The sardine run of South Africa occurs between June and July on most years. Millions of sardines (Sardinops sagax) attract thousands of predators including dolphins, tuna, sharks, whales, and birds. It also attracts people who wish to see and photograph this spectacular event.
The long-beaked common dolphins (Delphinus capensis) are the driving force that creates the fish “bait ball”. Large pods of dolphins work cooperatively to herd the fish into these tight groups. Sardines along with mackerel (Scomber japonicus) group together when they are threatened. The dolphins force the fish up to the surface where they are easier to catch.
After the dolphins have done the hard work many other predators begin to take advantage of such a large concentration of fish. The Cape gannets (Morus capensis) are large seabirds that begin to dive by the hundreds into the fish bait ball. They reach speeds of over 100 km/h (60 mph) as they hit the water. If not initially successful they will chase the fish underwater hoping for a meal.
Not to miss out sharks begin to show up in large numbers. Spinner sharks (Carcharhinus brevipinna) were the most common on our encounters although there were also bronze whaler sharks (Carcharhinus brachyurous) called copper sharks in South Africa and dusky sharks (Carcharhinus obscurus).
Each year can be very different. We had very poor visibility (10 feet or 3 metres) on our first 8 days and few bait balls. We did not see a single sardine in our 9 days on the water. Fortunately, we encountered a fairly large bait ball of mackerel on our final day in a pocket of water with relatively clear visibility that allowed us time to get in the ocean. This 20-30 minute event produced all of these pictures.
As we shark dive around the world we rarely have an opportunity to visit a shark research facility. Our two weeks on Bimini Island allowed us to photograph great hammerhead sharks, bull sharks, nurse sharks, blacknose sharks, Caribbean reef sharks, southern stingrays, and Atlantic spotted dolphins. What a fantastic diversity of big animals around a very small island. We got to see baby lemon sharks and nurse sharks at the Bimini Shark Lab.
The research they do here is invaluable. Sharks are under threat worldwide and research is needed to better understand them and protect their nursing sites. One thing that their research has revealed is that the female lemon shark returns to the same mangrove sites that they were born at to give birth to their pups. Knowing this allows researchers to influence governments to protect these critical environments.
We found it fascinating to go to their holding pen to see the young shark pups that they were doing research on. We photograph the adults in the oceans but never see pups. Young sharks reside in the mangroves skirting the islands for protection in their early years but at some point venture away from these safe zones. The shark pup with the barbels is a nurse shark and the other is a lemon shark. So neat to see such young, small sharks.
Scuba diving in the dark is always an adrenaline rush because you know that there are sharks near you but you can’t see them until they suddenly appear. We love night dives because they add an entirely new dimension to exploring the underwater world. We photographed these great hammerhead sharks around Bimini Island in the Bahamas.
Sharks are very comfortable swimming in the water at night. To simplify, their eyes are designed to allow light to pass through the retina twice which enables sharks to see in the dark. It is believed that sharks can see about ten times greater than humans in clear water.
They also have a cephalofoil (the hammer) that is full of electrical sensors. These electroreceptors are interconnected jelly-filled pores called ampullae of Lorenzini and aid in hunting as these sensors pick up electrical signals given off by all living creatures including humans. Therefore, a shark at night is very aware of your presence and location in the ocean even though you have no idea where they are.
Another freshwater turtle we found in the Las Vegas wetlands was the Red-Eared Slider turtle (Trachemys scripta elegans). This turtle is not native to this area. It is bought as a pet but as with many pet owners, they irresponsibly release it into the wild when they don’t want it anymore. We counted as many as 15 turtles in this pond. The danger is that invasive species may out-compete native turtle species causing a decline or eradication of the native Spiny Softshell turtle.
When water temperatures drop below 10 degrees Celcius (50F) turtles are generally not active but brumate. Brumate is a form of hibernation. They will sleep on the bottom of the pond, awaken, swim to the surface, possibly drink water and then proceed back to the bottom. The process repeats itself periodically. During brumation, they do not eat.
