Tag Archives: Cape fur seals

A cure for sea fever (take a Mola Mola marine cruise)

I must go down to the seas again,
to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship
and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song
and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face
and a grey dawn breaking.
— John Masefield

I’m sure that many a child has sat listlessly in a stuffy classroom listening to the words of the poem, Sea Fever, by John Masefield, wishing he/she was down at the seaside.  We don’t often get to the coast, so it was a pleasant interlude when we drove down to Walvis Bay a few weekends ago to show a family member the delights of this area.  We decided to take a marine cruise around the bay with a company called Mola Mola Safaris, and it turned out to be an absolute treat!

The weather was perfect and from the moment we stepped on board the enormous catamaran we were entertained by both the staff and the varous sea birds and mammals that live in the bay.  Our first encounter was with a Cape fur seal that jumped on board for a meal of several fish before disappearing off the side to waylay the next boat coming up behind us.

A magnificent juvenile Kelp gull

Then it was the turn of the sea birds, with lots of gulls, pelicans, cormorants and a lifer that generated a lot of excitement for us – a Subantarctic skua.   The gull below would have been a good subject for a Garmin advert!

The new voice of Garmin!

We also saw two shy African penguins that dived underwater when we got a bit too close for their comfort.  We cruised past oyster beds and rusty old factory ships, long since abandonned, and made our way towards Pelican Point which was not only lined with hordes of smelly seals, but home to thousands of cormorants as well.

Pelican Point

Throughout our journey our guide was enthusiastically pointing out the inhabitants of the bay and warming us up with shots of  sherry (or “Namibian coffee” as she called it).

The highlight of the cruise had to be when a pod of Heaviside dolphins swam in the spray at the bows of our catamaran.

Heaviside dolphins alongside the boat

As they dived and surfaced happily they elicited plenty of oohs and aahs from the tourists on board.  This has to be the next best thing to actually swimming with dolphins.  No less exciting were the Dusky dolphins that were also visible in the bay area.

Dusky dolphins frolic in the bay

Before we headed back to the jetty where our ride began, we were given a taste of fresh oysters and some snacks, washed down by sparkling wine.  Definitely a lifestyle we could get used to!  It was a professionally run operation and perhaps the only fault we could find with the whole excursion was that they didn’t have enough oysters!  If you’re visiting Swakopmund or Walvis Bay, be sure to take a marine cruise with Mola Mola – you won’t be disappointed.  They also offer trips to Sandwich Harbour.

A visit to the Cape Cross Seal Colony

On our journey to the Skeleton Coast Park we stopped off at Cape Cross, 115km north of Swakopmund, to see a breeding colony of between 80 000 and 100 000 Cape fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus). And what an amazing sight it was, with seals as far as the eye could see.  The Namibian Wildlife authorities have set up a boardwalk so that you can walk above and between the seals without disturbing them.  The area understandably smells dreadful, but it’s a small price to pay for such an amazing sight.
Part view of the colony

The fur seals (family Otariidae) are also known as ‘eared’  seals as they have external ears, which other true seals don’t have. There are three species of fur seals along the coast of Southern Africa.
This bed rocks!
These seals don’t migrate and are present at Cape Cross throughout the year.  The males spend very little time at the colony during the non-breeding season – they’re busy building up blubber and food reserves that sustain them for about six weeks while they establish a territory and gather up a harem of between 5 and 25 females when its time to mate.
Adult seals
Shortly after the male arrives, the females come ashore to give birth to a single pup, weighing about 5 – 7 kgs.   Within a week of the birth, the male mates with all the females in his harem and their fertilized ova remain dormant for about three months before the nine month gestation period begins.  The pups are born within a six week period between November and December and start to suckle during the first hour of birth.
We saw lots of babies suckling
After the mothers and babies have bonded, the mothers leave the pups to forage at sea, often for days at a time.  While the mothers are out gathering food, the pups congregate together.  Fortunately mothers recognize their baby’s cries otherwise they could never be reunited.
Babies sleep whiles Mums go fishing
The pups suckle for about a year, but start eating solids, like fish and crustaceans, when they’re four to five months old.  They are born with thick black coats, which moult to an olive-grey colour after a few months.
Group of seals
The pups face a number of dangers as they are growing up and their mortality rate is estimated to be about 27% of the total born.  Black-backed jackals (Canis mesomelas) and Brown hyaenas (Hyaena brunnea) are their main predators.  They can also be crushed during a stampede, drowned or abandoned.  Culling is also a contentious issue and we know that it does take place at Cape Cross.  It is euphemistically termed as a “management programme” in their brochure.
Two cute little ones
The cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean provide rich pickings for the Cape fur seals, with pilchards,  masbankers,  squid, octopuses and other crustaceans being readily available for them to eat.  They eat on average about 8% of their body weight per day, which is rather a lot considering that the males weigh in at between 180 kg and 360 kg and the females at approximately 75 kgs.

