February has been amazing with fantastic early season Great white shark sightings. False Bay is also churning with marine wildlife so I am really looking forward to relating our experiences.
I also have report backs from our Wild Dog encounters while on a trip to Botswana, our Sharks of Southern Africa Expedition and this summer’s treknet activities.
The Great White Sharks Return Early to Seal Island
Over the last three or four seasons the Great White Sharks have made unseasonably early returns to Seal Island so this year we were ready to start trying from early February. In fact it was late January when the first sharks were sighted making 2014 the earliest start to a season yet.
Our first few trips started with a couple quick sightings but from then onwards it has been close to peak season shark activity around the boat. We have been averaging 5 sharks per trip and even recorded 9 individual sharks on an afternoon trip towards the end of the month.
Many of the sharks have been interactive so the cage diving has been good although we have struggled with water visibility and some windy days.
The water temperature has been unusually high with the highest temp recorded being 23C. This is in sharp contrast to our normal Seal Island winter water temp of 14C and coupled with very high air temperatures it has made for an unusual feeling of being hot at sea! It definitely does not feel like Great White Shark watching weather …
The sharks around the boat have varied considerably in terms of size and we have seen a shark as small as just over 2 meters to a very large female of 4.3 meters.
Of particular interest is that 85% of all sharks we have been able to sex have been males. This is unusual as we do not normally see a sexual segregation at Seal Island itself.
The warm water temperature has also given way to conditions for unusual sightings. Over the last 18 years the only other species of shark we have recorded at Seal Island was a onetime occurrence of bronze whaler sharks and a single mako shark. There is not a huge prey source for other species of sharks and the presence of Great white sharks here is a danger to other species.
But, twice this past February we had small hammerhead sharks in our slick. They did not come up to the boat but it was still exciting to see them cruising on the surface.
We also recorded the return of a Short-tailed Devil Ray to Seal Island who has become a regular visitor to our boat. These rays can get very large and this one is particular is a good 2 meters in diameter. It is very courageous and readily approaches our bait and has even inspected the decoy a few times. I can’t imagine that they make a good meal as we have seen both ray and shark together, and there has never been an attempt from the shark to even investigate it. Anyway, the ray has certainly provided for some excitement and unusual sights from the cage.
It is difficult to understand the Great white shark dynamic in False Bay as the seasons constantly change and vary. By trying to understand why the sharks have returned so early for the past 3 seasons we looked at our data and noticed there is a high rate of scavenge behaviour at this time of the year.
Seal Island is tiny, only 400 meters long, but finding the sharks this time of the season is restricted to a very small area. And it’s in this area that we are recording the sharks scavenging on dead seals as well as hunting sick seals.
These seals are not providing as good a meal as a healthy 6 month old seal that has thick blubber, but the energy used by the shark to catch these weak animals is minimal. Therefore it appears to still be worth their while.
Every time we see a seal carcass floating away from the Island, we watch it, and most times we will see a shark take it. It is interesting to watch how many times the shark inspects that carcass before taking any bites.
This behaviour is similar to observing the sharks feed of sick seals. The seals move very differently to a healthy seal and the sharks take a lot more time confirming that this is something they want to investigate. They are often cautious in their initial approaches and sometimes even reject these meals.
These events often happen very close to the boat so it is an amazing bit of natural history to observe in the early part of the season.
The warm water has also given rise to huge amounts of baitfish and summer gamefish in False Bay. From the middle of the month onwards we have sighted schools of Common Dolphin on most trips. The schools have ranged from 300 to as large as 1500 strong. On some trips we were even coming across 3 different schools of dolphins and all the while accompanied by Cape Gannets.
Both the dolphins and the gannets have been working together to feed off baitballs of sardine so the Bay has been truly alive with all sorts of activity.
Chris was fortunate to join a friend on a 2.5 hour helicopter ride in False Bay right at the end of February. The timing of the flight was perfect. There was very little wind, good sunshine and good water visibility.
From the air huge shoals of bait fish, which would mostly have been sardine and mullet, where spotted along with a number of shoals of yellowtail.
Of particular interest was the sighting of approximately 30 Great white sharks along the False Bay coastline.
The flight coincided with the high presence of Bronze whaler sharks in the treknets which I will talk about a little further down. This just goes to show how the inshore conditions can affect the movement of the Great white sharks.
It was an incredible experience and a big thank you to Pete for giving Chris this opportunity.
2014 Summer Treknet Activity
We have had a very busy summer at the treknets releasing around 100 bronze whaler sharks over the past few months. You can read the full report back here.
Below is an excerpt with the sharky highlights.
“We had a number of “perfect shark condition days” where we had 2-3 day periods of 10 or more sharks in a net, along with high numbers of rays. When this happens, it is manic and complete chaos. The fishermen are trying to pull the net up the beach, the public are all pushing and shoving to get a closer view and we are trying to get to the sharks to release them. Miraculously though, it all works out and the crew help us to get to the sharks quickly, and they themselves make it a priority to release sharks.
Sometimes we have gone from one treknet crew to the other who also had a bumper catch of sharks, so we would be releasing up to 20 in a morning, Its heavy work as the sharks can weigh around 80kgs and they thrash around like crazy in their panic of being caught, sometimes veering up in an attempt to get to safety.
