High five for the Marine Big Five

Posted under Marine Life Blog by Grootbos on 5th December 2011

Today I felt like Kate Winslet in that dramatic scene on the bow of the Titanic in the acclaimed movie - standing with arms spread wide as if to embrace the entire ocean and its hidden treasures.

Fortunately I was not on the Titanic, but on the Whale Whisperer - and my boat did not go under. All that went under were a few Great White Sharks and a gigantic Southern Right Whale that swam right up to us and then crossed under our boat whilst my co-passengers and I watched mesmerized! Observing a predation - where a great white shark leaps out of the water in frenetic pursuit of an agile seal, is an awesome experience. We thought the show was over when the splashing stopped, but a few seconds later the spectacular chasing restarted only a few metres from us. We think the seal got away . . . this time!

The amazing experience started at 12h00 at the Great White House in Kleinbaai at the offices of the whale watching company Dyer Island Cruises. The passengers were briefed on safety precautions and the modern day threats to the Marine Big Five which we were about to go seek. Owner Wilfred Chivell accompanied the passengers, amongst whom were three Americansand one Italian. Slicing through the water en route to Dyer Island and Geyser Rock on the specialised boat Whale Whisperer for a close encounter with the famous hunters of the sea is by itself an exhilirating experience. The streamlined double-deck aluminium boat can comfortably take 20 passengers. It was a perfect day and the sea was as bright, clear and flat as a mirror. Near Dyer Island we anchored next to a shark cage diving boat in the so-called Shark Alley and watched several great white sharks investigate the decoy and bait. Visibility was excellent and we could easily follow their elegant movements under the water. The spectacular predation occurred within minutes after we arrived. It was without doubt the highlight of the trip and an unforgettable sight. We watched while several more great white sharks swim gracefully past us, seemingly oblivious to the human intrusion. Michelle, a marine biologist, and Albert, the specialist guide at Dyer Island Cruises, are fountains of information and provided running commentary on the habits and habitats of the various bird and marine species.

Our next stop was at the renowned bird sanctuary Dyer Island , which the endangered African penguin and bird species such as the Cape cormorant, Kelp gull, Swift tern and Black Oyster Catcher made their home. Dyer Island Cruises and its sister company, Marine Dynamics, are actively spearheading several international conservation initiatives to protect these endangered species. Then it was off to Geyser Rock and its colonies of noisy Cape fur seals - the main course on the great white shark's menu - where in mating season up to 60 000 of these plump, family-orientated creatures congregate. The males weigh an average of 350 kg and the females 75 kg - small wonder they are prime wobbly take-away steaks for predators! By now we were anxious to meet the remaining two of the Marine Big Five – dolphins, and especially the Southern Right Whale. We crossed over to the shallow reefs at Pearly Beach and spotted another great white shark of at least 4 metres gliding through the waves - a sobering sight for any surfer!

It was only on our way back to the Kleinbaai harbour that we finally encountered the lone giant Southern Right Whale surfacing from the depths of the ocean like a massive reef. We followed it for a while, fascinated by its gigantic tail and the "footprints" it left on the surface of the water. It gallantly tolerated our squeaks and squeals, and eventually indulged us by coming right up to the boat a few times. When it finally disappeared under the boat and took off in the opposite direction, we watched in awe until the last "footprint" faded.

Although we did not encounter any dolphins, we got much more than we bargained for and departed in high spirits and a high five for the Big Five.

By Elsa Wessels

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