History of Seal Island, False Bay
The natural and un-natural history of Seal Island in False Bay, Cape Town
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Seal Island in False Bay is wild, remote and spectacular. Not to be mistaken for Duiker Island near Hout Bay, Seal Island in False Bay is accessed by boat from Simonstown or Kalk Bay on Cape Town’s Southern Peninsular.
Seal Island False Bay
History of Seals on Seal Island
Seal Island in False Bay has a rich natural and human history that is closely tied to the populations of seals and birds that inhabit the island.
The hunting of seals on the island in False Bay dates back to the 1600’s when seals were slaughtered by visiting sailors and settlers for their skins, meat and oil.
Hunting pressures increased over the years and populations began to decline rapidly. By the late 1800’s, Cape fur seals had been completely eradicated from 23 of the island colonies around our coastline.
Guano mining activities also impacted heavily on seal populations. Guano (accumulated bird droppings) was highly valued as fertilizer and was collected in large quantities from the same areas used by seals.
The Fernandez Guano Operation held the concession to collect Guano from Seal Island in False Bay as operations between the island and Kalk Bay continued up until WWII when the Navy erected a radar tower and the island became out-of -bounds.
Although there is very little data available on seal populations at this time it is believed there were very few seals, if any, remaining on the island in False Bay by the beginning of WWII.
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Cape Fur Seal Colony
Current seal populations on Seal Island
In 1893 the government of the Cape Colony gave seals their first legal protection in southern Africa, when sealing without a permit was prohibited. Seals were however, still commercially hunted in South Africa until as recently as 1990.
Despite their continued exploitation, the seal population at the island has steadily increased from the war years until the present, with current population estimates in excess of 70 000 seals during the pupping season.
Seal Island False Bay now supports the largest breeding colony of Cape Fur Seals in the Western Cape.
Between 12,000 and 18,000 seal pups are born born on the island each year (Kirkman et al. 2007) and visitors during this time are treated to an amazing wildlife spectacle – an island teeming with new life, noise and bustle!
Sharks at Seal Island
Great White Sharks at Seal Island
With the increase in seal numbers came in increase in shark activity and specifically that of the Great White Shark.
Although great white sharks have been recorded in the Simonstown area by the earliest settlers, it was only in the 1980’s that presence of large sharks around the island became common knowledge and stories of sharks jumping out of the water (and even into boats) started circulating.
In the early ’90’s Chris Fallows and Rob Lawrence became the pioneers of shark viewing tourism at Seal Island. They were the first people to bring images of the now famous breaching white sharks, and the phenomenon of ‘Air Jaws’ to the world.
For over 20 years the island enjoyed infamy as supporting some of the highest densities of white sharks in the world and the global sensation of being one of the few places in the world where great white sharks could regularly be seen predating on seals.
Every year as the latest pups ventured off the island for the first time, scores of photographers and filmmakers would descend on Simonstown in the hope of witnessing an apex predator predation event.
A Photographers Dream
Shark viewing tourism at Seal Island
It could be said that the sharks at Seal Island bore witness to the transition from film to digital photography, as every year improvements in camera technology brought higher megapixels, faster lenses, greater memory capacity and more photographers to the island in False Bay.
Better images and more spectacular footage was coming from the island each year, feeding the insatiable appetite of social media and reality tv – the addiction was real!
In August 2013 I captured an image of a breaching white shark with the camera on my Blackberry mobile phone, something I could never have dreamed possible even a few years previously.
As I took the shot, a cheer rose up from the BBC boat nearby as they captured the same breach in high-speed HD – footage that can be seen in their documentary ‘Shark’, released in 2015.
That year we were seeing as many as 30 shark on seal predation events in a single morning. Little did we know it was one of the last few good years of great white shark activity around the island in False Bay.
Orca predations on Sharks
Orca predations at seal island
Orca predations on sevengil cow sharks in 2015 and 2016 eventually led to the departure of cow sharks from the Millers Point aggregation site.
At the same time as these events, the white sharks would leave Seal Island and it was clear at the time that there must be a connection.
Then in 2017 we had the first concrete evidence that orcas were targeting great white sharks in False Bay and Gandbaai, when five white shark carcasses washed up between Franskraal and Struisbaai between 7 February and 24 June in 2017.
Sadly orca predations have continued to put pressure on the white shark and cow shark populations and now it seems the white sharks are reluctant to return to Seal Island False Bay.
For the cage diving industry it has been a very difficult time. Fortunately the industry has been able to adapt and the operators continue to work in the area with cow sharks and bronze whalers, which appear to be filling the ecological niche left by the Great White Shark
Birdlife of Seal Island
The birds of Seal Island False Bay
Seal Island False Bay also supports a wide diversity of bird-life. The island is a fantastic place for anyone interested in sea-birds.
The naturalist Henry Moseley who visited the Cape on HMS Challenger in 1873 made an interesting reference to the birdlife of Seal Island:
“… It is a mere shelving rock, on which it is only possible to land on very favourable occasions. The whole place is a rookery of the Jackass Penguin”.
Today cormorants are perhaps the most dominant birds with several species using the island to roost and nest. Black oystercatchers forage along the tidal fringes and mussel beds, while many species of tern work the surrounding waters.
African penguins are still regularly seen on the island and seem to move freely through the hoards of seals, however their numbers appear to be reduced to only a few breeding pairs in recent years.
Pupping season also brings the scavengers and the island is a great place to see giant petrels as well as their tiny cousins, the storm petrels, that skim and flit above the waves.
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This text on the history of seal island in False Bay is a work in progress and has been compiled from several different sources, personal observations and anecdotes. It is intended to serve as a popular guide only. While every effort has been made to keep the information accurate and updated, it should not be seen in any way as a scientific text or used as a research reference.