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Shark Bytes

August 2007 Shark Bytes

written by Monique Fallows

Posted on Friday, 31 August 2007

2007 has certainly been a different shark season at Seal Island. June was perhaps our slowest shark month during peak season in the last 8 years and now August has been the busiest shark months I can recall.


We usually brace ourselves for bad weather in August but this past month we only had to cancel 4 trips which is remarkable. Although the weather has been good the wind direction has 90% of the time been blowing from the north (our winter wind) and the dreaded South East wind that is our summer wind seems to be on holiday. I am not complaining at all but this is a little odd because this change in wind direction normally signals the onset of spring. In fact there is very little evidence that spring is on its way. There are very few green sprouting leaves on the trees, ducklings in our area that would be abundant are no where in sight and cold fronts are still approaching Cape Town. Not quite global warming but definitely climate change.


On the whole the sharks have been predating heavily on the seals except at the beginning of the month when we were seeing less than 5 events in the morning.


At this point we were recording a high number of different sharks around the boat and on a 3 different days we had noted 15 different sharks that had visited our boat. They were a variety of small (2,5 meters), medium (3,5 meters) and large (4 meters plus) sharks. During the first half of the month with so many different sharks coming to the boat we had some awesome cage diving days with good weather. Chris was even able to cage dive a number of times and one particular dive he rated as one of his best dives ever.


He had between 2 and 4 sharks around the cage at one time and what was also a stand out factor was that the sharks were fascinated with the cage and were repeatedly mouthing and gently bumping into it.  What was fantastic for me and everyone else on board to see was how excited Chris was during the dive. There can’t be too many people who have spent as much time as Chris has with great white sharks and he still gets more excited than anyone else on the boat!


We have noticed that on days where there a lot of different sharks around the boat there is usually a 30 to 40 minute period where things are just going crazy and new sharks are appearing at the boat too fast to even record properly. On one particular day we were experiencing what I have just described when not more than 15 meters (45 feet) behind the boat a 3,8 meter shark did a full natural white belly breach.  It was in an area directly behind us and everyone on board was watching. We are not entirely sure why the sharks sometimes do these natural breaches. What we have noticed is that they are often very close to the boat so this could possibly be some sort of communication with the boat, or maybe because there is a high number of different sharks in a small area and there is some sort of interaction between the sharks that we are not aware of. Whatever the reason they are always spectacular breaches and this sight is definitely one of my highlights of the year.


We have also had 4 very good sightings of the same 5 meter female shark that we saw in July. We saw her twice around the boat in August as well as once on a predation and also once when she breached on the decoy.


From the middle of the month the intensity of the natural predations really pick up. We were recording a minimum of 15 different events per morning. On the busiest day we recorded a phenomenal 38 different events which comes very close to our busiest day ever. Not all of these events are successful kills although we have observed the sharks to be more successful under certain weather conditions. We are also strongly starting to believe that even though there were 38 events there are certainly not this number of sharks in the area. We think that the sharks will keep hunting whether they are successful or not. The seals that they are targeting are roughly 20 kilograms (45 pounds) so we believe that if there is more opportunity to feed the sharks will do so.


It is extremely difficult to identify sharks on successful and unsuccessful kills because we keep a respectful distance coupled with the fact that the events take place so quickly that sometimes we do not even see the shark. During a chase there is also lot of frothing water again restricting identification. In 2005 we were able to positively identify the same shark make 2 kills in 10 minutes. Chris has also taken a photograph of a shark breaching on the decoy with fresh seal entrails coming out of its gills.


Once the predation activity really started intensifying the sharks became more reluctant to visit the boat once we were on anchor. In the last week of August they were not coming up at all even though there were many predations earlier in the morning. This is the kind of behavior we start to see when the season starts to wind down so it will be interesting to see for how much longer the sharks will be at Seal Island.


One particular predatory event that I would like to mention took place on a returning seal 50 meters from where we where on anchor. The shark did a full breach on the seal and was successful on this first attempt. The breach was all that we saw of the shark. Because the seal was relatively close to the boat Chris was able to photograph the event. When we were back home looking at the photographs we were surprised to identify “Cuz” as the shark that made the kill. Over the last few years we have noted him to be a particularly good hunter. By the way, Cuz did not come up to the boat that day!


Already the shark spotters at Fish Hoek and kommetjie beach have started to see a number of sharks close inshore. This is what the sharks do every year until about the end of November. So, all water users please take care and note that there have already been a number of inshore sightings.


August has also seen the return of the Southern Right Whales en mass to False Bay. They migrate from Antarctica at this time of year to breed and calf in the protected shallows of the bay. It is said that the southern right whale population is increasing by 7% annually so it is a great success story after their numbers dramatically plummeted during the whaling period throughout the southern hemisphere.


Boat based whale watching has had an exciting new start in False Bay and a new company, Cape Town Whale Watching, is now operating out of Kalk Bay daily. The permit allows the operator within 50 meters of the whales at which point the whale may approach on its own accord. It is a unique experience seeing these mammoth mammals so close and I would highly recommend this trip to anyone who finds themselves in the area. The contact number is 083 868 7896 and the rate is R650-00 for adults and R400-00 for kids.

He had between 2 and 4 sharks around the cage at one time and what was also a stand out factor was that the sharks were fascinated with the cage and were repeatedly mouthing and gently bumping into it.

To end off the month’s news I have a feel good story…


The seals often times feed/scavenge offshore behind fishing trawlers and do unfortunately sometimes get caught up in the trawl net. Often the fishermen on board do not release the seals properly and just cut a wide circle around the seal leaving it with a heavy necklace of netting to carry around with it. This means that the seal is unable to hunt as it is weighted down by the netting. The seal is then left to a horrific death of slow starvation. We call these seals “green seals” due to the green netting they adorn.


Chris tries whenever possible to catch these seals on the Island and release them. It is a difficult task that involves swimming to the Island and stalking the seal. This means crawling slowing up to the seal and barking like a seal should any of the 60 000 of the Island suspect him! One also has to carefully way up the advantages of rescuing this seal against causing mass disturbance on the Island. This can result in major problems such a seals stampeding and sensitive breeding cormorants to be chased off their nests. So, only a seal on a less sensitive side of the Island can be helped.


There were two green seals this month and after a failed attempt of the first seal Chris was very distressed at missing the opportunity. The following day he got another crack at it and deftly managed to capture and release it from the net. The second seal posed far more of a problem because it had very little netting around its neck. This would make it very difficult to catch because Chris would have had to get right on top of the seal before managing to grab the net. It would have been impossible and our crew member, Poenas set about making a plan.


He welded four pieces of rebar together to make a grapple hook. He and Chris then used an inflatable boat to get as close to the Island as possible. Then attaching the grapple to a rope Poenas threw the contraption over the seal. On the first go the hook ensnared the netting and they were able to pull the seal off the Island and into the boat. I am not sure if you can envisage how difficult this was but we have thought that the chances of the hook catching the net were about 1 in 5. Anyway there are at least two very much happier seals on Seal Island right now!


The first half of September is usually the last period of our high season but with no sign of spring it will be interesting to see if the shark season will be longer.

On “Photos of the Month” there are a number of predation images, underwater images and some good whale shots.


Until next month,


Best wishes

Monique Fallows


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