Posted on Wednesday, 4 May 2016
Sitting waiting for sharks 70km off the South western tip of Africa is a normal day in our office; our sanctuary away from the hum drum of everyday life. It is in this area that a series of deep water canyons create good upwelling conditions that attract a variety of bait fish, squid and other favourite prey of sharks and a whole plethora of cetaceans.
Every year we try to spend every good weather day forecast out in this area hoping for something special to poke its nose around the back of our boat.
The general rule of thumb is that the further offshore that we head so the number of sharks we see is less, but often bigger animals are present. On this occasion we had waited nearly two fruitless hours for the sharks when in the distance I spotted several small splashes, which initially I thought could be approaching wind or hopefully a school of large gamefish, or hopefully cetaceans of some description. Fortunately it proved to be the latter.
When we made our way out to the source of the splashes, roughly 50 Pilot whales charged with purpose through the surrounding water half clearing the water with every thrust of their tails. These peculiar whales, known to whalers as black fish, are highly gregarious and very sociable, forming tightly knit family units that are defined in a matrilineal system; much like elephants. They are primarily squid feeders, and as the walls of the submarine canyon which we were drifting over play host to various squid species, it is obviously a good hunting ground for the Pilot whales. Although I have dived with Pilot whales on many occasions in the past, this interaction was undoubtedly my best. It was just myself and a few like-minded friends out there, and over the course of the next four hours we took turns getting in with the whales, on all occasions allowing the whales a lot of choice as to whether they wanted to approach us or not.
Probably at least 50 whales tightly bunched with several inverted cavorting with each other and paying little attention to me.
After a few interactions the whales became more and more comfortable with our presence, and the 50 odd whales had now been joined by probably three or four other schools swelling the total count to over 400 animals in conjunction with around 80 offshore Bottlenose dolphins who had joined the party.
On several dives we watched in awe as groups of upward of 30-40 whales cavorted in close proximity together, touching and rubbing up against one another. On other occasions they would mill around slowly on the surface, spy hopping and tail slapping, clearly engaged in some or other social greeting or interaction. During our time with the whales we watched on several occasions as they either regurgitated or surface fed on large chunks of big squid that if not eaten were quickly were gobbled up by the ever attendant Cory’s shearwaters and white chinned petrels.
This was particularly interesting as I had sifted through Pilot whale poop before and could not understand what the benefit of this was to the birds as it was very finely digested and not much more than a black sinuous slime. Clearly the reason for the birds following the whales was to get the scraps that were being brought to the surface; either for the whales to feed to their young (as they dive deeper by day than by night which might be difficult for the very young) or perhaps they were messy feeders.
After probably 25 drops I had one truly amazing encounter. As the primary school of whales approached me I dived down and what a sight! Probably at least 50 whales tightly bunched with several inverted cavorting with each other and paying little attention to me. For probably five seconds the whole group drifted no more than 10 meters away from me as one seething mass of cetacean celebration. Incredible! Whilst the Pilot whales were indifferent to my presence, the Bottlenose dolphins gave me a far wider berth. After an incredible time spent with the whales and the sun starting to slowly fall out of the sky into the west we turned for home, far from shore but full of amazing memories of these wonderful open ocean nomads.
To read about previous offshore species encounters click on the links below:
April 2015: Pilot Whale
December 2014: Sperm Whale
May 2013: False Killer Whale & Oceanic Bottlenose Dolphin
May 2011: Pilot Whale