For more than 20 years now, we have spent well in excess of 3,000 days at sea, most of them in the company of great whites and other shark species. During all this time we also had the great fortune to have experienced many spectacular encounters with various forms of marine megafauna, the large charismatic ocean animals everyone loves to see. Our interactions with these creatures have been a privilege, and by spending protracted periods of time with them we often seen unique behavior, and on occasion behavior rarely reported.
There are few places you can go today that truly make you feel what it must have been like in the early days of adventure and exploration. One activity that does still give you this feeling, however, is when you head into the open ocean far from shore, diving into a realm of our planet where very few people have gone.
The creatures of this inky blue environment for the most part have never glimpsed a human, so they are either very shy or very curious when they make their first encounter. Of course, as professional underwater photographers we always hope for curiosity and the close and intimate inspections are the encounters that give us our most enduring memories.
Old Man of the Sea
An encounter that in a very weird way linked our human world with that of the ocean in the most bizarre fashion was when we came across a sunfish (Mola mola) that had all the facial attributes of our own kind. It is not that rare to see sunfish, but to see one that looked so much like a giant swimming face of the “Old Man of the Sea” was quite remarkable. This strangely shaped fish, which incidentally is the world’s largest bony fish, even had eye shadowing, grooves under and around its nose, and an inquiring eye — all perfectly matching the anatomical features of our own faces.
Banqueting on ‘Bait Balls’
From an excitement and photographic point of view there are few events that match diving amongst the carousel of predators that participate in the mass feeding on “bait balls”, the massive assemblage of schools of fish such as anchovies or sardines. Such feasting events are often highly charged, with predators intently focused on gorging themselves on hapless fish rotating in a living sphere that looks much like a revolving chandelier.
One such event we encountered, which is seldom witnessed, involved around 40 blue sharks feeding in a giant ball of anchovies. We placed ourselves on the flanks of the ball and watched in a trancelike state as the ball would open like a theatre curtain to another world. Suddenly, a shark would come racing through the ball, mouth agape with anchovies spewing forth, and then quickly turn without taking any notice of us before disappearing into the maw of the silvery chalice.
Prey Becoming Predator
Sometimes the tables turn; what was the predator becomes the prey. Chris once saw a seal chase and catch a blue shark, which it then tossed around trying to dismember it. He did not manage to get any decent images of this event and few believed what he had seen. But then during one of our pelagic shark diving trips off Cape Point, South Africa, we and our guests watched in part fascination and part horror as a single sub adult male Cape fur seal chased, caught and then proceeded to kill and extract the livers and stomach contents of no fewer than five blue sharks that had been attracted to our boat.
By the time the shark had caught the fourth shark I was in the water trying to get evidence of this unusual turning of the tables. Unperturbed by my presence, the seal carried on dismembering its shocked prey. This clearly was an amazing example of a seal that has perfected a technique of catching and killing sharks, and in so doing has created itself a niche in the food chain above that where it normally belongs.
Listening to Whales Chatter
Flat calm days on the open ocean provide excellent spotting opportunities as visibility can often extend for miles. Soft puffs and blows in the distance are always cause for great excitement. The tension builds as we approach closer for there are a variety of cetaceans we might encounter out there.
On this occasion the owners of the spouts were a pod of about 70 pilot whales. As they calmly cruised at the surface we prepared to enter the water with them, positioning ourselves just in front of an approaching group. Initially the pod was wary of us, but after several interactions they realized we did not threaten them and so started investigating us as much as we were inspecting them.
The sight of these bizarrely shaped whales, complete with a white crucifix on their bellies, was overshadowed by the excitable chattering and vocalizations as they discussed amongst themselves the meaning of our presence in their world. With the approach of a large container ship, the happy chattering immediately ceased as they tried to pinpoint the location of what is undoubtedly a serious threat of collision in the paths that they travel. Even out here in the most remote of locations human disturbance exists.
Swordsmen of the Sea
Isla Mujeres off Mexico is home to one of the ocean’s greatest concentrations of marine swordsmen. Magnificent eight-foot-long sailfish come here to feed on baitballs of sardines.
As you head out in search of these feeding events, the first sign of activity is a small flock of frigate birds, pteradactyl-like birds that hover inches off the ocean in hopes of snatching a sardine driven to the surface in an attempt to escape the sailfish below.
When you first enter the water, your initial thought as a sailfish hurtles towards a bait ball trying to use you as shelter is that you might end up on the end of a spear. But with immaculate precision, time after time, these flamenco-like dancers of the deep throw up their sails, coral the fish into a tighter ball, and miss you by just inches. With lateral high-speed head swipes the hapless bait fish are sliced and diced and quickly consumed with a crunching noise akin to rice crispies exploding.
Cetaceans Hunting Cetaceans
Everybody loves dolphins and in South Africa’s False Bay this love takes on a more sinister feel when it is the orca’s, whose fondness for dolphins is as food and not friendship. Every late austral summer and early fall sees mega-pods of common dolphin arriving and feeding in False Bay.
The scene is incredible as often upwards of a thousand — and sometimes as many as three thousand — dolphins form a single school and scoop up tons of bait fish as they plough through the rich waters of the bay.
The cacophony of dolphins, skydiving gannets, and fleeing fish bursting from the water, is a loud invitation to eat to the ocean’s ultimate predator, the orca or killer whale.
In 2009 a few pods of orcas which are dolphin-eating specialists started frequenting False Bay in search of their smaller relatives.
