The most dramatic of the giants is the orca or killer whale, a relative of dolphins which lives up to its second name. They are the lions of the sea: nearly ten metres long, fast, lethal, hunting in prides and as playful with their victims as a cat with mice.
We don’t see them all that often but when we do they make a splendid spectacle with their sleek, glistening, black-and-white patterned bodies rising and plunging like a team as they roam the bay at high speed in search of prey, their tall black dorsal fins as erect as yacht sails.
A couple of years ago a local boat operator, David Hurwitz, captured stunning photos of a rare event: orcas hunting their cousins the bottle-nose dolphins. Fast though they are, the pony-size dolphins are no match for the speed and power of the of the orcas weighing up to six or seven tons, most of it muscle.
Hurwitz photographed them as they drove a large pod of dolphins past the lighthouse in our small harbour bay nearby and further – their glistening aquadynamic bodies creating hardly a ripple as they closed on the frenzied dolphins churning the sea into a boil. It is unknown how many they caught, not more than one each if that, out of the scores in the pod. Not a pretty sight, Nature at its rawest, but really no different to seeing a pride of lions slashing through a sounder of warthogs.
Luckily for the dolphins the orcas’ visits are infrequent. The dolphins visit often and then the role is reversed and they become the hunters. Their targets are huge schools of fingerlings of fish we cannot identify. Sometimes there may be a dozen such schools scattered within sight between us and the horizon maybe ten kilometres distant. So densely packed are the fingerlings that when they rise in flight from dolphins, sharks, snoek, tunny and other hunters below, the surface froths like bubbles from a freshly poured soda as thousands of tiny fish leap out of the water.
The hunt becomes a kind of marine festival. Hundreds of sea birds join in – all sorts of gulls, terns, squadrons of gannets folding their wings to dive like arrowheads, several kinds of cormorants, penguins.
Gulls are around all the time, especially the black-backed kelp gulls which float around the kelp forests to catch large snails. When it captures a snail in its strong yellow beak, a kelp gull flies to a nearby granite boulder with a more or less level surface, hovers three or four metres above it and drops the snail. It does this repeatedly until the snail’s shell cracks and the gull can get at the flesh inside – yet another example of a wild creature using a tool.
One of our rarest animal sightings was about ten years ago of a seal – but not just one of the thousands of Cape fur seals that populate much of the South African coast. Those are often seen in TV footage of great white sharks around Seal Island in False Bay because it is their unfortunate lot to be a favourite food the sharks.
This one was quite different. Fundi Dor first spotted it after sunrise one day lying on a large flat rock at the sea’s edge. It was much larger than a Cape fur seal, longer and fatter, and its colouring was very different.
Its back was dark a brownish hue with a reddish tinge, its chest was a dirty white and its belly was almost black. The most distinguishing feature was a crest of hair on top of its head which ran down to almost the level of its eyes, as if it had recently had a crewcut.
We dashed for our “bible” and there it was, unmistakeable: a Subatlantic fur seal. No other seal recorded in this corner of the world has the crewcut or colouring.
The Subatlantics’ home sea is, as the name indicates, the sub-Antarctic waters at islands like Tristan da Cunha, Gough Island, the St Paul islands, and the Marion and Prince Edward islands, the “bible” told us.
Photo credit: Nicolas Servera. The photo is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution – Share Alike 3.
Sometimes they wander. We reported this sighting to the experts and they said our visitor (or his kin) had been recorded alive on the South African coast only 13 times before, although a number of carcases had been found.
Ours didn’t do much. He or she lay on the flat rock all day, occasionally turning on to its side. Towards evening high tide began to creep up its rock and next morning it was gone.