Table Bay Animal Encounters

African Penguins(Spheniscus demersus) that set out from their colony on Robben Island in search of food, actively hunting on fish and squid. Being visual hunters they rely on their advanced diving and swimming capabilities and they communicate with other with calls and squawks hunting in small groups;

Common Terns(sterna hirundo) are the best indicators of predatory activity as the birds flit along just above the surface, trying to get at the pursued prey seeking to avoid the water hunters. Knowing how to read these birds actions is standard part of the local fisherfolk’s skillset and once you know what to look for it adds a whole new dimension to scouring the horizon for tell tale signs.

Quite oftenCape Fur Seals(Arctocephalus pusillus) are found below the terns as they “work a bait ball”  These curious mammals have a varied diet consisting of fish, squid, octopus and crabs and can travel large distances in search of prey, often swimming more than 40 nautical miles to find offshore trawlers. They also have a playful side and often startle divers by appearing directly in front of them out of nowhere in a burst of bubbles causing great anxiety for the divers for an instant. They are often seen sunning themselves as they lie on the surface or with a flipper stuck up in the air to thermoregulate.

There are a variety of dolphins that occur in Table Bay withDusky Dolphins(Lagenorhynchus obscurus)  the most common especially in the summer months. Small with lovely patterned markings these highly active dolphins travel in largish pods and love to ride in the bow wave of a traveling boat.  They attract terns whilst they are working their prey of fish, chasing them to the surface so it pays to investigate when you notice activity on the horizon. They are very agile and can be acrobatic at times and always adds loads of smiles to an outing.

Heaviside’s Dolphins(Cephalorhynchus heavisidii) are small and stocky and are endemic to the Benguela current that traverse the West Coast of South Africa and Namibia. Traveling in smaller groups they are also very inquisitive, love to bow ride and are energetic mammals, often seeing playing in the swells, and performing various acrobatic maneuvers . As they have a small home range it is possible to find the same individuals repeatedly over time. They are easily recognizable from the triangular shape of their dorsal fins.

Common Dolphins - long beaked  (Delphinus capensis) are also regularly observed and this tends to be in larger fast moving groups of several hundred individuals or even superpods of up to two thousand. This tends to be a fast paced affair as they relentlessly pursue prey opportunistically, aggregating them tightly and then turning into them to catch individual fish. Due to the large numbers it is possible for them the decimate a large shoal of bait fish within a short space of time.

They have a yellow hourglass marking and are the larger of the dolphins found near Cape Town.

Tracking them with a boat ,shooting images is an exciting affair.

Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are common on our coastline and they are large, growing up to 18 meters in length, 36 tons in weight and can live up to 90 years. They have some of the longest migrations in any mammal and can travel up to 25000kms between there two areas , feeding near the poles  giving birth in the tropics.

In recent years we have seen a large increase in the numbers of Humpback Whales frequenting our coastline. Large groups of these juvenile baleen whales congregate in the summer months (October - March) as they feed off the krill and baitfish rich waters of the Benguella current off our West Coast..

In December to February it is possible to come across Superpods of over 100 animals as they congregate to feed collectively. The sights, sounds  and smells all combine to bring you an incredible experience even whist observing from the prescribed legal distance. Some years they are visible from the shore and their breaching and slapping make them favorites with observers. They have long pectoral fins that they use for this and the males will sing often for hours on end.

Southern Right Whales (Eubalaena australis) are readily distinguished by the callosities on their heads, don’t have a dorsal fin and their blowhole is split into 2 creating a V shaped plume. These baleen whales feed almost exclusively on krill and are curious in nature often approaching boats or small craft in the water. They are also known for tailing and slapping their rounded fins and individuals will often breach continuously or sail with their heads in the water and tails up in the air.

Large and rounded they can weigh up to 80 tons measuring  up to 17 meters. Mating is a communal affair with several males vying for a single female at any given time. As with all mating this is a frisky amorous time with much vigorous movement and rolling and it is better to stand off from a distance as they do not seem to pay much attention to their surroundings.

Southern Rights bring their calves to our coastline, where they are easily visible from the shore, as the shallow and sheltered bays serve as a nursery allowing them to wean them and slowly build their strength and stamina for the long journey back to the Antarctic . These whales were hunted to the brink of extinction because they tend to move at a leisurely pace along the surface making them easy targets for the whaling longboats that were rowed in amongst them. Fortunately commercial whaling has been stopped globally since 1986 and populations continue to climb steadily.

Bryde’s Whale (Balaenoptera brydei) are active hunters eating a wide variety of fish, crustaceans and cephalopods (squid and octopus) Slightly smaller than the other baleen whales found on our coast they average 13 meters in length and weigh up to 22 tons. Presenting a bushy blow about 3 meters high they dive regularly for up to 15 minutes at a time and are always changing direction, never presenting their tails. It sometimes exhales underwater hiding their plumes. This makes them harder to spot and as they are so active and intent on hunting their prey make for less engaging subjects when you do find them. They are often in groups of 2 although are sometimes found in small loose aggregations. and tend to frequent areas with high bait fish presence remaining in the proximity for extended times. 

