A fresh chill and a nip in the air is suddenly now a part of early mornings in Cape Town signalling the arrival of autumn and for the first time in many months’ long pants and weather proof jackets are required!
I’m far more of a summer person but I can at least console myself with the knowledge that the colder weather means the Great White shark season at Seal Island is upon us yet again and we have many interactions with an incredible animal ahead of us.
Great White Shark Sightings since February
We have experienced a stop-start kind of season thus far with the first sharks returning to Seal Island at the very start of February. This arrival in February is fairly new behaviour over the last 5 years as in years previously, the season had only started between April and May.
With the late summer South East winds blowing over these months, the slick of Seal Island carries towards the inshore area and we presume this attracts some of the Great White sharks that are patrolling the inshore False Bay area. The sharks generally spend their time close to shore during spring and summer in search of other shark species and migrant fish that make up part of their summer diet, before switching their hunting attention to nearly weaned seal pups come late May/June.
Leading up to the peak predation period, the great whites are utilising Seal Island to scavenge on sick or already dead seals. These float off the Northern side of the Island and into the slick providing a low-energy-spend meal for the Great Whites. The reward for the shark in terms of calorie count is not fantastic as these seals are generally in poor health and do not generally have a thick layer of blubber but they are spending little energy for the gain received.
We were fortunate to witness a number of scavenge events close to the boat. The seal carcasses are usually consumed fairly slowly giving everyone on board a great opportunity to see this unique event.
These scavenge seeking sharks don’t tend to be super interactive around the boat in terms of looking at our bait or decoy but since February, on most of our trips they have stayed around long enough for guests to get a good view bearing in mind the varying water visibility, many guests have had the opportunity to cage dive too.
We were visited by an extremely impressive 4.5 meter female which is the biggest shark recorded this season and a couple other 4 meter sharks. As we head closer to May, we tend to see an increase of large sharks so we are hoping this is the start of a trend! A large Great White shark has to be one of the most impressive animals on the planet and most certainly provides a jaw dropping experience for anyone lucky enough to see one.
Aside from the scavenge feeds we have also witnessed and recorded a handful of predatory events on healthy seal pups. This is early in the season but not uncommon for a few events to take place. These were some distance from the boat whilst on anchor so although photography was challenging they were events that could be seen.
A real highlight over the last two months has been the prolific and abundant presence of schools of Common dolphin. We have had dolphin encounters on almost all our trips coming across schools ranging from 100 to an incredible mega pod of at least 1500 strong.
The dolphins will often approach the boat, making huge leaps towards us, in order to make use of slip streaming ahead of us. Fantastic close encounters have thus been enjoyed by both Apex crew and guests alike.
The Common dolphins are here feeding on sardines and anchovy that are present in the Bay right now and this means we are also seeing good numbers of Brydes whales, large flocks of Cape gannets and rafts of penguins.
The variety of marine wildlife that we are seeing in large quantities is certainly keeping things exciting out in False Bay… and as ever we are on the lookout for an Orca or two!
Sharks of Southern Africa Expedition
Apex hosted our Sharks of Southern Africa Expedition for the 14th year (wow, can’t believe it has been going for so long!) where we aimed to see and dive with a total of 10 different shark species.
The expedition started off in Cape Town where we were to target Great white sharks, Mako & Blue sharks as well as Seven Gill cow sharks.
The first day brought good weather allowing us to get offshore and aim for the pelagic species. In bumpy conditions we ended the day with 5 Blue sharks around the boat. One of our guests from the USA had a life dream to see a Mako shark so with our chance out the window, it meant we would need to come up with a Plan B. Missing out on the Mako shark aside, the Blue sharks provided their usual entertainment and were admired and enjoyed by all.
Good conditions in the kelp forests set forth an incredible dive with as many as 20 Cow sharks counted in 45 minutes. For some of the guests this would be the highlight of the expedition!
The expedition stopped in Gansbaai on the way up the east coast and a number of Great White sharks were added to the list.
The last 6 days of the trip were spent in the Breede River area in search of Smooth hammerhead sharks, Ragged Tooth and Spotted Gulley sharks, as well as a variety of other smaller shark species.
Every year is different and this year we found there to be less ragged tooth sharks on the inshore reefs but in contrast to past years we were almost over run by Spotted Gully sharks.
We also had a surprise visit of a couple of Smooth Hound sharks as well as some Striped Cat sharks.
