Dolphins ‘Popping’ in Ponta do Ouro, Mozambique…

Dolphins ‘Popping’ in Ponta do Ouro, Mozambique…

One of the most fascinating things about my work with the wild #dolphinsofponta  is being able to create a safe space were humans are able to observe this special species in their own environment.

Over the past couple of years I have filmed numerous events of a vocalisation I called tok, toking….Popping, a term coined by Richard C. Connor and Rachel A. Smolker in their article entitled ‘Pop’ goes the Dolphin, is of of those vocalisations that normally stops me mid swim! It’s done by the big boys and is sometimes followed by aggressive behaviours such as mock charges and open jaws!

In the coastal shallows of Shark Bay W.Australia three adult males were observed between 1987-88 in the company of one single female at a time. Over the period the female was seen to turn in towards the males and the authors concluded that popping is a threat vocalisation telling the female to stay close.

The series of low frequency pulse sounds are very distinctive and always accompanied by a series of bubbles. Through our in-water recordings in the Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve in Mozambique we are able to associate the popping with the bubbles and the individuals – and guess what – they are all males too!

Since 2008 we have recorded some 30 events of popping. Interestingly enough though, most of our events included large nursery pods with adult male escorts. It seems that popping is also used on this side of the globe to keep the girls together.

On the 27th September I filmed an event with RemmyBoy and two other same age males together with a juvenile male who were in pursuit of Maria a young female.  It did look like the young boy was getting a lesson in popping and herding – with Maria being the consort this time! The adult males however this time slowed for a bit of circle swimming and conscious interaction with me before heading off in pursuit of Maria once more.

The #dolphinsofponta are part of a longterm monitoring project that was started in 1997 by DolphinCareAfrica; the research & conservation arm of the Dolphin Encountours Research Center in Ponta do Ouro, Mozambique.

 

Reference: Connor, Richard & Smolker, Rachel. (1996). ‘Pop’ Goes the Dolphin: a Vocalization Male Bottlenose Dolphins Produce During Consortships. Behaviour. 133. 643-662. 10.1163/156853996X00404. 

Whalesharks of Mafia Island

Whalesharks of Mafia Island

 

The average human (data culled from various signs in lifts) weighs 70 kilos and (empirical evidence) is less than 2m tall. Also, we’re terrestrial. So it’s quite something to be floating in 25m of warm blue water being approached by an animal which, as an adult, weighs an average of 9 tonnes (that’s 9 000 kilos in case there was any doubt) and is close to 10m in length. Plus, it’s leading with its cavernous 1.5m wide mouth. And the animal which owns the mouth is actively feeding. At 2m away and closing, there’s a certain sense of drama.

That’s a really big animal getting really close. And that’s presumably why they’re not called hamstersharks.

Luckily for me, the whaleshark, for that’s what it was, ignored my feeble attempts to evade it, effortlessly flicked its enormous tail and submerged. And circled back and repeated the feeding lunge, this time not quite so close to me. The plankton must have moved. Whalesharks, of course, are not interested in feeding on humans, though an unintended whack from a tail could certainly do some damage; worth considering when in the water and trying to photograph one.

This was offshore of Mafia Island, off the Tanzanian coast. We’d gone there specifically for just this experience. Here, from September to March, congregations of whalesharks move inshore to feed on the plankton blooms which are generated by river outflow.

As many as fifty whalesharks can be seen gaping their rectangular mouths open, sucking vast gulps of plankton into their maws and flaring their gills. It’s got to take a lot of tiny shrimps to keep 9 tonnes on the go. Whalesharks, indeed, will also eat small schooling fishes and sometimes small tuna or squid. This must make life exciting for the juvenile golden kingfishes we frequently saw swimming just in front of the whalesharks, mouths opening in time to the whaleshark’s.

They’re presumably there because the whaleshark is better at finding plankton blooms than they are. Or maybe they like living dangerously.

