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Named after the unfortunate ease with which they were harpooned, these whales would float conveniently when dead, making them “the right” target for whalers. Boulders Beach (where the penguins are today) was a whaling station until the early 20th century and the old tethering rings for harpooned whales can still be seen today.
Boulders was also the scene of South Africa’s ﬁrst fatal shark attack in 1902 as sharks were no doubt attracted by the regular supply of dead whales. Fortunately, today the whales are protected and are one of the good news conservation stories, recovering at an annual rate of 7%. They can be seen in False Bay between August and November and occasionally as early as May, using the waters in the bay to mate and calve.
It is believed this species may live up to 70 years of age. They have no dorsal ﬁn, can be up to 18m long and have large callosities (patches of dry skin) on their heads. The double spouted blowhole is also indicative of the species. During late August, September and October you may be thrilled by the exciting occurrence of a breaching Southern Right Whale in the bay.
The Humpback Whale undertakes the longest migration of any mammal on earth, with some covering nearly 16 000km in a round trip. The scientific name literally translates into “big wing of England” and describes the whale’s long flippers, the longest of any whale.
Humpback Whales are well known for creating a net of bubbles to trap the fish on which they lunge feed.
Usually seen in family groups of 2 or more, we typically see these whales 5 to 10 times a year, to the east of Seal Island and regularly during our spring and early summer months off Cape Point.
These 17m long giants are affectionately known as the ballerinas of the ocean as they twist and tumble in the open ocean.
Their typically white tail ﬂukes which can be seen when they dive distinguish them from other whales.
These whales are more likely to investigate a boat than the Brydes Whale and we have had a number of incredible interactions.
The Antarctic Minke grows to around 11m, while the Dwarf Minke grows to around 8m. Neither species have a visible blowhole and both only have a single ridge on the head.
Although seen elsewhere, these 15m long whales are semi-resident to False Bay. They are most often seen where shoals of baitﬁsh occur and are occasionally seen gulp feeding.
They are identiﬁed by a small curved dorsal ﬁn two thirds of the way along the back of the whale. They are named after Johan Bryde – a Norwegian whaler who initiated a whaling operation in South Africa.
Humpback Dolphin have only been seen a handful of times in False Bay and we have been lucky enough to see them twice – on both occasions they were seen close inshore. Sadly large levels of pollutants have been found in their tissue. They are between 2.5m to 2.8m and are characterised by an irregular hump-shaped dorsal fin.
We have seen two species of Bottlenose Dolphins in False Bay. Mostly seen closer to Muizenberg and Strandfontein beaches, these 2.5m grey dolphins typically dive for lengthy periods and often swim in tight groupings. On very rare occasions these dolphins will swim right next to Seal Island. On several occasions, remains of Bottlenose Dolphin have been found inside the stomachs of Great White Sharks.
These dolphins are only seen a handful of times each year. They are 1.5 to 1.8m in length and are mostly black and white. They are a lot smaller than Common Dolphins and typically occur in schools of 10 to 50 animals. The maximum age is believed to be around 35 years. The sighting of this species is often made more special by their playful acrobatic antics.
These beautifully patterned dolphins are especially common in False Bay in April, but can also be seen all year round. These species of dolphin grow to around 2.5m, live close to 40 years and are often seen riding the bow wave.
Common dolphin are gregarious and can occur in mega schools of over 1000, but schools of 20 to 200 are more common. It is possible that larger groups are more effective at hunting in deep water. There may be a partial migration of this species further north in winter following Sardine shoals. The groups can present different formations, some with fixed structures. Others may represent temporary aggregations for the immediate solution of a problem, like more efficient hunting or avoiding danger.
Males are the larger gender and may reach 2.6m, with females reaching 2.3m. The calf is born 800mm long after an 11 month gestation period. Calving peaks in summer. Lactation may last up to one and half years. Females are sexually mature at about 2m long when they are 6 to 7 years old. Calving interval is 3 years. Some fighting in competition for females is assumed to occur between males.
There are 51 pairs of teeth in the upper jaw and a similar amount in the lower jaw. Teeth are conical and 3mm in diameter.
Seabirds such as terns and gulls that feed both above and below water have red oil droplets in their eyes. This improves contrast and sharpens distance vision, especially in hazy conditions. Birds that have to look through an air / water interface have deeper coloured carotenoid pigments in the oil droplets than other species which helps them to locate shoals of fish.
