The water conditions in False Bay normally start to change around mid-September. The dreaded South Easter wind starts to blow signalling the arrival of spring that brings warm water currents into False Bay. With this warm water are a variety of migratory fish species and other species of sharks. Most importantly the smooth hound and soup fin shark species make up a large percentage of the Great white sharks summer diet. As these species feed on bait fish normally found close to shore and behind the surf zone the Great whites move close to shore in search of these prey items.
What we generally observe in late August and particularly the early part of September are the Great whites hunting seals in the pre-dawn and early sunrise time period. After this hunting activity we think that the sharks depart Seal Island and move inshore. We are not sure if this is for further feeding or to “rest” over the highly oxygenated sandy beach stretches. Whatever the reason it can be difficult to attract sharks up to the boat and we do warn our guests that cage diving can be difficult.
This season has been different. After a couple of slower trips towards the end of August we were preparing ourselves for some difficult trips but the sharks decided to be nice to all of us! On the first of September we had a record 8 different sharks at the boat, all being super interactive with us. (This is a record for shark sightings in September). We were hosting our last 7 day trip of the season and we really impressed upon our guests to make the most of the diving that day as this could be the best they would get in the week to come. An added bonus was excellent water visibility which is still present in False Bay now. Good for us means between 10 and 15 meters, still cold but great for cage diving!
This great day on 1 September set the trend for the next 10 days and surprisingly we recorded great shark numbers (averaging 5 per trip) up to about 10 September and everyone wanting to cage dive got to see a shark or more underwater. Sometimes we can see good numbers of sharks but they are not very interactive. Our September sharks on the whole where very keen to stick around and we also saw a good variety of sizes.
I spoke a lot about “Highlander” and “Shamrock” last month. These 2 smallish sharks were still regularly sighted up to the about 20 September, meaning they spent in the region on 2.5 months at Seal Island. We also identified a third shark in the same size range that was seen often with either or both Highlander and Shamrock. So, they were certainly the stars of the 2011 season. As the season was drawing to an end one of our guides, Amy, had the opportunity of one last cage dive, and fortunately it was with Highlander. I say fortunately as Amy was able to see that Highlander was actually a female where all along we had thought she was a male!
The highlight of September, and right up there for the season, was the return of “Amber”. We first observed this female shark in 2007 and she was one of the regular sharks around the boat (like Highlander and Shamrock) in season’s 2008 and 2009. We did not see her in 2010 and of course this was a little concerning for us as she had always been a shark that would arrive round about May. She has a white flash above her left pelvic fin which can be difficult to see unless there are good conditions. On 3 September we got a great look and were thrilled to know she had return to Seal Island once again.
She is in incredible condition. When we last saw her in 2009 we had recorded her as 3.6 meters. She is now touching 4 meters (just over 13 feet) and is displaying a very impressive girth on her way to becoming a beautifully mature lady! As the sharks get bigger they tend to be less interactive at the boats, kind of like, I know what you are and I have better things to do! But, Amber gave us more than a good few passes and we were thrilled to have such a great experience with her on that first visit. She did come up to the boat on a few more occasions during the first week in September and as we had the same group each day, everyone was so hoping she would make a daily visit. We did also see her hunting on 2 occasions. The first time she did a full breach on an outbound group of seals, amazing to see a 4 meter shark come blasting out of the water. She was not successful but the following day we did observe her make a successive kill.
Amber, stay safe and we all really hope to see you in 2012...
On the whole the predation activity in September was a little down from previous seasons. We would expect to see between 5 and 10 events per morning but even from early September this activity seemed to be on the decrease. We are very spoilt at Seal Island. To have the opportunity of seeing any interaction between a predator and its prey at any wildlife location in the world is difficult, and a privilege. So, I don’t want to undermine the fact that we were seeing between 2 and 5 events per day as being slow, it was just less than normal. The events were also very quick. You had to be looking in the right spot at the right time as it was normally just one hit and that was that. If the shark got the seal on the first go, it got its meal, if the shark missed, there was rarely a follow up. Again, it goes to show the value of booking for a longer stay. Our group in early September gave themselves enough time that over the week period they got to see a number of very good chases, it just was not every day.
Typical end of season behaviour is when a shark on a successful predation takes a long time to consume the seal or will actually leave a large part of the meal uneaten. During the peak of the season consumptions are super quick. We believe with a high number of sharks in a small area competition is great and it is not wise to take time to eat lest the meal is lost to a bigger shark. We kept waiting to see this behaviour but it was not as prevalent this season. Just goes to show how different each season is and it is one of the things I love about working with sharks, they keep you guessing all the time!