The whalesharks of Mafia are mostly sub-adults, so they’re usually only around 8m in total length (i.e. not that big, for a whaleshark), and mysteriously, are predominantly male. Getting to see them and snorkel with them as they feed is awe-inspiring. Waking in the morning, hastily eating breakfast and splashing through the jellyfish-dotted shallows to the dinghy is just the beginning. Then there’s the outward journey searching for the leviathans, in a hand-carved dhow, powered by a 9.9 horsepower engine, driven with dashing flair by the boat captain’s foot. It’s a bit like being back in the days when whalers stood in the bows of their tiny ships and shouted out, ‘Thar she blows!’, except here the sign is the enormous dorsal fin of the whaleshark and its smaller tail fin which breaks the surface in the distance.

Or it might be the surface wave that trails their great heads as they rise to the surface to feed. Or their enormous muscular backs glinting in the tropical light. The captain’s foot does its work and the snorkellers bail overboard searching for signs of the beast. A lot of the time it’s empty ocean but then suddenly and with a weird inevitability, there’s a spotty reef in the water, as though it’s always been there. Sometimes they don’t come near, but often the feeding urge is upon them and it’s close encounter with huge animal time.

Whalesharks have beautiful blue dorsal skin crisscrossed with a chequerboard of pale stripes and spots. They may look like this because they have evolved from bottom-dwelling sharks, though no-one is really sure. They have the aforementioned huge mouths which contain 300-350 tiny teeth: not used for feeding and probably also an evolutionary legacy. To feed they open their mouths, suck in a mouthful of prey and water, then close their mouths and open their gills. The slight delay between closing their mouths and opening their gills results in any particles bigger than 2 or 3mm being trapped either against the filter pads in their mouths or pushed directly back to their throats. This form of suction feeding is so efficient that only water is emitted from their gills. They are sometimes seen ‘coughing’, which is probably to rid their gills of any unwanted food buildup.

They are open ocean animals, known from the tropics and subtropics, which makes it interesting that the first whaleshark seen by Western scientists was found in Cape Town’s Table Bay back in 1829. It had probably come inshore following an unusual meander of an Agulhas gyre. They like warm surface water, but tagging data has shown that they dive to 700m and spend time down there in 10 degree water. No-one is really sure what they’re doing there.

And when it comes to mysteries, it’s astonishing just how many secrets swirl around those huge slow-moving animals. No-one has ever seen them mating, and it was only in 1995 that a pregnant female was caught with 300 embryos inside her. Today it is known that whalesharks are ovoviviparous, which is to say, the females carry eggs within their two uteri and the embryos grow inside the eggs inside the mother, finally being birthed at about 60cm long. It is thought that females carry many embryos at varying stages of development, probably mate only a few times and may store sperm, fertilising their eggs at different times.

But back to being in the water with whalesharks. They’re huge, a fact which can hardly be overstated, and though they look like they’re moving slowly, they far outpace even the fastest human swimmer. Best to aim ahead of their apparent feeding direction and hope for the open mouth shot.

Finally, around lunch-time, the plankton swarm has dissipated (or been swallowed by the whalesharks) and the snorkellers return to the dhow. If the wind is right, it’s a creaking smooth sail homewards to Mafia to eat, process images and scheme for the next days’ possible encounters.

Project Humpback Whale

Project Humpback Whale

A new project out of Ponta do Ouro is creating a baseline of data on the humpback whales that migrate north into the Indian Ocean along the of Mozambique and South Africa. On the tail end of the annual winter migration, Clare Keating Daly caught up with the project’s founder, Jenny Stromvoll.

By Clare Keating Daly

“The moment a book doesn’t satisfy my need to answer questions, I feel like I need to go find the answer out myself,” says Jenny Stromvoll of Ponta do Ouro. Jenny has lots of questions. Recently, her questions have focused on the humpback whales that migrate up and down the eastern coast of southern Africa during the winter months. What feeding grounds do they come from? How many pass through the PPMR? And what’s happening in terms of group dynamics, songs and behaviour as the whales move north and southbound?

“I read up a little bit and realised there is no on going humpback whale research happening here so that makes me feel like, well, I can do something,” she says. Jenny is Swedish born but moved to Ponta do Ouro in 2010 and is co-owner of Back to Basics Adventures, a dive charter. “I have realised that within the oceans there are so many things unknown and there are very few people that are fortunate enough to work with the ocean everyday, like myself, so I feel like I can contribute to various conservation efforts and research by simply sharing and collecting data.”


