Summing up the surprises of the 2016 white shark season, Seal Island, False Bay

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White sharks typically visit False Bay’s Seal Island to take advantage of vulnerable young Cape fur seal pups when they start entering the water to feed. This is generally between March and September; however, this season showed a number of deviations from the expected norms. We took a trip to the Island towards the end of January and before we even had any bait in the water, we had seen a shark. We were beyond excited by the chance of having an early start to the season. This was the first of many unexpected surprises the season had to offer. For February and March, we had amazing shark activity around our boat, seeing an average of 4 sharks a day and still enjoying the late summer, early autumn warm sunny days on the water.

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My first time in the cage early this season

But before we got too comfortable, leaving the sharks to do all our work for us, by the end of April and throughout May, they had simply vanished from Seal Island. There were some really bizarre theories as to where they were and why from crew, clients, fishermen and local shark nuts, but even today the mystery of their temporary disappearance remains. The crew had placed all their bets on the exact date that the sharks would return, and just before we had begun to completely lose our minds (and jobs) the sharks started making an appearance again within the first week of June.

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An island barren of sharks, but full of seals (with an identity crisis), however, always beautiful

I nearly jumped right off the boat seeing the first shark breach (I always go mad seeing a shark breach, every breach is different and it simply never gets old), but this was a combination of that excitement coupled with relief at the sign that “the shark drought” had potentially come to an end. July was an incredible month with both breaching activity as well as shark activity around the boat. Despite the fact that during this time the sharks were always around, every day, every trip, every hour, in fact, was different. Obviously the breaching and overly enthusiastic sharks around our boat are always a treat, but there were a few really memorable, standout moments this season. Firstly, a shark over 4 m in length, coming fully out of the water attacking a kelp gull just 3 m away from our boat, having the crew and clients very much in the splash zone (this just minutes after I had told a client how breaching was rare in the afternoon, and that I had never seen a shark go for a bird).  On another afternoon in July, we had crystal clear waters with over 10 different sharks around our boat, flying at our bait and decoy consistently from all different angles! It was the best kind of chaos!

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First attempt at grabbing our decoy

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Successfully snatched our decoy and gaping at it in the flawless water conditions

Further, seeing some of our favourite sharks returning to the boat over consecutive days, a special mention (and thanks) to some of the stars this year: “Zebra,” “Dodgey L,” “Prop,” “Jika,” “Patches,” “Captain MF Hook” “Stumpy Freddy,” “The one with the bent dorsal (Orca/Nemo)” and a few OCEARCH tagged sharks, including “Vindication” and “Maureen.” Of course once we’ve named them, we get very emotionally attached. They become like a puppy dog, really cute but with rather sharp teeth, eating all your personal belongings. When naming and identifying individual white sharks, its usually from a distinguishing feature, scar or behaviour. However, it is incredible to see how much their behaviours’ vary, not only between the different individuals, but even for a particular shark on a particular day. With the number of times I’ve seen a shark put all its effort into the most magnificent breach, only for its targeted seal prey to get away, its not difficult to believe that a shark can have a bad day.  Sometimes we’d see sharks hunting and making successful kills still visiting our boat and scavenging at our bait. Surprisingly, and unlike me, sharks don’t seem to have bottomless pits for stomachs, and therefore once they have eaten, they are often uninterested in us, or our bait. Maybe it’s a class thing – why would you eat a stale sandwich when there is fillet steak on offer? It may be more expensive, but totally worth it right?

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“Zebra”- Stealing our hearts (& bait) since 2016

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“Captain MF Hook”- I only have a picture of her dorsal fin because she was simply too big to fit in the frame at a massive 5 m in length (we’re going to need a bigger boat).

Another highlight this season was the revisit of the shark “Prop,” named for the propeller scars running along the leading edge and across her dorsal fin. I had first seen her in 2014 when the scars were still fresh and an unmistakable identifying feature. If it weren’t for her stumpy pectoral fin and the fact that she is a particularly large girl, closing in on 5 m, we would not have even recognised her this year. The scars on her dorsal fin had healed up so well being no more than very faint lines across her dorsal fin.

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“Prop” 2014

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“Prop” 2016

A simple yet perfect example of the perfect predator, proving just how resilient they are and that their ability to heal and recover, is beyond comprehension. There is never a dull moment working with these animals; the more we try to understand them, the more we are left with a whole new set of questions rather than answers. Every day, heading out to Seal Island, you don’t know what you’re going to get. By describing this season as “surprising” “unusual” “unexpected” “unpredictable” is quite appropriate really, because all these words fundamentally define and describe “nature.” If nature were predictable, it would not be as fascinating as it is. To us, what appeared to be “inconsistencies” in the season, served as an important reminder of just how dynamic nature is and it has allowed us to continue marvelling in the mystery that is the white shark.

Leigh is the On-board Marine Biologist for African Shark Eco Charters. Find out more at www.ultimate-animals.com.

Leigh de Necker

Leigh de Necker

Leigh is a marine biologist specialising in the use of stable isotopes to understand the feeding ecology of apex predatory sharks in False Bay, South Africa. She is also a SCUBA diving instructor and shark diving guide leading eco tours with great white sharks. Leigh has an undeniable passion for the ocean and sharks. She believes that by sharing experiences and knowledge of the key role predatory sharks hold in maintaining a healthy balance in the ocean, we can change negative perceptions and strive to conserve the animals we have been taught to fear... the animals we fundamentally can not live without.

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