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Birding Africa pt. 12 - Great Whites & Jackass Penguins

posted by Tim Avery at
on Tuesday, November 5, 2013 

After the pelagic from Hout Bay I rushed back to Sea Point and picked Sam up--2 hours late... Sorry.  We packed the car and headed back towards Hout Bay.  We had to drive south around Table Mountain then across the Cape Penninsula to Capri Village near the town of Fish Hoek.  The drive took us along Chapman's Peak Drive, which hugs the side of the mountain with a drop off to the ocean on the opposite side.  It's a scenic and amazing drive--plus it's a thrill for those of us used to the other side of the road.  I took pictures which I planned to put here--but for some reason the pictures from this day taken on my smart phone disappeared.

After you drive into the mainland from the edge of the sea its like driving through the rolling hills of the upper midwest.  We past farms, wineries, marshes, and homes.  We pulled into the neighborhood in Capri where the Makapa Lodge is located, and checked in for the night.  The sun had set but it was still light and as I walked to our room I spotted a CAPE SUGARBIRD perched in the trees just outside.  This long-tailed beauty was one of my top 25, so I took to shooting a few shots with the flash--since the lighting was awful.

Lifer Cape Sugarbird--what a tail...

We ate dinner at a seafood joint in Fish Hoek before calling it a night.  The next morning we were up by 5:00am and in the dark headed towards Simon's Town Harbor--today we were going diving with Great White Sharks.   We booked a trip on Apex Predators, one of two companies in Simon's town authorized to do shark diving in False Bay--they had stellar reviews and were known around the world for the specials on the discovery channel.  We were joined by 10 other American's, and the boats captain and crew--apparently about 95% of tourists who go shark diving are from America--go figure.

Me heading out of the harbor with the shark cage...

The ride out to Seal Island Preserve only takes about 35-40 minutes, and being still kind of dark there weren't a lot of birds--in the actual harbor there were dozens of SWIFT TERNS and a number of GREAT CORMORANTS though.  Once to the island you could see 1,000's of CAPE CORMORANTS on "the rock".  And of course CAPE FUR SEALS were there by the 100 as well.  The smell let you know that--it was god awful, seriously the worst smell I have ever smelled--but the sight of all the wildlife was incredible.

Seal Island at first light

After a quick look around the crew started looking for signs of shark attacks and it wasn't long before we started seeing it.  Usually a flock of KELP GULLS hovering over the water was a good sign that an attack was happening or had just happened--and when it did the boat would go that direction.

Great views of Kelp Gulls at the kill sites

Kelp Gulls with a Great White Shark at a seal kill

We went to the sites of 3 or 4 attacks but actually missed the initial attack on each one.  Aside from the gulls there was also a BROWN SKUA that came in and kept circling--it was nice to see one last skua for the trip.

Brown Skua in False Bay

 We did get to see one seal giving a great white a run for its money and actually escaping.  The little creature would jump out of the water right on the sharks back making it almost impossible for the shark to get them.

Cape Fur Seal flipping over a Great White Shark

Twice we ended up at the aftermath where seal remains were scattered in the water and the gulls were in a feeding frenzy.  At one of the stop one of the GREAT WHITE SHARKS was actually busy still eating and the water was stained red from the carnage.  It was incredible to watch.

Great White Shark at a seal kill

After all of this, they try to see if they can get sharks to breach towing a dummy seal--unfortunately it was the wrong time of year for that, as we just missed the tail end of the breaching season--the best part about it was the dummy seal had been named "Beiber 3" (1 and 2 were destroyed by sharks).

Classic "Jaws" shot of a Great White Shark

Finally came what I was most looking forward to, getting in a cage in the water with the sharks. Sam had previously decided she was not going to do it, because it was too scary.  Out of the 12 guests, only 5 of us were in, so that meant we would get longer in the cage--that was until some of the fearful guests changes their minds upon seeing what was happening--all in all they ended up sending 4 groups into the water and 9 people went--so we spent less time in that I would have liked--but it was worth it because Sam was one of those who changed her mind.

Us in the shark dive cage

We were in the 2nd group to get in, and didn't get to watch the 1st group as we were getting into wet suits--we could hear the commotion and knew there were sharks coming to the surface.  I had really wanted to get a picture of a shark coming out of the water and hoped I wouldn't miss out.  Finally, they called us to hop in so we did.  The water was brisk.  And at first there were no sharks coming in.  It felt like we were in the water forever before they yelled from the boat, "SHARK!!! LEFT!!!!".  That was our signal to dip under the surface and  look to the left.  They did this because they found that having people stay under water looking on their own, they were missing sharks--it helped get good looks, but made for an awful time trying to get a picture.

Great White Shark passing us

The first shark passed about 15' away but it was spectacular--after that things got really amazing.  In the 30 or so minutes we were in the water we had up to 6 GREAT WHITE pass the cage--the biggest was almost 4 meters long.  It truly was an incredible experience--being that close to such a deadly creature and seeing how easily it moves in and out out of sight.  The sightings were only for a couple of seconds each--and every once in a while the shark came close enough that if you were crazy--you could reach out and touch.