“It’s easy to write things down and store them in a box, but we want to get the information out there, in papers, on the web,” Jenny says. In a recent interview, and with follow-ups over email, Jenny shared the fundamentals and passion that form the new project:Jenny, along with researcher and fellow Ponta do Ouro resident Diana Rocha, recently started Project Humpback Whale within the Ponta do Ouro Partial Marine Reserve (PPMR) in southern Mozambique to do just that. The two are hoping to create a lasting project that contributes to the world of humpback whale research.

What is the inspiration behind Project Humpback Whale?

You know that feeling, of always wanting to know more? It started there. My friend Yara Tibiriçá [President of the Association of Coastal Conservation of Mozambiuqe and founder of the Zavora Marine Lab] was visiting, looking at the nudibranchs. We did a lot of nudibranch diving, but then we had a dwarf minke whale on our deco stop. That’s where the conversations started. Yara’s passion is nudibranchs, but she also keeps a whale catalogue because no one else does up in Zavora. She asked why I didn’t just collect data here [in the PPMR] and said I could share my data with her. So then I started thinking, what is actually done here? I started reading up, getting articles, online and from Yara. But I wanted to do it right. Yara helped me with the original proposal for the project. Very basic.

So where did the proposal go from there?

Well, I went to Miguel [the manager of the PPMR] and asked him what was going on here and how I could get involved. Then I started chatting with Diana [Rocha] over a braai and asking her about the whales because she’s done a lot with the dolphins [with Dolphin Encountours]. I said, this is that I want to do: I don’t have anything else but my drive but I can see clearly that this needs to be done here. She was really inspired and we decided to take the project on together and do the formal proposal. And you know, Miguel was really supportive of research on the area, research that’s valuable for the region. So we got the research permit and started data collection in August.

That’s great. So tell me a little about what’s already known about humpbacks. Are they endangered?

Humpback whales were one of the easiest whales to catch during the whaling years because they move close to shore and are easy to spot with their aerial surface behaviour. In the southern hemisphere, many baleen whales were driven close to extinction [during whaling years]. As far as I know, around 47,000 individual humpback whales were taken between Gabon to the west and Mozambique to the east. To put it in perspective, it is suggested that there were only 340 individual humpback whales left in the southwest Indian Ocean. In 1996, humpback whales were listed as endangered on the IUCN list but today they are listed as a least concern species. I have read in a paper that it’s estimated that the Southern Hemisphere humpback whales [population] are increasing around [the biological maximum rate of] 10% a year and this is great.

They’re cruising our coasts in winter, where are they in the summer?

Humpback whales undertake an extensive migration between their high latitude summer feeding grounds and tropical low latitude winter mating and calving grounds. So the southern hemisphere whales are feeding around 55° south, Antarctica, and winter grounds are around 20° south.

So what are the key questions of this project, in basic terms?

The main aim of this study is, on an annual or seasonal basis, to collect data on the humpback whale population that migrates to its breeding grounds north from the PPMR region. The specific questions are; one, what’s the abundance of humpback whales that pass by here during their migration and is there any rate increase; two, what is the distribution, behaviour, the sounds and group composition of the migrating population and is it different for the north and southbound journeys; three, what breeding stock do the whales passing by here come from and is there any breeding stock exchange; and four, what is the occurrence, prevalence and population distribution of a specific skin lesion observed frequently on the humpback whales passing through?

A skin lesion?

It’s not something I’ve observed myself but I’ve heard of it being seen on humpbacks in the area, kind of a scarring on their dorsal fins and always in about the same place on different individuals. One explanation is poor water quality or poor health of the individuals. We want to find out more about it.

That’s really interesting. How are you collecting the data on all of this?

We’re using land-based surveys and boat-based surveys along with ocean fix location and boat based transects. At each sighting at sea, when possible, we try to approach the individuals by boat at a steady reduced speed to obtain photo IDs and whatever detailed information we can. For all three different methodologies, the same data collection module is applied and a standard log sheet is filled in. Then once data is recorded, the boat goes back to the fixed point, or a commercial dolphin boat track or the track line of a transect and starts over. We’re keeping a photographic data catalogue with both dorsal fins, left and right sides, and flukes also.