In 2019 off the South Coast of South Africa a diver in the water trying to photograph the feeding action and was taken up in the mouth of a Bryde’s Whale momentarily before it spat him out unharmed.

Sunfish (Mola Mola) these large bony fish are very common on the Atlantic coast and most often observed as the lie with their bodies flat on the surface of the water, deriving heat and energy from the sun. Their distinctive “oaring”  swimming style makes them easy to spot and if approached carefully one is able to come up alongside and have a good look at these unusual looking creatures. With an almost human looking face and a large disc for a body they can have a fin to fin length of 2,5meters. Originally thought to feed only on jellyfish it is now known that they are generalist predators consuming small fish, fish larvae, squid and crustaceans with jellyfish only making up 15% of their diet.

Although they have bony vertebrae they are largely cartilaginous which is lighter allowing them to grow bigger. An interesting fact is they grow to over 60 million times their size from when they are hatched as larvae.

Cape Gannet (Morus Cepnsis) and easily identifiable bird due to its large size, black and white plumage with a distinctive crown and nape. It has a pale blue bill with no external nostrils, probably to keep water out as it dives at high speeds from great heights. It also has an airspace in its skull to reduce the impact of hitting the water repeatedly. They nest on islands close to shore and travel up to 100kms to feed on fish, plunge diving to get at their prey. Due to a decrease in the availability of food all sea birds are under ever increasing pressure with many on vulnerable or endangered lists The Cape Gannet is Bird Life South Africa’s bird of the year in 2022 and is classified as Vulnerable locally and has a Endangered status globally.

Cape Cormorant(Phalacrocorax capensis) a medium sized glossy black bird which roosts on rocky coastal sites and is endemic to the southwestern coasts of Africa. Frequently seen in huge foraging flocks they forager in much deeper waters than other cormorants. It’s found crestless head, orange pouch and stunning turquoise eyes makes breeding adults easily identifiable. Immature and non breeding birds are duller. You can see them sunning themselves in the mornings and they tend to start leaving their roosts on rocks and islands as it starts to heat up a bit and they get some lift from the rising temperatures. Their numbers have also been greatly reduced, chiefly influenced by a reduction in prey and greater distances required to travel to target prey areas expending more energy. They are currently classified as VKelp gullsulnerable in South Africa.

Bank Cormorant(Phalacrocorax neglectus) a medium sized, heavily bodied bird, generally black in appearance with a bronze sheen, brown wings, a small crest on their head and rump and a pale eye, they live in and around the coastal waters of the western seaboard of South Africa. They breed on Robben Island so keep a sharp eye out. Not venturing too far offshore, feeding primarily on rock lobster and a few fish and crustaceans, they stay close to the kelp beds where their food is found. A decreasing environment and increasing Kelp gull population that prey on their eggs and chicks means the populations of these birds is dropping sharply too. They are listed as Endangered.

African Black Oystercatcher(Haematopus moquini)  a large charismatic wader resident to the mainland and offshore islands of Southern Africa. Black with red legs and a broad strong red bill this noisy bird feeds on mussels, limpets worms and insects with an occasional fish too. They nest on a bare scrape of pebbles or sand within 30 meters of the high watermark making them susceptible to disturbance from people, dogs and kelp gulls prey on them too. Large vocal calls will indicate a disturbance and parents will try and divert attention from the nest. Populations have recovered nicely due to beach vehicle legislation and are on an upward trend

Kelp Gull(Larus dominicanus) known as the Cape Gull is an omnivorous eater and will scavenge as well as take small prey. Also known to fly up and drop shells on rocks to break them open this gull has flourished in an urban environment. Landfills are heavily frequented by them and their numbers have grown rapidly to the detriment of some of the other species they prey on. They have a yellow bill with a red spot and greenish yellow legs with black upper parts and wings and a white head and underparts and white wing tips.

Hartlaubs Gull(Chroicocephalus hartlaubii) known as the king of gulls , it is a smallish bird with about half of the total endemic population are found within the greater Cape Town area and there is a large breeding colony on Robben Island that make the 24km round trip to the mainland to find food for their chicks..Mainly white with light grey wings, red legs and a dark red bill these gulls is an omnivore and will scavenge at rubbish tips and also look for suitable prey wading in shallow water. Although it is a relatively rare species it is common in range and is sometimes regarded as a nuisance in Cape Town, fouling buildings.

Sabines Gull(Xema sabini) is a small gull easy to identify through it’s striking wing pattern. The adult has a pale grey back and wing coverts, black primary flight feathers and white secondaries. The white tail is forked. It has a high pitched squeaking call. They breed in the arctic and migrates south in the winter coming to our cold Benguella current often following the feeding Humpback whales that feed on the krill. 

Species that I have observed previously on one or two occasions but were really out of the ordinary have been a Basking Shark (Cetorhinus maximus) and Green Turtle (Chelonia mydas), that had obviously been pushed by an ocean current as they are not common. 

Several years ago before they became household names we came across a pair of Orcas (Orcinus orca) very close to the wreck of the DiYang Family. We had spent an hour with the then unnamed Port and Starboard, who have gone on to strike fear into the Great White Shark population of Seal island.

I have also observed orcas at Cape Point and in False Bay.