Las Vegas had a cold spell with temperatures around freezing at night. There was some snow which is unusual here. This is why we were surprised to see these turtles sunning themselves on the rocks in the early morning. These turtles should not have been as active as they were considering the weather conditions.
Red-Eared Slider turtles can live for 20-30 years. The shell (carapace) averages between 15cm (6 inches) and 30cm (12 inches) in length. Females generally are larger than the males. A large female can lay up to 30 eggs and may lay up to 5 times (clutches) in a year.
It is interesting how your perspective for photography changes with subsequent trips to a game park. Our first trip in 2017 to the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania was so overwhelming with all the animal life that our cameras never stopped shooting and we took over 6,000 photographs. In 2018, we took half that number and began to focus more on interesting situations. This lion cub entertained us for a long time.
There are many prides of lions scattered throughout the Serengeti. We were traveling in a more remote area of the park when we came across a very small pride. It was unusual in that there were two males (brothers) instead of one, just two females and only a single cub.
There are advantages to having two males as the head of the pride. If another male attempts to challenge the pride to become the dominant male then he would have to fight two males instead of one. Therefore, his chance of being successful would be severely reduced. However, according to our guide, only one male will mate with the females and the other brother is subordinate.
It is not uncommon for a new male or males, in this case, to kill cubs that they have not fathered. This causes the female to come back in heat and therefore he can mate with her. This female had only one cub. We assume that it was his offspring because why kill some cubs but leave one. Therefore, this female either had only one cub or some tragedy occurred that killed the other cubs if she had given birth to a few babies.
Having no brothers or sisters to play with meant that this little cub easily got bored and continuously harassed its mother. She was attempting to sleep but on numerous occasions when it would look to play with her she would growl at the pesky little cub. It would role in the grass, chew on sticks and feed. All this was very entertaining.
We arrived at this dry riverbed at just the right time to see this small herd of elephants. The rains were late and had not arrived in the Serengeti yet. After a few minutes, it became apparent why they were here. In the photo below you will notice a small hole in the sand about the width of their foot. Inside there is water.
We assume that the elephants have dug this hole themselves into the dry riverbed. The Serengeti can be a tough place to live in and animals must be innovative to survive. The adults will pass these skills onto the young calves.
Elephants have a wonderful group dynamic. They work collectively for the survival of the herd. As large as they are they are amazing coordinated and use their feet and trunks to perform tasks that you would think they would be incapable of. However, if you are a young calf, drinking all that water can be exhausting and sometimes you just need to get off your feet.
Fortunately, we were able to spend about 20 minutes with this herd before they had all drank from the water hole and began moving on. This group of seven consisted of 2 calves, juveniles (male and female) and adults. We never get tired of seeing and photographing elephants.
The focus of our trip was to photograph the giant mantas (Manta birostris) at San Benedicto Island in the Revillagigedo Archipelago. These are the largest mantas in the world and can be more than 20 feet (6 meters) across and weigh up to 3,500 pounds (1600 kilograms). The dive site called “the Boiler” is a cleaning station for these mantas where fish remove parasites from their bodies. Consequently, this site provides the best opportunities to see and photograph these gentle giants.
The Revillagigedo Archipelago lies approximately 390 kilometers (240 miles) off the coast of Cabo San Lucas in Mexico. These Pacific islands are more commonly referred to as the Socorro Islands. Aboard the Southern Sport, we dove 3 of the 4 islands (Roca Partida, San Benedicto, and Socorro).
A color variant from the more common black and white manta is an all black or nearly all black manta. It is not a different species of Manta birostris. However, it is exciting when one showed up as it looks so different.
San Benedicto is the island for the giant mantas. They are used to divers and show no fear of people. They swim It seems a bit surreal, even a few weeks after our encounter with them, to have had huge mantas swim within a few meters of us.