Photographic data, does that mean that visitors in the PPMR and help with your project?

Anybody with a camera can contribute by taking photos that in turn helps us identify individual whales. The best way is to capture a photo of the whale’s fluke, their tail fin. The underside of the fluke has unique markings and what we do is build a library of the different whales passing us. It is not easy to capture a whale fluke, the best chance you have is when they dive for a longer period of time when they tend to arch their backs and show their flukes, or when they are tail slapping. And to give a good example of how citizens can help, there was a case in Madagascar where a Norwegian tourist took a photo of a whale fluke. Years later, the photo was posted on Flickr and a citizen scientist found the photo and matched the fluke to a whale that was seen off the shore of Brazil. This was an amazing discovery as it showed that one individual, thought only to migrate past Brazil, had changed his migratory route and came past east Africa. So everybody can make a difference and contribute to science and our knowledge of the ocean, humpback whales included.

Keep up with Project Humpback Whale at www.pontahumpbackwhales.com, the portal to sharing their research with the public and maintaining a meaningful and transparent project.

Pelagic Magic

Pelagic Magic

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Diving with the denizens of the deep Divers in Cape Town are truly blessed. Not only do we have the luxury of having two coastlines to choose from (ensuring almost year round dive-able conditions) but we also have the option of venturing offshore foriving with the denizens of the deep Divers in Cape Town are truly a mind-blowing blue water experience. This is an almost unknown part of the Cape Town dive experience, probably more due to the option not being well known, than anything else.

Text and images by Jean Tresfon

Unlike the frigid waters of the Atlantic, or even the temperate waters of False Bay, the pelagic waters offshore of Cape Point are usually warm and clean. And for the Cape Town locals I don’t mean 14ºC and 5m visibility!

We’re talking about 22ºC plus and 30m visibility. Most of the diving is done in the area known as the canyon (named after the sea floor geological structure) which is approximately 22 nautical miles south west of Cape Point and lies smack in the heart of the tuna fishing grounds. The sea floor here lies at 600m deep so bottom times are fairly limited! Most diving is done on snorkel, and in certain instances tanks can be used but all of the diving is done in no more than the top 10m of water. The trip out takes about 2 to 3 hours depending on the weather and the departure site. It is possible to leave from Simonstown, Miller’s Point or Hout Bay. The sea can get fairly rough out there so it’s best to make sure that motion sickness tablets are taken prior to departure. Target species are mainly the blue sharks and the mako sharks, but yellowfin tuna and longfin tuna sightings are fairly common and we’ve even seen sperm whales and killer whales out there! The blue sharks are the most widely distributed animal in the world and are found in deep waters from the surface to 350m down. They grow to a maximum length of just under 4m and a maximum weight of about 200kg, but most of the local sightings are of much smaller individuals. The mako sharks are obviously also found in deep waters from the surface down to 150m. They grow to a maximum length of 3.5m and 450kg, but once again most local sightings are of smaller individuals. The mako is one of the fastest fish in the sea and has been known to leap clear of the water. Both of these shark species are stunningly beautiful when seen in their natural environment.

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Diving with these animals is completely safe as long as certain protocols are followed and common sense prevails. Gloves are definitely recommended as bare hands closely resemble prey items. All shiny objects attract a nibble from the sharks and should be kept to a minimum. Gaps between wet suit pants and booties should be avoided or covered and flailing of arms and hands is definitely a no.  Hands should stay on the camera or arms should be folded if not taking pictures. Photographers should be aware that the sharks find the strobes very interesting, especially when the capacitor is recharging after a shot has been taken. It is a good idea to always keep an eye on what is happening around you. Photographers in particular should not keep their eyes glued to the viewfinder; rather they should take frequent looks behind, below and above. The sharks are masters at sneaking up unseen from behind and seem to always know which way you are looking. Divers should be cognisant of the fact that these are wild animals and you are a long way offshore and far from any medical facilities. The point is to have a fun and safe interaction. If at any stage you feel uncomfortable then by far the best idea is to leave the water, rather than allowing the situation to escalate.

