Bronze Whaler Shark feeding on a bait ball under our noses!
The morning of 5 May saw a small private party board the White Pointer in Simon’s Town harbor. The trip started an hour later than normal, as we were hoping to give the sea a little time to calm down after a few days of being rather choppy. As we headed out through False Bay the nippy White Pointer made up quite a bit of time and we were soon passing the spectacular Cape Point. Besides the usual array of gulls and Cape Gannets only a single and distant White-chinned Petrel put in an appearance in the Bay. Once we had rounded the point we were surrounded by good numbers of Cape Gannets gorging themselves on what must have been a massive concentration of bait fish. A few Sooty Shearwaters and White-chinned Petrels were also in attendance at this feeding frenzy. A short distance further off shore we were treated to a large pod of Common Dolphin which put on a spectacular display. The number of bird species accumulated slowly and we added Shy Albatross, Subantartic Skua, Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, and a raft of Cory’s Shearwaters on route to the trawling grounds.
Despite straining our eyes to the limit, we were unable to see any trawlers on the horizon and the single longliner was not retrieving its lines or processing any fish so it was not accompanied by any birds. We made our way between the tuna boats and managed to add Black-browed Albatross, Indian Ocean Yellow-nosed Albatross, Great Shearwater and a solitary Manx Shearwater to the list. We decided to start heading back and at about 14 miles we came across a longliner operating much closer to shore than usual. As we joined the fair number of birds feeding behind the boat we soon added a Southern Giant-Petrel, Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross and a single Spectacled Petrel which was a highlight for all on board. We stayed with the longliner for some time getting ever increasingly better views of most of the species. Again we were homeward bound and thinking the highlights were over when the skipper, Chris, noticed some game fish breaking the surface about 5 miles off the point. As we approached we became aware of a dark patch in the water. It was a bait ball of anchovies. It was amazing to see this mass of tiny fish so tightly packed that they moved as one organism. The bait ball was about 2 meters across and it was largely being kept in check by a hand full of what appeared to be bloated, Cape Fur Seals! Swift Terns, Sooty and Cory’s shearwaters occasionally came down to pick off the odd anchovy and a Southern Giant-Petrel paddled alongside the hapless fish! There seemed to be no sense of urgency from the birds, apparently full from a morning of feasting! Squadrons of Yellowtail fish and Skipjack tunas circled the bait-ball and then suddenly strike, often breaking the surface with a violent splash. The “bird of the day” for some was the 2 m Bronze Whaler Shark which would occasionally swim straight through the middle of the bait-ball! It was completely amazing to witness this wildlife spectacle. As we moved away from the feeding frenzy we came across a large pod of Common Dolphin which provided great views as they leapt clear of the water.
A second, smaller bait-ball was seen in False Bay but only Kelp Gulls, Cape Fur Seals and Skipjack were in attendance.