Dear Shark Lovers,
I had a tremendous response from September Shark Bytes so I guess you all really enjoyed hearing about the whale carcass feeding event!
This month I am going to write about our recent trip to Isla Guadalupe and will also briefly chat about our trip to the Masai Mara in Kenya…it’s not sharky but I think you will still enjoy it.
For shark lovers it is not just about seeing and diving with sharks but for some of the lucky few who have the opportunities it is also about seeing all the shark hot spots of the world. In the world of the white sharks there are only a few spots where one can have a realistic chance of seeing them and each spot has its own special highlights.
Our home spot, Seal Island gives us an opportunity to see high numbers of sharks and spectacular behaviour. But, the water visibility can be poor and takes on a green tinge. Don’t get me wrong, we do get great visibility days but is does not quite compare to the inky blue pelagic water off Isla Guadalupe which is famous for its 120 foot gin clear water.
We had the privilege of spending some time here in 2004 but we were still super excited about visiting what we consider a very spectacular setting for Great white sharks. There is nothing quite like the site of a jagged volcanic island appearing through the mist on a pacific ocean morning after a 20 hour boat crossing!
Special Shark / Seal Interactions
We were filming a new show for Discovery Channel’s 2011 Shark Week so we were even more lucky to have the opportunity of the private use of the boat for our goals. The lead diver and guide on board was Antonio, who is equally passionate about sharks and a superb diver. We had already spent many hours talking about his Guadalupe shark experiences which helped wile away the long boat ride out there. Something that we found really exciting was the amount of shark/seal interactions he spoke about observing while underwater.
The Island is dotted with small seal colonies of various species including Northern elephant seals, California seal lions and Guadalupe fur seals. There does seem to be white shark predation on the elephant seals in November/December each year but other than this there have not been many predatory events recorded on the other seal species. It seems to be the general opinion that the sharks are feeding on various gamefish such as yellowfin tuna that are present in prolific numbers.
Over our 6 day stay we were to find out that the shark/seal interactions were not really a good thing for our work!
Once we had anchored our first shark arrived within 15 minutes. What a special sight…a medium sized male in beautiful blue water with the backdrop of a volcanic Island! But, by the end of the afternoon we realised that we were going to have a battle on our hands.
When the first California seal lion arrived we had 2 great whites interacting with us. This first sight was really exciting as the sea lion swam down to have a closer look at the shark. In fact it wasn’t a closer look, it was plain harassment! Over the years the seals have learnt that the bait used to attract the sharks also makes an easy meal for them and as such they spend a lot of time at the shark boats.
Because the water visibility is so good the chances of the shark catching the seal is virtually nil. The prey sees the predator and the game is up.
This continual harassment keeps the sharks circling lower down and ultimately they leave the area giving way to great views of the seals from the cage, but no sharks…
Chris & I found this fascinating and demonstrates how completely different topography, water conditions and seal behaviour can dictate what the sharks do in each location.
Needless to say our film shoot was at the mercy of the seals and the battle to film sharks before the seals arrived. It got so bad that we had one day with no sharks and a second day with 1 brief visitor.
The good news is that we had a couple 3 hour periods of awesome activity that enabled us to capture all the footage we needed.
A Male Dominated Visit
Another comparison we were able to make was how gender specific certain time periods seem to be at Guadalupe. During our stay (and the early to middle part of the season) nearly 90% of the sharks were medium to large males.
Early October seems to herald the arrival of the famous large females (4 meters plus).
At Seal Island there seems to be no pattern at all with regards to shark gender although we do occasionally see spikes in either males or female numbers. The sharks at Seal Island are there primarily to feed on seals and I guess male or female, the sharks have to eat.
I am not sure why there is this situation at Guadalupe. Perhaps the big females are moving according to pupping routes and time periods. Hopefully the numerous studies taking place at Guadalupe, many of which are high impact with sharks being hooked, lifted out of the water and tags drilled through their fins, will shed some light on this. If not it seems a risky business to put so much stress on a rare and endangered animal.
We also noted that in terms of numbers we were generally seeing the same sharks over the 6 day stay and there was not a high turn over of new individuals.
We had the privilege of spending time with a very special 4.1 meter male. The crew know him as “Bruce” and I gather that he is very well known in these parts. In fact we even saw him on a documentary the other day! In our case he was the active ingredient whenever the activity was good. He would stay around the boat for up to a couple of hours at a time and his attitude was very relaxed but at the same time confident. At 4.1 meters he would be somewhere around 12 years old. He obviously has had a couple run-ins with other sharks in his life and has some great battle scars. The Guadalupe crew have on a number of occasions seen sharks biting each other in hierarchy displays and many of the sharks we saw display these wounds. Whilst we do see great whites with bites at Seal Island we do not see nearly the same proportion with bites.
I suppose a strange comment for me to make is that the white sharks here actually look different compared to the Seal Island sharks.
I guess this is mostly to do with the water clarity making the black and white contrast a lot easier to define but also very few have the white pigment marks on their dorsal fins that so many of the South African sharks have.
There have been genetic studies of recent times that have had interesting results.
Although they are the same species there appears to be no genetic relationships between the white shark populations of the northern and southern hemisphere.
It has been said that the female great whites of South Africa and Australia do have some sort of relationship which ties with information that the sharks are moving between these two continents.
I can’t say too much about the new show but I will give you plenty of warning time for when it will be aired next year. There should be some really beautiful footage and also some good environmental messages. We are particularly grateful to have been able to visit Guadalupe again as there seem to be some tough times coming.
The Mexican government has not taken kindly to the shark diving boats working in this area and restrictions are making it more and more difficult to work here. New laws actually include no baiting and no chumming… so pretty fruitless if you are trying to dive with sharks.
