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Shark Bytes

March 2010 Shark Bytes

written by Monique Fallows

Posted on Wednesday, 31 March 2010

Hello Shark Lovers


I am going to be writing about a very busy month, although it is not all sharks. Chris & I got to do something very unique and that was to dive with Sailfish whilst feeding on sardine bait balls. We have also had a very pleasant surprise with an early return of a few Great White sharks to Seal Island. Also in the mix were a couple of Pelagic trips which are almost the last for the season.


Alligators, Great Hammerheads, Bull Sharks and Manatees 

Before heading out to dive with the sailfish we decided to make a last minute brief stop in Florida for me to visit my brother Gregg and for Chris to dive with a few friends in the Keys.

Chris was lucky to have some great encounters with great hammerhead sharks, one of his favourites and a couple bull sharks as well as doing a few dives with adult alligators in the everglades an experience that he says was simply incredible as these huge reptiles would cruise within an arms length in the tannin rich swampy waters. I managed to get to go to Crystal springs with my brother and we had lots of fun diving with nearly 100 manatees in the area. These gentle sea cows are very friendly and one young one came right up to Gregg and literally kissed him on his mask. So our first stop was a great success and we were thoroughly prepared and excited for our next leg, operation sailfish.


Sailfish Expedition

Over the 2009 Great White season we hosted the BBC to shoot the white shark segment for Inside The Perfect Predator. I believe this just aired in the UK and was a great success.

Anyway, one of the cameramen told us about their experience filming Sailfish off Mexico for Planet Earth. He even showed us images that he shot underwater with his “tourist” camera after they had shot all their film. Even these images were amazing and completely sold us on the idea that we needed to do this as besides sharks we also are fascinated by gamefish.

Within a couple of weeks we had our 10 days on the boat secured and the long wait for March 2010 began! We also invited 3 of our Seal Island regulars to join us so it was great to be able to see shark friends outside of South Africa.

In preparation for our trip I must admit that I had no idea what to expect and as I usually approach any wildlife trip that we do I did not have any high expectation as to what we may see. We always just make the most of what see and really appreciate even the small things.

The only thing I knew was that for about a 3 month period every year sailfish gather in large numbers in the waters off this Island to feed on sardines. In order to be successful the sailfish need to ball the fish and as such it can be possible to dive with these magnificent game fish. Not only do you have to be lucky with the feeding situations to actually happen but the weather needs to be good. All diving is free diving and snorkelling so conditions need to be good in order to do this. For a month before we left Chris & I actually swam with our fins each day in order to have some level of fitness. We were still not quite prepared!

A sailfish is part of the Marlin family and is said to be the fastest fish in the ocean, supposedly capable of reaching speeds of 110 kilometres per hour. They have a beautiful sail that aides them manoeuvring at fast speeds and whilst hunting they have iridescent colours that light up, showing their excitement. It is a prized game fish for many fishermen and we actually had to hire a sport fishing boat that has come to specialise in hosting filmmakers, photographers etc for diving purposes. Fortunately in this area most Sailfish are caught on a tag and release basis and almost all the boats operate like this so good numbers of these fish still survive.

On arrival our skipper said to us that we could go out for 10 days and not see anything so that when the opportunity comes we needed to nail it and make the most of the situation. So, on the first morning we headed out ready to swim for our lives and with Chris spotting each and every bird was checked. Just as at Seal Island the boat crews here watch for birds, in this case the Greater Frigate birds which indicate a possible bait ball. They can indicate bonitos, dolphin and if we were lucky, sailfish. These three species all push the sardines to the surface and the frigates are able to feed on the sardines. These birds are absolutely amazing. They are not able to wet their bodies (as they become to heavy to fly) so the aerial moves they perform are astounding in their attempts to fish and their excited calls provide an audible signal on where to swim for when chasing the balls. In order to be assured that it was sailfish feeding on the sardines the sign is for the frigate birds to hover in extremely tight groups just above the surface. The boat then races over to the area and most times the dark shape of the nearly 3 meter long sailfish can be seen. At that moment pandemonium breaks loose on the boat as divers hastily don wetsuits and cameras are prepared. The boat cannot drop you in too close as the fish may sound so the skipper really needs to be experienced in terms of getting the divers close enough to reach the ball. Again, as with all wildlife, it is vital to your success that you have a good team helping you.

I won’t forget our first attempt too quickly. We got ready on the dive step as the skipper back up to the birds and then in a rather thick Mexican accent he started shouting “GOh GOh GOh, Goh for the Beerds”, which could have meant “Woah, woah woah”, as in wait. We assumed Beerds was birds but that slight hesitation in Goh/Woah did throw us off a bit. But, we quickly got the hang of the lingo and our days were soon filled with this self same routine.

The water temperature is 25C so you do not get that cold shock of water when first jumping in. Once hitting the water it is then a flat out chase to the bait ball. Our first look was a ball of about 300 sardines racing towards us followed by about 8 very hungry sailfish. Sorry everyone, I am not sure if I can accurately describe the mixture of excitement of seeing these absolutely gorgeous fish or the fear that I would be impaled by the long slashing bill!

