Ocean News

Our First Great White Shark Trip of the Season

20th April 2009

Last week Morne, Monwabisi and I made our first trip of the season to Seal Island to determine whether the white sharks had returned yet. It’s been a few months since we last saw a white shark and we were eager to see what was going on. We took along two other Shark Spotters, Ghaliep and Wonga who had spent the summer keeping Cape Town’s beaches safer, but had never been to Seal Island nor seen a white shark close-up. 

Shark Spotters at Seal Island Photos: Morne Hardenberg

The day started off perfectly flat with the most amazing sunrise. To stand a chance of seeing the sharks predate on seals your first step is to make sure you are at the island at sunrise. You can hear and smell the island before you see it some days and with over 70 000 seals at its peak this is understandable. As we arrived I immediately saw that there was a lot of seal activity with seals leaving and returning to and from their feeding grounds. We drifted near the south end of the island where we typically see the most predatory action, but no sharks or hunting was evident for the first hour. Everyone that comes with us on the boat is instructed to look out for the classic signs of surface hunting behaviour. These include large or irregular splashes, black-backed kelp gulls flying overhead in a particular direction or hovering over one area, seals erratically leaping out of the water, oil slicks or blood on the surface and if you are lucky seeing the shark leap completely out of the water after its seal prey.

After no action we took a slow ride around the island to get a closer view of the seals. At this time of year the pups that were born in November – January are still easily identified by their jet black coats. We also look-out for any seals that may have been bitten by sharks, but we didn’t see any. These morning observations indicated that the sharks had not returned in full force yet.

Just before we threw the anchor to attract sharks for photo-ID and observation, the eagle-eyed spotters (always on duty) noticed dolphin activity in the distance. Seeing as the shark action was slow and the spotters had never seen dolphins from a boat before we raced over to get a closer view. We were rewarded with hundreds of common dolphins porpoising and leaping out of the water. They love to follow the boat and soon we had dolphins in our wake and the spotters got to see these acrobatic creatures closer than they ever have before.

Back at the island we anchored up and just as the anchor was set we saw a huge white shark about 100 meters away at the surface. It was there for a few seconds and then disappeared again. We all stood by hoping it would swim through our chum slick and decide to visit our boat, but it didn’t. Half an hour later I noticed the gulls hovering over an area adjacent to the west side of the island and saw the water turn red and a brief glimpse of the shark – this was our first observation of a successful predation for the season! I have seen thousands of predator-prey interactions over the years, but each one is just as exciting as the first time. It confirms that there are at least a few early visitors at the island. However, four hours later on anchor and not one shark decided to pay us a visit. We called it a day and headed back home. At least we know the sharks are starting to return and we look forward to the days of high predatory activity and many sharks at the boat.