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People viewing the photos often comment on how brave or crazy we are to swim with sharks. The reality is that if done properly there is very little danger. The animals are beautiful and it is a privilege to be able to share their space. Once a suitable area has been found, normal procedure is for the operator to lay a chum line of chopped sardines in the water. The sharks work their way up the line towards the source of the scent trail. It is not uncommon to have five or more blue sharks in the water at one time along with a mako or two. Opportunities abound for great interactions and this type of diving is a photographers dream. The sharks are fairly bold and swim right up to the divers allowing for stunning image making. Obviously there are no guarantees in nature and it is also possible to spend a whole day out with no sharks.

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My first trip out to the deep was with veteran operator Chris Fallows of Apex Shark Expeditions. Chris has been doing this for a long time and really knows his stuff. With many divers on board he prefers to use a cage, less for protection from shark bite and more for keeping the divers close to the boat in the current and being able to put the sharks right in front of the divers. On this occasion the tuna and sharks were plentiful and we all had about half an hour each in the cage. Although this is without a doubt the safest way to conduct these dives I found the cage to be quite limiting from a photographic perspective. You cannot move around to change the angle of the sun and arrange all elements of the composition to your satisfaction. I did however get some good results, and Chris and his assistant Poena have an incredible knowledge of their subject.

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My second trip out to the tuna grounds was with Steve Benjamin of Animal Ocean. Steve is a qualified ichthyologist, and probably the most enthusiastic guy you will ever meet. This was not my best ever trip, through no fault of Steve’s. I did not take any motion sickness tablets and the sea was particularly rough on the day. I spent several hours lying in the bottom of the boat wishing that I could just die quickly. Steve just never gives up, and ordered me into the water with all my excuses falling on deaf ears. There were five blue sharks and two makos under the boat and he would not let me go home without a photograph. Steve does not use a cage but always has a safety diver (usually himself) in the water to watch his clients’ backs and to get them out of the water if the sharks behaviour changes. Steve is a really experienced guide having worked the sardine run with Mark Addison of Blue Wilderness for many years, and it really shows.

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My latest pelagic trip was on the inaugural charter to the deep run by Grant Whitford of Blueflash Charters. This was probably also my best trip in terms of shark interactions, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing and some valuable lessons were learnt that day. We ended up with just two divers in the water with seven blue sharks and a mako, and took some stunning shots. Both the mako and two of the blues seen on this trip had fish hooks stuck in the corner of their mouths and were trailing strands of fishing line. Just another stark reminder of the over-fishing of our oceans, were another reminder needed.

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For those wanting some tips from a photographic perspective:

1. Use a high shutter speed to freeze movement.
2. Use a wide angle lens and get close. 3.If possible use a strobe(s) to light up the sharks from below.
3. Try using a motor drive and take bursts of several shots as the animals approach.
4. Use other divers to lend scale to the photos.

One thing is for certain… you will come back with a changed perspective on what the media continually labels as mindless man-eaters.
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Cape Catsharks – curiouser & curiouser

Cape Catsharks – curiouser & curiouser

A pyjama party: catsharks are social animals and sleep in piles under convenient overhangs (Jean Tresfon)

Mention Cape Town diving and the conversation turns inevitably to sharks. By ‘sharks’ people usually mean the big toothy brutes which are firmly, if irrationally, believed to spend their days cruising in search of a feast of tender human flesh.  These same people are also usually slightly incredulous to discover that though there are many sharks seen around the Cape Peninsula by scuba divers, the sight of them is extremely rarely traumatogenic.