The irony is that I was told by the observer on the boat that his current study found that about 50 great white sharks are killed annually by Mexican net fishermen in one small area. It seems the government is not putting any effort into stopping this but are rather focusing on the soft target of the shark diving industry that is promoting and protecting a living animal.
Back Home in Africa, The Masai Mara
Chris & I were given the opportunity of visiting the Masai Mara in Kenya a couple of weeks ago. This area is famous for the Great Migration of Wildebeest and Zebra herds from the Serengeti Plains to the Masai Mara. These herds, said to number in the region of 1.5 million animals, have to migrate in search of new grazing area which is dictated by rainfall.
During this migration small to enormous sized herds need to cross the mighty Mara River where they can fall prey to crocodiles as well as being stampeded by their own kind.
People often confuse the Migration as being the same as the crossing. This is not so and in fact many crossings will take place often multiple times by the same herds as they constantly move in search of new pastures.
Herds as Far as the Eye Could See
Just before our arrival most of the herds had already left the area close to our camp but as luck would have it a day of rain brought them all back again! Throughout our week long stay we could not stop being overwhelmed by the sheer number of wildebeest that were present on the African plains that stretched for miles and miles. As far as the eye could see the plains were dotted with wildebeest knit so closely that they looked like thick bush. It was actually a heart-warming sight to see Africa in such a plentiful state. We were visiting at the tail end of the season so only about a third of what can be seen was present. It was quite simply astounding and utterly breath taking.
Now that we had seen the “migration” we were hoping that we would have a small chance to see a crossing. This is a strange game. There are many regular “entry” and “exit” points along the river. Almost daily herds of wildebeest varying from small to large would gather on the bank. We would naturally expect them to cross, but it is a serious waiting game. The animals will walk a little closer and then run off at galloping speed. Then 30 minutes later they would slowly wander to the top of the bank, have a good look for another 45 minutes and then decide that this was not quite right for them. Our guide told us that there are no guarantees but sometimes pressure from the herd will force the first animals to cross and then the rest follow. Some crossings can take as long as 6 hours with herds 80,000 strong or perhaps only 5 minutes for a smaller herd.
Our camp was located on the Mara River and right in front is a crossing point. The wildebeest had been gathering for 2 days without anything happening so on day 3 we did not really expect anything to happen.
But as we were sitting down having lunch our camp manageress starting shouting and then we heard the great rumble as the wildebeest starting hurtling down the river bank. I don’t think 14 people have vacated a lunch table as quickly as we did. We were so fortunate that this was happening right at our camp as we could run down to the approaching side of the bank and watch and photograph at eye level as the wildebeest came straight towards us.
It was a chaotic and yet astounding event. The dust and noise levels were unbelievable but I have to say that this was not one of the nicest things to see. I personally do not like to see any animals in pain or in fear… and this is just one extremely stressful situation for these poor animals. Many of them die from being trampled, drown or are caught by crocs. There were no crocs on this crossing and only one wildebeest drowned so I think it was as mild as it could be.
Six Cheetah Cubs
Not only was the plains game amazing but the predator density just remarkable in the Mara. On every drive, both morning and afternoon, we would see both cheetah and lion and we also had 2 great leopard sightings and a caracal mom and kitten.
The highlight was a lot of time spent with a remarkable cheetah mom who was raising 6 cubs. There are very few records of a cheetah female raising this many and she had already got them to the age of 3 months. It was very special to watch these 6 little mites play and misbehave together.
But, there is quite a background story to this. Cheetahs as a species are in a very bad way and numbers are dropping all over Africa. In the Mara the female is said to have a home range 400km2. When a female is raising cubs she needs to be able to move great distances in order to avoid other cats such as lions and also hyena that are responsible for the high cub mortality rate. Although the Mara is large is still not big enough to support this and as such very few cheetah cubs are being successfully raised.
From when she was first found with the cubs the Park organised a 24 hour guard against other predators for a one month period. Although this is no longer the case she is still carefully monitored and if there is any danger she is protected. During the week we were there we saw her harassed by a hyena (which she successfully fended off herself) but then on two other occasions disaster was prevented when a lion and another hyena were chased away.
The big question is… when is it right to interfere? Our feeling is that she cannot travel the distances she needs due to human encroachment surrounding the park. So cheetahs are no longer successful due to our human impact. Amongst some very heavy discussion in our group the point was raised that she could be sacrificing herself with the energy she is spending raising so many cubs and perhaps other predators are needed in reducing the number of cubs in order to ensure the success of some.
At the end of the day it is a very sensitive topic but I do think efforts need to be made to ensure that even just one cub makes it, but not to the detriment of the mother. We were very impressed with how the driver/guides behaved around her. They were very mindful to not push her too much or come too close and even left the area when they felt they needed too. We all need to play our part in realising when eco tourism needs to be done in a responsible manner.
Chris & I would like to say a very big thank you to C4 Images for organising this trip. They work with the best camp and the best guides! If anyone is thinking of doing a combination of peak shark viewing and a safari add on this is a great option and feel free to ask us how to plan and organise a trip with this fantastic outfit.
During November we will be doing some inshore Great white shark work in Gansbaai so I am really looking forward to spending some time here for the first time. For Chris it will be going back to where he first started way back in 1991 and spent 4 wonderful years with The White Shark Research Institute where they were for the most part the only boat in the Dyer Island Channel.
It is also at the very start of our pelagic shark season so we are all looking forward to seeing the magnificent mako and blue sharks again and from late November will be getting into full swing.
For a closer view of all our October images from Isla Guadalupe and the Masai Mara please check out Photos of the Month.
Until next month,