If you’ve had enough of seals and are driven away by the smell, you can go and have a look at a replica of the cross erected by Diego Cao, the first European to set foot on the Namibian coast in 1486.  It is located adjacent to the seal colony and was placed in honour of John I of Portugal.

The Gannets of Lamberts Bay

Our love of birding gives us a wonderful excuse to travel from one end of the country to another in search of new birds.  Earlier this year we had the privilege of visiting the little west coast town of Lamberts Bay, 250kms north of Cape Town, where their resident Cape gannet colony is a major attraction for birders and tourists alike.  We took a chance going there without first establishing that the birds were actually there, but, fortunately for us, the feathered inhabitants of Bird Island were home in all their glory.

Cape gannet colony

Cape gannet colony

For birdwatchers, the colony at Lamberts Bay is the most accessible of the six gannet colonies in South Africa and Namibia. They are a spectacular sight in their tightly packed community and it’s an awesome experience to observe their behaviour as they wheel, land and settle into their designated positions.

So graceful in flight

So graceful in flight

There have been some unfortunate incidents in recent years of Cape fur seals attacking and eating the gannets on their nests, causing the remaining birds to leave the area.  This was a bitter blow to the residents of Lamberts Bay who assumed that they would always have their gannets to pull in the visitors.  In 2006 after the birds had been gone for six months, drastic and ingenious measures had to be taken to entice them back.  Although some birds were circling overhead, they were afraid to return to their nests.

Working on the premise that hunters successfully attract ducks with decoys, it was decided to try the same approach on Bird Island.  A local artist made a mould of a gannet out of plaster of Paris and produced fifty life-size decoy birds which were placed on the deserted nests.  The ploy worked and gannets immediately started returning to their nests. Two months later ten thousand gannets had been lured back.

A tightly packed community

A tightly packed community

There are approximately twenty thousand pairs of breeding gannets on Bird Island, which actually isn’t an island at all, but an area joined to the mainland by a short causeway.  It’s a very smelly place so it’s a relief to go into the bird hide to get away from the stench of the guano.  From the hide one has a magnificent close up view of the birds as they gather in their thousands, performing their little rituals of bowing, stretching, neck twisting and beak tapping.  Their various movements all have significance within the colony and even their cries identify them as they come in to land.

Their plumage is magnificent

Their plumage is magnificent

Their well-defined landing strip on the outer edge of the colony is made out of crushed sea shells.  We watched amused as they made ungainly landings, using not only their feet but their chests to halt them.  Take-off also looked laborious, but once in the air, with a wingspan of up to 1.8m, they assumed a grace and beauty of their own.

Take off!

Take off!

Breeding pairs remain together for a number of seasons and lay one egg a year in August or September.  Incubation takes between forty-two to forty-six days and is carried out by both parents using their foot webs to wrap around the eggs.  The juveniles are easy to distinguish amongst the adults as they are black.  They gain weight rapidly and become fledglings when they are between 95-105 days old.

An enormous wingspan

An enormous wingspan

The seal attacks highlighted the tenuous thread that binds the gannet colony to the Island and the residents of Lamberts Bay have to remain vigilant to ensure that these beautiful birds are kept safe from predators, gulls and tourists alike.   Cape gannets (Morus capensis) are on the list of vulnerable birds due to the diminishing supplies of fish.