We had occasions like this a few times over the summer and even just this last week we had a morning of over 20 sharks.
Another exciting moment was the release of the largest Duckbill ray we have seen in the last 25 years. It was about 2 meters wide and weighed approx. 60kgs. It was an incredibly spectacular specimen!
The best way to release the rays is to take hold of them by their mouths and drag them back to the water. They have “pavement teeth” so they can’t actually draw blood but it is still rather daunting sticking your hand there!”
Sharks of Southern Africa Expedition
For Chris & I this is one of our favourite trips every year as we aim to see as many shark species as we can over a short period. This year our trip was hosted alongside Dr Alessandro De Maddalena and together with our Italian Shark Fans we had a nature filled week with new experiences.
Please read the full report here.
Highlights of the Smooth Hammerhead sharks are below.
“The Great white sharks were somewhat of a warm up as the team headed 3 hours up our east coast in search of a number of other shark species.
We stay in a remote seaside village far away from bustling traffic and no restaurants and shops in sight. Hilary, our host, is an excellent chef so the restaurants were not to be missed at all!
The excellent food and quiet atmosphere is a great break away and any sharks that we would see would be a bonus.
On our first morning we headed out to sea in calm winds but with a slight swell running. As we arrived in our first “sharky” spot Chris spotted a large group of about 30 bottlenose dolphins. They were in a small sheltered bay and after surfing in the beach break milled around for a short while. This gave us a great opportunity of diving with them. The water visibility was poor but because the dolphins came so close and were curious with the divers it was an excellent encounter for everyone.
One of the main target species in this area are smooth hammerhead pups. Chris and I have been observing and diving with these hammerheads for the last 13 years here. The conditions can sometimes be difficult with wind and swell and the behaviour of the little hammerheads can also vary from day to day.
You can easily spot them from the surface as their tiny dorsal fins cleave the water and as we get closer to them they often scoot away with short bursts of speed.
Every year we hold a competition of who spots the first shark, the winner getting drinks at the bar, so I was super ready to win this year and was delighted to shout out for the first shark!
It would end up being our busiest morning ever and we estimated no less than a few hundred hammerhead sharks milling around 2 small bays. There were just tiny dorsal fins popping up everywhere and we were completely surrounded by sharks. For most people this would not be a comfortable feeling, but we were all in heaven!
The diving conditions were however a little tricky. Water visibility was poor at only a few meters and the hammerheads were particularly shy.
Over the years Chris & I have observed them in many different moods. Sometimes they are all over the bait and the divers and other times they want nothing to do with us, mostly displaying body language that they are wary about our presence.
So, although it was not a diving day with these little fellas it certainly was incredible to see the absolutely huge numbers they were present in.”
Wild Dog Encounters in Botswana
When it comes to land based predators nothing much beats time spent with Wild Dogs. We had the great fortune to spend some time with them at the end of January so I have included an excerpt below for fellow nature lovers. The full blog can be read here.
“The unusual characteristic about wild dogs is that the pups are the most important members of the pack after the alpha male and alpha female. The whole pack works as a unit to ensure the survival of the pups. Once the pups have been protected long enough for them to be weaned off their mother’s milk they get to eat first at kills. This is the exact opposite to lions, where cubs are last on the pecking order. As the pups get older the result is a lot of hungry mouths to feed.
Over the next 2 days we would see the dogs hunt 15 times successfully, along with many unsuccessful chases.
When we came across them on that first morning they were most definitely in hunting mode. At this time of the year impala fawns are only a few weeks old and unfortunately they are the sardines of the bush, and are absolute cannon fodder for the dogs.
Small to medium herds of impala were scattered in a 30 mile radius around Duma Tau camp and thus the number of hunting opportunities were prolific.
The dogs don’t all hunt together, rather they split into small groups or even as individuals, but all hunting for the greater good of the pack. So, if a dog makes a successful kill, it may take a few morsels, but will normally immediately try to locate all the other pack members and bring them to the fresh kill.
This means that while hunting is taking place dogs are scattered everywhere and it is very difficult to keep tabs on all of them. We happened to follow about 6 of them as they careened through the bush after some impala. After a bit of serious bundu bashing (this means following the dogs in a super duper 4x4 Landrover, and going over and through terrain that you are absolutely certain is not possible!) the dogs energy levels sky rocketed and began trying to jump up a tree. They had come across a young female leopard with her own fresh kill up a small tree. Immediately they began trying to steal the kill whilst the leopard was trying to hold onto it.
The dogs were jumping at least 3 to 4 meters high, it was such an incredible sight that I had to pinch myself to make sure I was actually witnessing this rarely seen behaviour.
The dogs soon realised that they could not jump high enough and just as quickly as they arrived the command was given to move on … and the impala hunt was back on.”
Our 10 Day Predation Specialty Expeditions in July are now full but perhaps you would be interested in The Great White Trail in August. This expedition follows the shark route and will allow you time in False Bay, Gansbaai and Mossel Bay, perfect for a complete overview of South Africa’s shark hotspots.
If these dates don’t work perhaps a 5-10 day package stay during dates that suit you would be worth investigating!
March is going to be a busy month with trips in full swing at Seal Island and a visit for Chris & I to New Zealand to hopefully spend some time with Great white sharks in that part of the world.