MY LAST TRIP TO SEAL ISLAND THIS SEASON
We don’t normally do Afternoon Trips in September but we had a group that had only one day to go out and as we were full in the morning they decided to take a chance and go out in the Afternoon. I did not know it at the time but Chris & I were shortly to be struck down with a terrible flu before leaving for Brazil, so was to be our last trip of the season. The weather was gloriously warm and the sea as flat as can be. As we anchored we had a shark very quickly up to the boat. It did not stay for long but we got to see that the water visibility was in the region of 18 to 20 meters; as good as it ever gets at Seal Island.
After a longish wait we ended up with one of the best views of a shark all season. We had an extremely relaxed interaction with a female of about 3.3 meters. For about 50 minutes this shark behaved like a ballerina. She was so incredibly graceful as she would move up and down the water column. As the visibility was so good we could watch her dive to about 20 meters and then very slowly approach the boat at a vertical angle exposing her magnificent white belly. It was a breathtaking encounter and the shark’s sheer beauty left us all in awe. Looking back now, I am so thrilled this was my last moment at Seal Island this season, a terrific end to a great season!
A VERY INTERESTING OBSERVATION
Poenas and our team did a number of trips once we had left for Brazil and I want to make mention of a very interesting observation they made. 2 guests were in the cage at the time, with a 3.5 meter shark around the boat. As can often happen, a second shark of about 3.4 meters arrived. After the 2 sharks had been at the boat together for between 7 and 10 minutes they had a very interesting interaction. One shark grabbed hold of the other shark’s pectoral fin and the 2 together rolled and twisted and turned as they descended to the deeper water below. The water was crystal clear so there was mistaking what Poenas saw. Sometimes if 2 sharks are going for the bait at the same time there can be a little bit of an altercation but on this occasion the bait was nowhere close to them and could not have had an effect on their interaction.
Neither of these sharks were sexually mature but they displayed what could be classic mating behaviour. No one has ever seen Great white shark mating and very little is known about it. Chris, Poenas and I have spent quite a bit of time talking about this observation. In nature there is many a time where sexually immature juveniles are seen engaging in adult behaviour. We can’t but think that perhaps this is what this event was about...
SHARK BITE AT FISH HOEK
As I explained at the start of this newsletter the sharks depart Seal Island this time of the year and move close to shore. On 28 September a bather who regularly swims across Fish Hoek bay for weekly exercise was bitten by a Great white and sadly lost a limb. 4 days before the attack an increased number of sharks were sighted close to shore along Muizenberg, St James and Fish Hoek. This is completely normal shark behaviour for this time of the year and numerous warnings were posted in the media for bathers and water users to take care.
At the time of the incident, Fish Hoek beach was closed to all water users as a Great white was in the vicinity and was being watched by Shark Spotters. The bather unfortunately did not take heed of the warning and ignored the fact that the beach was closed. Eye witness accounts by a shark spotter and a bystander stated that the bather was swimming 100 meters from shore on a direct course towards the shark (I presume he was not aware of the shark being here). The shark then slowly swam around him and took a bite from behind before slowly swimming away. It was an investigatory bite but unfortunately the bather suffered huge trauma and is lucky to be alive today. There is hype in the media as normal but I think a lot of people are a lot more aware of sharks and their presence in False Bay and are understanding thereof. The Shark Spotting programme is working, so please make sure that you all check the flags before using the water and act in a responsible manner especially during this period where we expect a high number of Great whites to be close to water users.
Ironically on a different tangent but worth pointing out to show just how we humans view ourselves as superior to all other life, our vessel was leading a pelagic bird viewing trip off Cape Point this past weekend and watched in horror as a South African shark longlining vessel killed more than 1000 blue and mako sharks. The longline crew laughed and joked as they held up the still living carcasses of these magnificent animals, waving them to our international guests who were obviously very upset. Needless to say no mention was made of this carnage (it is a regular occurrence permitted by South Africa’s department of environmental affairs) in the press as it is not newsworthy. Headlines a week after the shark attack are however still full of the story of the shark who had attacked the swimmer with some people calling for it to be culled.
We are looking to start running our Pelagic shark trips with Mako and Blue sharks shortly so look out for this news in October as well as weekend departure dates. We did get offshore once in September and had a fantastic trip. We ended up with about 10 blue sharks and 2 mako sharks. The water visibility was about 20 meters so we had excellent conditions too.
In the meantime we have finalised all our special expeditions for 2012. Many of the trips only have limited availability and are sold out quickly each year so be sure to contact us if you are keen to experience the sharks with us in South Africa in 2012. Read more info here.
Until next month,