The Overstrand is known as a magical place and it did not disappoint this past weekend when tourists were treated to a spectacular and rare sight as a pod of at least 15 orcas made its way through Walker Bay.
All those onboard the Southern Right Charters boat were left speechless as the pod, one of the largest ever seen in our waters, swam past. “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for not only the guests but also the crew. Whale watching boats on this day encountered southern right whales mating, Bryde’s and humpback whales plus a mega-pod of dolphins,” says Robin Appleby of Southern Right Charters.
According to marine mammal biologist, Els Vermeulen a sighting such as this is very rare along our coast. “It is interesting to note that they were seen soon after a pod of dolphins made its way through the bay. It might be that this particular pod was on the hunt for dolphins and that they followed them here. It is not true that orcas only hunt for a certain type of food. They are opportunistic hunters and therefore they will hunt for fish, seals, dolphins and other animals,” she says.
Contrary to some comments on social media, there has been no reported case of orcas attacking or eating a southern right whale calf in our waters. “Although it cannot be put past them to try and catch a whale calf, it is not the easiest of prey for them and it is doubtful that this pod will have any effect on the number of whales or sharks in the area at the moment,” says Vermeulen.
Two other orcas named Port and Starboard by locals have become notorious for hunting great white sharks along our coastline. The terrible twosome made international headlines in 2017 after reportedly killing at least three great white sharks and eating only their livers. According to reports, Port and Starboard have been preying on sevengill sharks in False Bay and have been seen a few times as far as Namibia.
Great White Shark Tours owner, Brian McFarlane says in his 71 years in the area he has never seen an orca in real life. “It must have been an incredible sight and I am really envious. It has long been a dream of mine to see orcas in the wild, but not if they scare off sharks, as was the case two years ago. Luckily the number of great whites has steadily increased again and for the last couple of months we have been lucky enough to see up to eight great whites on each trip.
“In addition to the great whites, we are also seeing copper sharks, or bronzies as they are locally known, and interestingly enough giant skates that swim up from the bottom to feed on the chum,” says Brian.
The local whale watching season, that normally lasts until end December, is also well under way although there are fewer whales than last year. The reasons for bumper year experienced in 2018 has scientists stumped.
Herman de Vries of Walker Bay Adventures, which offers sea kayaking tours says, as is the case with nature, one can never predict what you will see. “Our guests have been treated to sightings of a variety of whales, dolphins and seals and although there have been fewer days than normal where conditions allowed us to go out, we are always hopeful that the ocean will dish up some spectacular displays.”
Vermeulen says initial whale counts done in August show some 260 females and calves and 26 unaccompanied adults along the coast from Witsand to Hawston. “The formal whale count only takes place every year in October, but we are doing additional counts at the moment to broaden our understanding of these giant mammals.”
Last year was unprecedented when some 1 400 mothers and calves were counted. Because of the southern right breeding cycle, fewer whales are expected this year as the calves stay in the southern oceans with their mothers for the first two to three years of their lives.
Southern right whales have a gestation period of 12 – 13 months and will give birth to a single calf every 3 to 5 years. New mothers will come quite close to shore as they need to get the calf to the surface for its first breath 10 seconds after being born. Weighing in at around 1 ton after birth, these youngsters can already swim on their own 30 minutes after birth. Calves are born a lighter grey colour which gradually darkens to finally become the trademark dark grey-black. Roughly 4% of calves are born white and they are always male.
Calves stay with their mothers and continue to suckle for 4 – 8 months, consuming up to 600 litres of milk a day. This helps the calf to grow quickly in preparation for the long journey back to the feeding grounds. Unfortunately, this takes quite a toll on the mother, which can lose up to 40% of body weight during this time.
Join White Shark Projects from Sunday 1 September for its annual blue initiative campaign, ‘21 Days for the Ocean’. Since 2014 they have been spreading ocean optimism and awareness throughout communities in the Overstrand area via public outreach events such as beach clean-ups, educational engagements in schools and local fundraisers.
The 2019 theme is ‘The Ocean in Us’. According to White Shark Projects they will be sharing the messages of 21 different ocean activists from 21 different countries who are unable to work directly in the Overstrand area but are working hard internationally for our seas.
“We believe education is at the heart of making positive change for ocean conservation. Our ‘21 Days for the Ocean’ campaign is based on research that suggests it takes 21 days to break a bad habit. Please join us in making a pledge to the ocean for 21 days this September – from giving up fish to using less plastic, all of our actions make a difference.”
International Coastal Clean Up Day is celebrated on 21 September.
For more information visit whitesharkprojects.co.za or follow them on social media