Birds that pursue fish solely underwater have far fewer red oil droplets, and instead have special flexible lenses and use the nictitating membrane as an additional lens. This allows greater optical accommodation for good vision in air and water.
This is the only penguin species that regularly breeds in Africa.
Hunting parties numbering 5 to 50 penguins are regularly seen close to the Arc Rock and Roman Rock area (Roman Rock was South Africa’s ﬁrst automated light house). These birds are mostly from Boulders Beach Penguin Colony which presently holds around 2500 birds.
Seal Island also has a small breeding population which can be most easily seen mid-way up the eastern side of the island.These penguins can travel more than 50km to feed and are occasionally killed by Great White Sharks.
As youngsters these birds are mostly a grey-black, but adulthood sees them turn a brilliant white. They have yellowish wings and spectacularly blue-ringed eyes and are always special to see should you get close enough.
Known in Afrikaans as “malgans” (mad goose), they are often seen diving kamikaze-style from prodigious heights into the sea to catch ﬁsh. They enter the water at speeds up to 145 km/hr and can reach depths of 30m, resurfacing up to 20 seconds later. With almost-front facing eyes, they can see forward better than most other birds with near binocular vision.
In part due to this amazing binocular vision, most eventually die blind and from starvation. The lifetime of repeated high-speed impact with the water eventually takes its toll on their eyesight.
This species is abundant and can often be seen in a swirling mass numbering in the thousands. These birds can easily be identiﬁed by a yellow patch on their throat and their smaller relative size.
This is South Africa’s largest cormorant and is characterised by a large white breast. Closer inspection reveals two beautiful dark green eyes.
Numerically this cormorant is the least abundant on Seal Island and also the only species which feeds mostly around the island. Not surprisingly then, it is also the bird most commonly attacked by Great Whites which usually discard it as an unwanted meal after tasting it.
This is a threatened species and there are reportedly only 6000 birds remaining in their range. Interestingly they make their nests from ﬁne seaweed which is glued together with their own excrement. The plumage of breeding birds can be identiﬁed by a bold white spot on their backs.
These gangsters of Seal Island will often be seen scavenging on or around the island. During the months of May to August, large numbers congregate on the south western end of the island. This area has been dubbed “The Gallery” as it is the best vantage point for the gulls to watch for predatory events.
Mature birds are characterised by a red dot on their beaks. The chicks peck this dot, prompting the adults to regurgitate food for them.
In January of 2009 we found a sick adult bird drifting close to shore. The ring on the bird’s leg revealed that it was 22 years old and ringed only two kilometres away from where we found it.
The waters off Cape Point rank as some of the best on earth to see the great open ocean birds and you will have an excellent opportunity to see many of these birds up close. They offer the chance to see no less than 7 species of Albatross on a single outing, including the Wandering, Northern and Southern Albatross. The greatest of them all is the Wandering Albatross with a wingspan that may reach a staggering 3.6m (11ft).
During our daily excursions we often investigate the wakes of commercial trawlers which ply their trade in these waters. It is in the wash of these boats that many seabirds gather - Albatross, Petrels, Shearwaters, Prions, Gulls, Skuas, Terns and Gannets up to 8000 at a time.
The variation in species diversity depends heavily on seasons so be sure to ask beforehand, which is the best time of year to see your special bird. The birds are often less than a few metres away and this is an excellent opportunity to see their amazing adaptations to this extreme environment up close.
The seals use this island as a breeding ground and each year around 12 000 pups are born. The pups are suckled for nine months or more, but will start feeding on their own from as early as 5 months.
Adult males, or bull seals, return to the island in large numbers to mate and set up territories around September / October each year and then leave shortly after the bulk of pupping.
The bulls can weigh over 300kg, while a large female may weigh upwards of 75kg.
Ironically this largest of all fur seals was given the scientific name pusillus as it was first described from a pup. Pusillus means small. At birth they weigh around 5kg. Males can live for 18 years and females up to 21 years. They are typically seen in False Bay in groups ranging from 1 to 5 animals but can be in large pods numbering over 100 when feeding. They often depart from the southern end of Seal Island in well organised groups.