A trip to Seal Island with the Calypso

One Sunday morning, about two weeks ago, Richard and his mom Lissi braved the ocean waves and the southeaster wind to do a Seal Island Cruise with Circe Launches from Hout Bay harbour. This is a popular trip among tourists who visit the Western Cape.

As far back as 1972, Warren Marine (Pty) Ltd, trading as Circe Launches first began taking visitors and tourists out to Duiker Island (also known as Seal Island), which is home to hundreds (sometimes thousands) of Cape Fur Seals (Arctocephalus pusillus) and assorted sea birds, including the Bank Cormorant (Phalacrocorax neglectus). The island is not much of an island – it is only a large rock sticking out of the water, just to the south of the Sentinel, a pointy mountain peak in Hout Bay. No palm trees or white sandy beaches, I’m sorry to say.

The Calypso is a glass-bottomed boat run by Circe Launches - returning from her previous trip to Seal Island

The Calypso, the most recent addition to their fleet, was custom-built by Warren Marine in Hout Bay, incorporating several nice features, such as seating both on the outside deck and inside the cabin, viewing from the upper deck, and two glass portholes or viewing ports at the bottom of the boat, through which you can view sea life (fish, kelp, etc.) up close. She has been in use since 2001, and I think can carry about 100 passengers.

The boat leaves the shelter of Hout Bay Harbour - the mountain above is the Sentinel, I think

The there-and-back cruise to Duiker Island takes about 40 minutes, with departures scheduled during the morning (08h45, 09h30, 10h15, and 11h10), and currently costing R42.50 for adults and R15.00 for children.

The Cape fur seal, as its name suggests, is commonly found in the oceans around Southern Africa. There is, for instance, a very large breeding colony at Cape Cross, a small settlement north of Swakopmund on the coast of Namibia.

The males (on average 2.2m long and weighing 190kg – oof, that’s pretty heavy!) are larger than the females (1.6m long and weighing only about 75kg, which is less than half of the males). Apparently you can also tell them apart by the colouring of their thick fur: the bulls vary in colour from dark brown to golden brown, whereas the cows are more brownish-grey.

They are basking themselves on the sun-heated rocks

They feed mainly on shoaling pelagic fish (pilchard, hake, Cape mackerel, and snoek), but also eat squid and crustaceans, and even African penguins (!) (Biodiversity Explorer website).

When you see them awkwardly lumbering about on the rocks, pulling themselves forward in that typical undulating motion, arching upwards with their front flippers splayed left-and-right, it is hard to imagine that they are transformed into sleek torpedoes in the water – racing through the waves, capable of twisting and turning, surfing the breakers… completely at one with the water.

A Cape fur seal with a kelp gull in the background

Seals are gregarious creatures, and like to cluster together on beaches, rocks and islands near the coastline. Bulls usually have several cows in their harem, and loudly defend their space against other males – the roaring, honking sound of bulls complaining about and threatening their rivals can be quite owerpowering!

“Mature bulls arrive at the breeding colonies in Mid-October. They establish territories and defend them against rivals. The cows arrive a few weeks later to give birth to a single pup (after a gestation period of a year). The bulls establish a harem of several cows. Mating takes place about a week after the cow has given birth. After giving birth, females alternate foraging trips to sea with suckling periods. Each pup has a distinctive call and scent that enables its mother to locate and recognize it in the rookery when she returns from feeding at sea. Similarly the pup also recognizes its mother’s call and smell. The pup will be suckled for 8 – 10 months, although for at least 6 months of this time it will also be foraging on its own, learning the hunting skills it requires as an adult. The breeding colonies break up and disperse before the end of December.” (Biodiversity Explorer website)

Lots of seals are swimming among the kelp forests

In addition to observing seals and cormorants, visitors may also be lucky enough to see Southern Right Whales (Eubalaena australis). These large baleen whales, about 15 metres in length and weighing about 54,000 kg, are frequent visitors to the Cape coast between July and September, when you are most likely to see them in False Bay, around Hermanus and near the De Hoop Nature Reserve.

Ironically, their name refers to the fact that the barbaric whalers of the past said that they were the ‘right’ whales to hunt because they swim relatively slowly and tend to be quite close to the shore. Interestingly, Southern Right Whales cannot cross the warm waters of the equator into the northern hemisphere, because their thick layers of blubber (which insulate them so effectively against the cold Antarctic oceans) would not be able to dissipate their internal body heat (Wikipedia).

Richard is enjoying the wind in his hair

Apart from the whales, visitors may see Haviside’s Dolphins (Cephalorhynchus heavisidii), which are often mistakenly referred to as Heaviside’s Dolphin. These small dolphins (less than 2 metres long) are only found off the coast of Namibia and along the west coast of South Africa, occasionally all the way south to Cape Point.

“Their size and the bluntness of their heads leads these dolphins to often be mistaken for porpoises. The head is coloured a dark grey. The front half of the upper side and the flanks are a much lighter grey. The dorsal fin, fluke and back half of the back are again a darker grey colour. The underbelly is white and there are flashes of white on the flanks below the dorsal fin.” (Wikipedia)

They have a short life span of up to 20 years maximum, a long gestation period (about 10 months), and females only calve about every three years; as a result, extensive hunting can drastically reduce their populations. They are very sociable and active dolphins, and can swim very fast.

“Part of their play and social activity is to jump vertically clear of the water, turn in the air, and fall back into the sea with virtually no splashing or noise.” (Wikipedia)

Unfortunately, neither the whales nor the dolphins made an appearance on this trip, but it’s definitely worth keeping an eye out for them!

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Photos: Courtesy of Lissi

9 thoughts on “A trip to Seal Island with the Calypso

  1. You didn’t go this time, Reggie? I’m sorry…as I will probably be seeing seals in California this weekend and it would have been nice if we could have seen them together. But tell Richard he did a good job taking pictures. And you did a good job of educating us.

    • Hi Kathy – no, I don’t do so well on boats… But Richard and Lissi had a wonderful time, and took some great pictures for me. 🙂

      I hope you see LOADS of seals in California!

  2. Looking at all those seals I wonder how much they must eat! Seals are a controversial topic here in the Canadian Maritimes, with passionate voices on both sides of the annual seal cull. Many fishermen consider them the rats of the sea and blame them for dwindling cod stocks.

    • Sigh… I think we have some of the same issues here, Amy. As far as I know, Namibia still culls seals every year; they have a huge seal colony at Cape Cross, north of Swakopmund. I am really not in favour of killing seals, but I do understand when fishermen complain about dwindling fish stocks. My sympathy is limited to small-scale, subsistence fishermen who’ve been fishing for generations, and who have no chance when faced by these massive trawlers that wipe out entire populations within days.

      Also, the stocks wouldn’t be dwindling if there wasn’t bloody overfishing, primarily by foreign vessels in our (South African and Namibian) territorial waters!! Growing up in Swakopmund, there were constantly Taiwanese and Chinese fishing vessels visible from the shore, blatantly depleting our natural resources. The greed of the human race is enough to make one sick.

      I haven’t eaten fish in years, not only because our oceans are now so polluted that mercury levels in fish have increased dangerously, but also because I am conscious of not wanting to contribute to the problem… even though one person hardly makes a difference…

    • Your issues sound VERY similar to ours. The last I heard of foreign fishermen coming illegally into Canadian waters to fish, it was the Spanish. What a curfuffle that caused!

      Aquaculture (fish farming) is a growing business in Nova Scotia. However, lobster are still trapped here in the ocean year-round.

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