What we have witnessed as orcas chase down dolphins fleeing at full speed in a wide curtain of frothy spray is nothing short of remarkable.
By understanding the dolphins’ behavior we were able to find the orcas and watch from a respectful distance as they employed various strategies to run down, exhaust and cut off their prey.
On at least one occasion we watched as a mother orca incapacitated a sub-adult dolphin for her calf to pursue and kill only a few dozen feet away from us. This was a clear display of high intelligence and complex social behavior of parents teaching their young how to hunt for themselves.
While it is certainly never pleasant to see a dolphin being killed, the various tactics, strategies and high-speed chases we witnessed on multiple hunts have bordered on the incredible.
Great Whites Overindulging on Whale Blubber
Working with great white sharks is very special (read our post Ten Photos of Great White Sharks to Take Your Breath Away), and as with any passion of many years standing, we have a wish list of things to see or do. At the very top of the list when it comes to working with great whites is to see a mass feeding on a whale carcass. If you are lucky you might see one of these in your life; to have seen five is just downright stupendous.
The thing that makes these events remarkable is that it usually involves multiple great whites feeding together in a small area with all their typical social behavior and hierarchies falling by the way.
In July 2000 we witnessed the most spectacular of these five events when we recorded dozens of great whites devouring a 12-meter (40 feet)-long Bryde’s whale in 18 hours.
We watched as the sharks initially launched themselves past their pectoral fins out of the water and up onto the carcass in their attempts to secure the choicest pieces of energy-rich blubber. Fifteen- and even eighteen-f00t sharks fed side by side, inverted, with pectoral fins overlapping as they gorged themselves to the point of looking like rotund wine vats.
By the second day, all that remained was the sinuous bulk of a blubber-stripped carcass, and satiated sharks no longer able to feed cruising uncomfortably like overloaded 747s in the fatty crimson waters of the once-proud whale.
Life’s Enduring Determination to Survive
The next amazing experience we want share is not a single event but rather a celebration of many. Seal Island in False Bay is unquestionably the best spot on the planet to see great white sharks in full hunting mode. Over the course of the last 20 years our company, Apex Shark Expeditions, has witnessed along with our guests more than 10,000 events involving great white sharks and Cape fur seals.
To single out one chase, one escape or one exceptional piece of athleticism on the part of the sharks would be impossible. We have seen sharks jump ten feet clear of the water trying to catch seals whilst in mid-flight, we have seen seals use the teeth of the sharks as their final desperate point of leverage to set themselves free.
What has, however, been consistent throughout the events is the desperate struggle for survival on the part of both predator and prey, and this fight to survive has been the greatest life lesson we have learned.
If someone had to ask what species of marine predator has it all in terms of power, speed, camouflage and beauty, I would have to say it is the perfectly hydrodynamic jet fighter-like mako shark. With a dorsal surface that in some individuals is an incredible powder blue, or even at times an iridescent cobalt blue, coupled with a silvery underbelly, this is a very spectacular creature indeed.
Like it’s better known cousin the great white, the mako is the super shark of the open ocean, a nomad crossing oceans and a predator that polishes off the likes of the giant tuna and the massive gladiator-like swordfish.
When you free-dive with big makos you are aware instantly that you are in the presence of an animal that could kill you very easily if it so wanted. We remember clearly the three-hour free dive we did with a guest, during which a huge ten-foot female mako shark eyed us curiously whilst intermittently circling us, often at very close quarters. We can still feel that rush of excitement, that all-engrossing awe that being in the presence of such a formidable creature conjures up. It was simply awesome.
What makes these encounters so much more special is that it is seldom necessary to take evasive or defensive action against the sharks; they tolerate us in their world, which considering what humans do to sharks is really remarkable.
Humans Know Better Now
The final amazing encounter is one that takes the sharks and marine wildlife out of their world and into ours with a plea for help.
In the late 1980s as a teenage boy, Chris started a project with the local beach seine netters who at the time were catching sharks as by catch of their targeted fish species. Due to ignorant public antipathy to sharks, many of these sharks ended up dying on the beaches. Through education and a lot of understanding and acceptance on the part of the fishing community, we started to tag and release the sharks, often in front of hundreds of curious beachgoers who got to see this conservation work at firsthand. It was amazing to see the fishermen wrestle the sharks and rays out of their nets, help measure them, and ultimately wade the hapless creatures deep enough into the surf so that they could return to their world.
With beaming faces and chests filled with pride, the fishermen would stand waist-deep in the water watching the sharks dorsal and caudal fin slip beneath the waves, knowing they had saved that animal.
Over the course of the past two and a half decades the fishermen, most of whom earn less than a hundred dollars a month, and by law could kill the sharks, have released in excess of 15,000 sharks and rays to live another day. In a country where so many people live below the breadline this is a great example of how a little effort and an even greater part of acceptance and understanding can go a long way to making a difference to the health of our oceans.
For more than twenty years, South African Chris Fallows has been photographing marine wildlife. He is best known for his pioneering images of the famous flying great white sharks of Seal Island, False Bay. Chris and his wife Monique are wildlife naturalists and when they are not on the water they spend the rest of their time photographing and traveling to other wildlife destinations around the world.
The couple owns and operates Apex Shark Expeditions which specializes in photographic and cage diving expeditions to view great white sharks in False Bay, South Africa. Chris hopes that through his images and wildlife expeditions people will appreciate South Africa’s magnificent marine predators as much as their terrestrial counterparts.
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