Text by by Georgina Jones

This is because most of the sharks seen around Cape Town are small and more likely to inspire the ‘oh cute’ reflex than a mental replay of the soundtrack from ‘Jaws’. They are part of a big group known as catsharks, the Scyliorhinidae. About 100 species are found worldwide in tropical and temperate waters, although catsharks are usually found in very deep water. We are fortunate around South Africa not only to have 16 species in our area, 11 of them endemic to the region, but also, that several of them are inshore sharks so that, as divers, we have the pleasure of seeing them bustling about the reefs and wrecks on their business.  Around the Cape Peninsula, four species are commonly seen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A pair of pyjamas (Jean Tresfon)

The biggest of the four is the distinctive pyjama catshark (Poroderma africanum), growing up to a metre in total length. As one might guess from the name, the pyjama catshark is striped. Its close cousin is the leopard catshark (Poroderma pantherinum), and unsurprisingly, it has leopard-like rosettes and spots arranged in stripes on its body. Rather like its namesake, the leopard catshark is very much a creature of the night and is only rarely seen during the day, preferring to while away the daylight hours sleeping under overhangs or in caves before setting forth to hunt for its prey.

A pyjama catshark at ease (Jean Tresfon)

Their smaller cousins are the puffadder shyshark (Haploblepharus edwardsii), a lovely golden-brown creature marked with several white-spotted saddles; and the dark shyshark (Haploblepharus pictus), which is more often seen on the Atlantic side of the peninsula. This is a stockier animal, having dark saddles which may have yellowish spots.  These sharks are all oviparous, which is to say their young develop in egg cases, which the females lay in pairs. Mating is a vigorous affair, with the male biting the female on her pectoral fins to hold her in position so that he can insert his claspers. Though the females often show signs of skin damage post mating, they seem untroubled, swimming off afterwards without hesitation. It is the males who come off the worst, with older males showing signs of scarring and calcification on their claspers. Clearly male catsharks are made of stern stuff.

 

A puffadder shyshark going about its business on a Cape reef (Geoff Spiby)

In due course the female will lay a pair of eggs in cases known as mermaid’s purses. Females can sometimes be seen with tendrils trailing from their bodies. These are part of the egg cases and after while, they seem to irritate the female, which goes in search of an upright support such as a sea fan and begins to swim around it. This causes the strings to catch on the support and the circular swimming helps to gradually pull the egg case out. The yolks are easy to see through the surface of the egg case, and occasionally the embryonic shark can be seen wriggling inside as well. The egg cases are a potential feast for carnivorous snails, octopus and other sharks. The lucky occupants which avoid the attention of predators emerge after 3-6 months, biting their way out of the egg cases and setting off to seek their own prey. They are very small at this stage, all of them smaller than 15cm, and frequently become another predator’s dinner. If they manage to escape from the many hungry mouths on the reefs, they feed on small bony fishes, crustaceans and octopus and may live for over twenty years.

 

A puffadder shyshark peers out from a dense forest of feather stars (Geoff Spiby)

This group is also known as shysharks because of its members’ habit of curling up into a ball with their tail or pectoral fin over their eyes when threatened. It is possible that the purpose of this action is to produce a bigger shape which is more difficult for a predator to swallow. Given that the total diamater of the ball is often not much over 20cm, this probably doesn’t discourage
many predators other than the smaller ones. It does raise their cuteness factor though. So yes, Cape Town diving, sharks, lots of them. But scary sharks? No.

 

Head over heels – snorkling with seals

Head over heels – snorkling with seals

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With their sleek streamlined bodies, sinuously flexible spines and frenetic flipper action, Cape Fur Seals (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus) are one of nature’s most gifted swimmers. Like playful puppies they frolic in the Cape’s kelp beds and around the abundant reefs but hunt in deeper water. Curious, even mischievous, by nature they investigate everything that floats or swims in the Cape’s waters.

Text and images by STEVE BENJAMIN of ANIMAL OCEAN

Duiker Island is a protected island in the Atlantic Ocean, off Hout Bay near Cape Town. It is roughly 77 by 95 metres in size, covering an area of about 0.4 hectare and is home to a variety of sea birds and up to 15 000 Cape Fur Seals. It is also the perfect spot for photographers, divers and people interested in getting close to marine life to interact with these eccentric and fun-loving seals.

Duiker Island as seen from the air
Duiker Island as seen from the air

Animal Ocean, owned by zoologist, marine guide, skipper and scientific commercial diver, Steve Benjamin has been leading focused seal snorkeling trips to Duiker Island for the past 4 years. His is the only company to focus solely on this activity. This means that on any given summer day you can find the Animal Ocean team heading off to the island. It also means that Steve and his team know it better than anyone else.

