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Pilot Whale Sighting

written by Monique Fallows

A pilot whale off Cape Point, Cape Town.

Posted on Sunday, 15 May 2011

We have been running Pelagic Shark Trips since 1999. Chris, Poenas & I just love these trips. We are venturing out into the open ocean off the most South Western tip of Africa. This trip is truly a marine adventure with such a great variety of marine life possible to encounter.

 

Our target species is Mako and Blue sharks but the open ocean sea birds are also a huge highlight. After New Zealand the waters off Cape Point are said to be the best for seeing a large variety of sea birds. Up to 7 species of albatross are possible as well as petrels, terns, shearwaters and so many others.

The waters off Cape Point are extremely nutrient rich and not only support the sharks and birds but also a large amount of cetacean species. 

 

On Sunday we did not have any guests booked and as the weather forecast was so good we decided to head offshore with just the Apex crew to enjoy a good day’s sharking together!

On the way out one of our new crew members, Amy, was asking me about what whales or dolphins we could possibly see. Not 30 minutes later, we came across a school of about 100 Dusky Dolphins. We had not seen this species of dolphin for nearly 3 years so it was really exciting to get close to them again.

 

Once out in the “deep” we had 4/5 blue sharks up at the boat. The guys were enjoying a great dive with these beautiful sharks but this was suddenly interrupted.

About 100 meters away Chris spotted a large disturbance in the water. After a closer look it appeared that a herd of wild horses was galloping towards us, such was the velocity with which this pod of pilot whales was traveling.

Chris, still struggling with his case of “orcalitis” , thought they may have been killer whales but as they raced past we identified them as pilot whales, most likely short-finned.

 

After a quick decision we decided to leave the blue sharks and pursue the pilot whales. Easy choice as this was only the 5th time we have seen them!

We estimated there to be about 60 animals in this pod, a mixture of adults and juveniles. They were completely unfazed by the boat but we were careful to only stop ahead of them and wait until they came across us. We then turned the engines off and just listened and watched as they cruised at about 8 knots past us. The noise of rushing water was spectacular!

A number of them were pretty curious with the boat and would dive beneath us for a really good look. 

 

We also tracked alongside them for a while and just really enjoyed & appreciated getting such a great look at these animals.

 

After a closer look it appeared that a herd of wild horses was galloping towards us, such was the velocity with which this pod of pilot whales was traveling.

They really are strange looking animals with a huge bulbous head. This is most likely due to the fact that they rely heavily on using sonar for navigation and feeding. They feed mostly on squid so they also need at times to dive to great depths, (between 200 and 500 meters).

 

They have a parrot-like beak mouth, tiny compared to the rest of the animal and a very small eye. It was a little difficult to get a really good view of their eyes and mouth as these are only exposed very quickly while they breathe at the surface. Chris took some good photos and in some of them you can have a good look.

Their dorsal fins also vary from one animal to another. Some are really wide and thick and others are a little smaller. 

 

 

There are two species of pilot whales; long-finned and short-finned, and both occur in our waters. It is very difficult to tell the two apart but having done some reading on both species I suspect that in the five sightings we have had, we have seen both species. I am still not quite sure what species we saw on Sunday but I suspect it was short-finned.

 

Some interesting info about them is that males live up to 40 years and females amazingly up to 63 years. Scientists do not currently know why the males die at a younger age. Males generally leave their natal school while females remain in theirs for life. Another interesting fact is that some females can nurse their calves for up to 15 years.

From reading all of this there seems to be a very strong bond between the animals in each school.

This is a species that is known to strand on a fairly regular basis and it is said, although not proven, that a single member of the school “pilots” or leads the group and that all members will follow this leader without question, even if it is to its death. 

 

 

We hope that you all enjoy the pics!

Tags:

Marine Life, Cape Point - Cape Town

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