We also did very well on the cetacean front and not only spent time with Common dolphin but had one of my best looks ever at the rare and illusive Humpback dolphin. We came across a small pod of about 8 animals in a sheltered bay and spent a good 30 minutes watching them from close quarters.
Sadly it is very important to mention that the area was almost devoid of all the Smooth Hammerhead pups that we normally encounter by the hundreds. A shark longline vessel was working just outside the marine reserve and the hammerheads took a severe pounding. What an utter waste and disgrace that this practise is legal and even worse that the tiny hammerheads are worth a commercial pittance making no sense as to why this should be taking place.
Chris has written a blog on this if you are interested in reading further.
An update nearly 6 weeks later, and having just been back up there, is that there are zero hammerheads to be seen…
An Epic Pelagic
Towards the end of the trip we had seen all our target species but were still missing the very important Mako shark. Chris is most certainly one of the most adventurous people I know and in his mind he is constantly plotting and planning new adventures and potential experiences. His network of wildlife informants (J) is wide and our phone bill is rather high as he constantly checks in with various people as to what wildlife happenings are taking place.
At the time of Sharks of Southern Africa Chris was in contact with friends in the Struisbaai area and we were getting reports of shoals of Yellow Fin tuna, bait fish, Marlin and sharks.
The profile of the Breede River area as one heads offshore is gradual and there are no interesting rises or drop offs. Without these characteristics it can make finding pelagic sharks and other wildlife far offshore quite challenging as there is no convergence point until you are at least 35 miles offshore.
Despite this Chris backed his gut instinct, and info from Struisbaai to get out there and give it a shot at finding a Mako shark.
What a day he picked!
It has been quite some time since I have been at sea feeling and seeing the ocean so truly alive. We had an initial trek to get out there but once we reached 15 miles offshore the show began.
Huge shoals of Silversides, a type of baitfish, scattered the ocean surface and we could all quite easily see them dancing just below the surface. All around us we were surrounded by shoals and shoals of small Yellowfin and Skip Jack tuna that were hunting this tiny baitfish on the surface. It looked like sheets of rain falling on the ocean as the tuna caused water movement as they chased and cajoled the bait fish. Pelagic sea birds were also participating in the spoils.
At about 20 miles we could make out small puffs of spray indicating whales in the distance. Just as we reached them we watched in awe as a huge Fin whale took out a whole shoal of silverside as it lunge fed on the surface, opening its huge mouth in a froth of water as it demolished the entire shoal. We often encounter Brydes whales but to see Fin whales feeding was very special.
It took just a moment but that sight will be embedded in my memory for a long time further!
Often we came across groups of sunfish, sometimes up to 6 individuals together. We couldn’t work out what was going on but further research and info from a friend leads us to believe that these could have been mating groups.
Finally at 25 miles from our departure point we began our wait for sharks. After an hour and a half with nothing our confidence began to waiver but we were saved by the arrival of a big Blue shark accompanied by an equally big pilot fish. This shark was an absolute gem to dive with as she was completely relaxed and not shy to come close to the divers. Everyone had a wonderful encounter with her especially since she stayed for the 2 hour dive.
About half an hour after the arrival of the Blue shark I spotted a darker looking shark approaching up our slick… it was our long awaited, and much hoped for Mako shark!
It was fantastic to see our guest Laura’s excitement at finally being able to see and dive with her dream shark. We actually ended up with 2 different Mako sharks and as they stayed around for a good while, everyone had a great encounter with them.
The day wasn’t over yet and just as we were approaching home we spotted a school of about 800 Common dolphins in the distance with an entourage of birds. The dolphins were feeding so it allowed some of the guests a chance to get in the water with them and watch as they cruised by.
All in all 12 different shark species were seen as well as a whole host of other marine wildlife making this a very successful expedition indeed!
10 Day Predation Specialty Expedition
Our most popular expedition that is normally fully booked many months in advance has had a cancellation so please contact us if you are interested in joining us from 28 July to 6 August.
This expedition falls over what is historically the peak time for predation events and the limited number of guests with this sole focus gives you an opportunity to see and experience spectacular behaviour.
Full info here…
From The Blog
Shark Hotspots Overlap with Commercial Fishing Locations: A research and conservation piece written by Dr Neil Hammerschlag.
Hammerhead Pups targeted by commercial longline boats: written by Chris Fallows
To read our last three Shark Bytes click on the links below:
January 2016 Shark Bytes
November 2016 Shark Bytes
September 2016 Shark Bytes