Snorkeling with the seals is unlike any other activity you can do in South Africa. This is a chance to interact and get nose-to-mask with a large marine mammal that WANTS to play with you. Steve often thinks that this activity is more for the seal’s entertainment than the guests.

The regular and non-interactive way to see the seals
The regular and non-interactive way to see the seals

There’s no training requirement and (unlike shark diving) no baiting. It is a completely natural interactive wildlife experience in which the wildlife comes to play with you, because it wants to.

Seal snorkeling trips run from October to the end of April. The rest of the year it is too rough and too cold — the seals are civilized and don’t like to swim unless its a nice warm day, unfortunately, for them warm water is 14C! During the months of November and December, when the males are mating and the females giving birth, is when the most seals are found at Duiker Island.

Regular tourists visiting the seals from the various vessels that provide non-interactive viewing
Regular tourists visiting the seals from the various vessels that provide non-interactive viewing

Cape Fur seals are different from true seals in that they have small ears and propel themselves with their front flippers — we don’t have true seals in South Africa. Cape Fur Seals eat fish; mainly pilchards and anchovies but they will opportunistically eat octopus, crayfish, reef fish and even small sharks. They are adaptable and intelligent. Fortunately they won’t eat snorkelers, but they may playfully nibble your fins.

The seal pups leave the safety of the island and enter the water during March and April, after being born in December. The pups are incredible to snorkel with and often interact with and play with snorkelers. It is an underwater photographer’s dream assignment.

The trip to Duiker Island from Hout bay harbour is 3 km’s and takes about 5 minutes by boat. Duiker Island is named after the cormorants that used to cover the island before the seals took over about 30 years ago. It is a low-lying island that can get waves washing over it during winter. The areas where the snorkeling takes place is shallow (maximum depth of 5m) and surrounded by a kelp forest. The island offers great protection from the prevailing strong summer wind (the southeast) but is susceptible to swell brought in from the open ocean. Trips are sometimes cancelled because of the swell and resulting wave action on the island.

A curious seal spy-hops to observe
A curious seal spy-hops to observe

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Seals crowd the island shore

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Seals in their kelp environment

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A seal leaps clean out the water

Duiker Island is not known for shark activity and the Animal Ocean team have never seen any around the island. The main reason that the Atlantic coastline is low in shark numbers is because it is so cold. While sharks can handle cool waters they prefer the warmer temperatures of South Africa’s east coast (the Indian Ocean).

If you’re an underwater photographer then this is the ultimate close-encounter-low-gear marine experience. If you’re a naturalist in love with marine life then you will love being in the water with these amazing creatures.

Animal Ocean provides all the equipment you will need to get in the water. They provide 5mm wetsuits with hoods, gloves, booties, fins and masks. The Atlantic Ocean water is cold at 10C – 15C, so be ready for a shock when you hit the water. However, your amazement at seeing the seals will quickly take over and you’ll forget about the cold water. Rest assured though, when you return to the boat you’ll be given hot chocolate and warm water down your wetsuit.

Animal Ocean respect the seal’s space and do not go close to the island, which is protected, and tell guests not to touch the seals (although they will choose to come close to you). Each trip is managed with two guides in the water with you and the location to snorkel is marked by a big red buoy. The seal snorkeling normally takes about 40 minutes, when the cold water forces a return to the boat. The whole trip takes about 2,5 hours including initial meeting, getting equipment, the boat ride, getting in the water and returning.

Animal Ocean is a Trip Advisor award winning operation and guests have written some wonderful comments.

Brian Hope, South African – I’m born and bred in Cape Town and this was honestly one of the best experiences I have ever had in the Mother City

Natasha Ruscheinski, Holland – This was one of the most awesome snorkeling experiences I’ve had.

Monique S, Belgium – What a great experience! The crew was very nice and relaxed, although safety first … so everything was explained very well, before we plunged into the water.

Booking can be done through the online booking form on the website www.sealsnorkeling.com where further information is also available.

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