in all our years at Seal Island we have only EVER seen one other male of a greater size. We believe that each Great white shark is valuable to the population, but this one was especially so.


There are more than a few sharks that we know very well that have not been sighted in the last 2 years and their well being is very concerning to us especially when events like this happen and whispers of a Great white shark poaching problem are becoming louder. 

Anybody suspecting any great white shark poaching is free to email us the details which we will pass onto the relevant authorities.

All emails will be treated with strict confidentiality. 


Pelagic Sharks

We are not normally in Cape Town in October and November but this year we have been home needing to take care of some issues. The good news is we have been able to run a number of pelagic shark trips and the results have been surprisingly good. We have seen good numbers of blue sharks and also a mako shark. The water visibility has been great and the water temperature a not too cold 18deg Celsius.

We have previously offered this trip as a free diving trip only but the last few trips we have been able to take the shark cage out there as well. This has been working fantastically well as it still allows the less experienced divers to see these sharks underwater in a comfortable environment. The other positive is that when conditions are not optimal for free diving it is still possible to dive in the cage.

If the wind does not blow too strongly in November we should be able to get out there as often as possible.

Pilot Whale Encounter

Chris and I always feel that our pelagic trips into The Agulhas Current are so exciting from a nature point of view. The environment is constantly changing and we are constantly surprised at what we encounter out there. Cape Point from the water is one of the most spectacular sights you can see and as we really enjoy bird watching there are always exciting sea birds to be on the look out for. In fact Chris managed to photograph some shearwaters underwater on our last trip.

Just before the end of the month the weather was looking great for heading offshore so even though we did not have any guests we took the boat out to enjoy a day out there on our own. The main aim was to look for sharks but when we got to about 25 miles off Cape Point we came across a number of very playful humpback whales. On closer approach we saw that they were joined by a group of about 50 pilot whales (most likely short-fin pilot whales). I don’t think that pilot whales are particularly rare out there but as they cover such great ground you have to be lucky to come across them. In fact we have only seen them about 10 times in the last 9 years.

Our past sightings have always been closer to Cape Point in the greener water so diving with them has not really been an option.

To be honest pilot whales do not have the best reputation and there are two accounts that we know of where divers have been pulled down to dangerously deep water by them.

We spent some time observing them and as they appeared to be so relaxed and really just milling around on the surface Chris wanted to get in the water to photograph them. I declined first time round as I was apprehensive after the stories we had heard, especially that we were in water that was at least 1000 meters deep (3000 feet).

We drove the boat to a spot several hundred meters ahead of the whales where we could anticipate their path and give them the option to approach us if they so chose. Chris got into the water and waited. They did not deviate from their route and gently cruised past Chris who swam alongside them keeping to a distance that the whales were comfortable with.

As they were so relaxed I felt more confident of giving it a go and in a bit of a panic I threw on a wetsuit. I was not properly prepared and did not have my own mask. When I got in the water Chris & I were immediately approached by a humpback whale. As I went down my mask filled up completely and I got to see my first whale underwater through sea water inside my mask! I was not a happy camper… however it was still fantastic.

The second time round I was more prepared and we got into a good position again. Within a minute the large pod of pilot whales were heading for us. Most of the females had large calves with them and as they passed us both mother and calf would turn and look up at us. Both ourselves and the whales were very relaxed so we felt we could swim with them. Keeping pace with them we could tell that they were still very comfortable and at this point Chris and I separated as he was taking photographs. I was still feeling good when the pod seemed to stop and turn around at us. A couple of the whales went into a completely vertical angle and just stopped and looked at me. They were not really moving and just kept looking at me and surrounding me. Whenever I am in very close proximity to wild animals I try to be as calm as possible and (I know this sounds crazy) I try to think very calm, happy and positive thoughts. I do think that animals are intuitive to feelings so I feel it is very important to attempt to get the message across that I mean no harm. 

When the pilot whales starting surrounding me I did start to feel a little uncomfortable so I backed away from them to give them the space that they needed. I put my head above the water to look for Chris as well as the boat. Once I went under again I became aware out of the corner of my eye that a very large bull had approached me with great speed. At this point I completely backed off and really wanted to get near the boat!

Reflecting on the experience I have to say that it was incredible and very special. I do not think that they wanted to hurt me at all but we must realize that they had probably never seen humans in the water before and we could have been a concern to the protective bulls.

The bottom line is that we always need to have tremendous respect for wild animals and we should never put ourselves in a position that makes them uncomfortable as this is when accidents happen.

With the above experience in mind both Chris & I would cherish another opportunity like this, but may be just a little more aware of what can happen.


So, that is all my news for this month.


I look forward to sharing some great shark stories at the end of November.

To view all photo highlights from October please have a look at Photo’s of the Month.

We have also uploaded all our best breaching and predation images from the 2008 season at Seal Island. These images are available for purchase on www.apexpredators.com. The South African Rand is very weak right now so those of you purchasing with Dollars, Pounds and Euros it is a great time to buy at a great price!



Best wishes

Monique Fallows


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