In seconds the bait ball and the sailfish had raced past us and we were left literally in the dust of thousands of floating sardine scales. The boat then picked us up and we raced over to the birds which were now a few hundred meters away, and the chase began again. We were all kicking so hard in our effort to reach the bait ball that in the first 45 minutes we were all exhausted. On top of that 3 of us already had blisters which would become rather nasty and painful over the next 10 days. So much for all that training, especially after Chris cramped in both his quads towards the end of the first afternoon!

We quickly learnt that one actually had to kick in an energy conserving manner and that one of three things would happen once being dropped on the bait ball.


Number One: You were never going to reach it. In this case Erin and I (the 2 girls!) mostly became the guinea pigs and we would need to be the first ones in to test the water visibility and fastness of the ball. This was ok. We did not have large cameras to swim with and I quite like to get fit. Sometimes, it was a lot of chasing with little reward!

Number Two: We would be dropped in the ball and everything from sardines to sailfish to birds would scream right past us, and again we would follow with a huge amount of kicking effort. This was ok too because these views of the hunting sailfish blazing past were incredible and often sardines were snatched right in front of us.

Number Three: The bait ball can stop. The first time it happened I could not believe it, after all that kicking all of a sudden we were floating in the ocean surrounding a bait ball that had up to 50 sailfish calmly racing (does that make sense?) in and out of the ball. These are the moments to wait for and make the most of as the ball could stop for up to 90 minutes.

The sardine bait ball moves like a liquid curtain and as the sailfish approach the “curtain” adjusts accordingly. In order for the sailfish to be successful they slash their bills into the ball and hope to injure a sardine or cut off a small group of fish. When a small group of sardines get cut off the sailfish really turn on the speed and agility. They are like underwater F16’s as they speed up and brace, twist and turn with little apparent effort. The large sail effortlessly guides them onto tight turns and iridescent colours of blues, green, silvers and brown light up. If the sailfish slashes and injures a fish it will them grab it with its mouth and actually seems to chew in order to swallow the fish. When this happens the sailfish stops in mid water for a number of seconds as the poor sardine fights one more gallant time.

As the ball gets smaller the sardines get more desperate and can race to the bottom (30 to 50 meters down). Up to 15/20 sailfish then dive down after them and chase the ball up to the surface again. This all happens in one or two moments but to see the sailfish rise up from the depths as they herd the fish is truly spectacularly beautiful.

The other thing that happens is that the sardines desperately look for any shelter and that can be the divers in the water. I would sometimes feel a little constant nudging and look down to see a sardine hiding around me. Inevitably a sailfish is onto that too and they seem to have no problem going for the sardine which is a hairy experience. The sailfish don’t seem to be put off by the divers but they also are able to steer clear from actually swimming into a diver. I was quite aware that we were sometimes impacting on a natural event so we tried to put distance between ourselves and small balls in an effort not to interfere. I am now acutely aware that I do not want to come back as a sardine one day, it is a brutal and short lived life.

Over the course of 10 days we got out to sea on 8 days and saw sailfish and bait balls numerous times each day. Each ball had an average of 10 sailfish per ball and one ball had up to 50 sailfish. This is honestly one of the best nature experiences of our life and I am aware of how lucky we got with the activity and weather conditions. It could have been very different but I still would have been thrilled to have just had one bait ball opportunity. At one point I was underwater and I thought…my gosh, I am living Planet Earth! It think that sums it up. This  experience was so fantastic that we simply have to go back and as such

Apex will be hosting a Sailfish Expedition in Feb/March 2011 and we will shortly send out all the info. Don’t miss this, it is an unbelievable experience.


Great White Sharks, Seal Island

While we were in Mexico we received very excited emails from Poenas and Karyn to say that they had done a number of trips to Seal Island and that they had seen Great whites on all trips. On one trip they even had 2 breaches on the decoy which is amazingly early for pre season sightings.

Early March is very early for sharks at the Island but each season is different. Last year we only had reliable sightings from mid May, this season seems more promising. However since Chris & I have been home from Mexico we have done 2 White shark trips with little success. So, something must have changed and only time will tell how things will play out. One thing is for sure, we are ready to see some Great white sharks!


Pelagic Shark Trips

Poenas and Karyn did one tough trip while we were away where the warmest water they could find was 15C about 20 miles from the Point. These conditions were not good for sharks but they did manage to get 3 blue sharks up to the boat for a short time.

We have done one Pelagic trip since returning from Mexico. On the way out we spotted both a blue shark and a mako shark cruising on the surface. Once we had the bait etc set up we only had to wait a couple of minutes for a small mako shark to arrive followed shortly by 2 blue sharks.

The highlight of the trip was a visit by a second mako shark that stayed with us for about 45 minutes. This 1.5 meter female was really interactive and our guests in the cage were wowed by the constant close passes she would make. She also did something unusual by putting her head out of the water often. Chris managed to get one good shot of this before this behaviour stopped. We only have a couple more Pelagics booked in April so we hope that weather works out for us so that we can enjoy the last of the season.

Be sure to check out “Photos of the Month” for all the sailfish images and watch out in the coming weeks for details on the Apex Sailfish trip next year. You can also drop us an email now if you are particularly interested. I hope that by the end of April I will be able to report on the return of the Great white sharks to Seal Island.

Also, don’t forget to join our Facebook Page. Look for APEX SHARK EXPEDITIONS.


Until then,


Best wishes

Monique Fallows


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