A dorsal fin breaks the surface

A trip to Seal Island (part I)

THIS is how early I got out of bed
THIS is how early I got out of bed

Wednesday 25 July was one of those magnificent winter’s days, with ridiculously clear water and calm seas in False Bay. It was a good day for a trip to Seal Island. That day, luckily, I had the immensely exciting opportunity to take a trip out to the island on the shark research boat operated by Alison Kock and Adrian Hewitt. Alison is the research manager for Shark Spotters, and Adrian is doing a postgraduate degree with aspects of the population biology of white sharks as his subject matter. Also on board were some old and new (including me) members of the Shark Spotters steering committee.

Sunrise over False Bay
Sunrise over False Bay

We met at the jetty in Simon’s Town at some ungodly hour (practically the night before, for someone who is as much of a morning person as I am), and set off in the dark in order to arrive at the island by sunrise. The white sharks are most active predating on young seals in the first two hours after the night ends.

A very calm day on the bay
A very calm day on the bay

Once we arrived at the island, Alison kept the boat idling as we scanned the horizon for leaping white sharks. When a predation occurs, the researchers move closer to collect data on whether it was successful or not, and other information on the shark involved. It was quite nerve-wracking: without warning a white shark explodes out of the water in pursuit of a little seal, and I found myself rooting for the seals more often than not. I think five predations occurred while we were sitting there. I didn’t see all of them, as I was facing the wrong way once or twice, but when the shark successfully wounded the seal it would spend quite a bit of time consuming it, shaking the seal like a dog to facilitate biting.

Seal Island, with the launchpad in the foreground
Seal Island, with the launchpad in the foreground

Most of the Seal Island predations take place on the southern end of the island where many seals enter the water to swim out into False Bay and beyond, foraging for food. The area is known as the “launch pad”, and there is a low rocky reef there that affords them a certain degree of shelter before entering the water. The young seals are vulnerable as they leave and approach the island, not yet having learned to avoid the hours after sunrise and lacking the lung capacity to swim underwater for much of the final approach to the island. This leaves them under threat from white sharks who breach out of the water from below, capturing the seals on the surface as they porpoise along.

Birds over a shark consuming a seal
Birds over a shark consuming a seal

Seeing a white shark, several metres long, launch itself completely out of the water, is awe-inspiring. I was in full paparazzi mode with Tony’s camera body and one of my modest lenses, but one realises how much time, luck and skill is required to capture images of these sharks in the air. Luck and time in having your camera pointing the right way at the right moment, and skill to have the correct settings to get a workable shot. A fast, long lens also helps I imagine!

A dorsal fin breaks the surface
A dorsal fin breaks the surface

After the predatory behaviour by the sharks died down, Adrian and Alison anchored the boat and we settled down to see what sharks would come calling. More on that to follow…

A white shark after a kill
A white shark after a kill

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Clare

Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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