Great White Shark within a couple feet of us

Tail of a Great White Shark close enough to touch

Once out of the cage, it was out of the wet suits and freezing--but that didn't stop me from making it to the top of the boat so I could try my hand at getting a shot of a shark coming out of the water.  While we were in at least 3 had stuck heads fully out of the water--after us several had for the 3rd group--but by the time we were dry and out looking it didn't happen again.  One shark did stick the tip of its mouth out of the water and I was able to catch it--but that was the best I got.

Great White Shark surfacing just a little

I also got a couple of shots of the sharks under water from the top that turned out pretty cool--I really want to go back during breaching season and go out for 3 or 4 days to try and photograph these creatures flying out of the water--because that is something even more incredible.

Great White Shark seen from the top of the boat

After everyone had their chance the boat circled Seal Island.  At this time the 1000's of CAPE CORMORANTS were starting to take off and fly to the east to feed on the open water of the bay.  Flock after endless flock streamed past the boat towards the open water.  I guess some call it the "other great migration" of Africa (even though its not really a migration).

1,000's of Cape Cormorants on False Bay

As we circled I spotted a decent sized flock of JACKASS PENGUINS on the rocks--this used to be one of the strongholds for this species, but Boulders Beach had become the safe haven where most in False Bay are now found, so the few on the rock were a nice treat.

Flock of Jackass Penguins on Seal Island

Coming back around the opposite side we saw an eerie scene--a few KELP GULLS were picking at a CAPE FUR SEAL that had been attacked and managed to make it out of the water.  There were large gashes and a flap of skin that had been torn apart by the greatest predators razor sharp teeth.  When the gulls would pick at it, the seal would move, obviously in pain.  It was heart-breaking for a number of people on the boat to see--but a part of the natural cycle of things, and something that was very interesting to see.

Kelp Gull picking at an injured Cape Fur Seal

From the island we headed back towards Simon's Town stopping only for about 20 minutes to watch a pair of SOUTHERN RIGHT WHALES in the shallows.

Southern Right Whale in False Bay

Back at the harbor their was still one SWIFT TERN sitting on the buoys, so I was able to get a decent shot as we passed.

Swift Tern in the harbor at Simon's Town

There was also one GREAT CORMORANT perched here that also let me get a nice shot with its wings out.  The lighting wasn't great but the birds were close enough that it didn't matter.

Great Cormorant in the harbor at Simon's Town

We grabbed a bite to eat right there at the Salty Sea Dog--supposedly the best fish and chips in the area--it was good because it was hot and we were freezing--but the fries were way too greasy to be called the best.  From here its a couple minutes drive south to Boulder's Beach, which is world famous for the large number of JACKASS PENGUINS that live there. Two pairs were introduced in 1982, and since the colony has grown to an estimated 3,000 birds (we didn't see that many, but there were plenty).

Me headed to Boulders Beach

From the parking area you take a short walk down a boardwalk--along the way you pass penguins on your left and right--eventually ending at an overlook you can see one of the protected bays where about 100 penguins littered the sand.

Large group of Jackass Penguins on Boulders Beach

We spent about 30 minutes watching the escapades as they wattled, laid, played, swam, dove, and did their penguin thing just yards away.  There was a huge tourist draw here and the boardwalk had lots of people on it.  You definitely don't have the place to yourself for photography, but there are plenty of opportunities with all the birds.

Various shots of Jackass Penguins at Boulders Beach

I had now seen well over 100 penguins in the past 3 days--after missing horribly while in Peru in 2012 I was very excited to have finally seen wild penguins.  But all it made me want to do was go to Antarctica and see many more--one day :)

Jackass Penguin staring back at me

We headed back to Capri and cleaned up after our morning in the drink.  I walked around the Makapa Lodge grounds which is noted as a birder friendly establishment in South Africa.  The owners were very nice and helpful and I wished I had asked them specifics about birds before our last afternoon (next post) in Cape Town.  Ian who is an avid birder pointed out a few things like a SPOTTED THICK-KNEE on the hillside above the driveway, and let me know to listen for FIERY-NECKED NIGHTJAR later that night--which I did and was calling from somewhere along the driveway.

It had been a crazy day, and although I didn't see many new birds, the experiences were what really made it amazing.  The next day would be our last on the Cape, and would provide plenty of birds before we departed.

5 life birds around Fish Hoek / 280 total trip life birds / 300 total trip species

photos from the shark diving:

eBird Checklists:
False Bay Seal Island Reserve
Boulders Beach NP
Makapa Lodge

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Anonymous Melissa said...

What an amazing, amazing experience! South Africa is on our list coming up in a couple of years, and I can't wait! You've just whet my appetite, and seeing African penguins is just a cherry on a true dessert of a trip. Thanks for sharing!

November 10, 2013 at 2:26 PM  
Blogger Tim Avery said...


Thank you for reading! I'm glad folks are finding these posts useful, and enjoying them! It will be the trip of a life time for you!

November 10, 2013 at 2:44 PM  

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