Wild Cape Cod Notebook: Chasing the Last Dragons

White Shark Chex off N Chatham Inlet

A large male tagged earlier in the season is called Chex (nicknamed Darth Vader by the DMF Team). He is riddled with battle scars indicating that he is likely the dominant male white shark in the Chatham/Orleans habitat this summer season. The tag is visible in this image behind the dorsal fin.

Read a recent article in National Geographic Traveler about cage diving with white sharks in the Neptune Islands in South Australia. Local eco-tour operator Andrew Fox describes the experience his guests enjoy as “Chasing the Earth’s Last Dragons”. The phrase resonated with my own feelings of awe for these ocean voyagers.

Experienced naturalists and field biologists are a joy to be with. They can truly ignite a moment in the field with insight into animal behavior by orienting field companions to the possibilities while calibrating expectations with “what to look for…and what to avoid.. A passion for the wild world just pours from these companions on hikes or longer expeditions into the wild and it can be the difference between an average experience and a special one. We have learned that there is absolutely no substitute for an experienced guide who is familiar with the area your are exploring.. And most if not all of these guides will tell you…that the odds of witnessing a truly magical experiences improve significantly the more time you spend in the field. Seem obvious? Easier said than done. A lesson learned often the hard way. Time in the Field. “You can’t see them if you are not out there among them”… and conditions are not always ideal when the magic happens. Invariably, the fellow traveler who decides to sleep in and not take the early sunrise hike usually misses the one sighting that they had placed the most value on in planning their trip.

Time in the Field! Persistence paid off for us recently. After more than four seasons of scouring the outer Cape on our boat from Nantucket to Truro with binoculars, using various strategies to solicit the presence of a white shark and observe their hunting prowess we were finally rewarded with a magnificent white shark predation on a small grey seal in real time near the North Chatham Inlet here on Cape Cod. A  true lesson in natural history and a reminder of the majesty of this predator in our midst.

Predation #1

Predation #2

Predation #4

White shark 9.4.14 (1)

 

White shark 9.4.14

AWSC Trip 9.4.2014 (1)

AWSC Trip 9.4.2014

A truly amazing spectacle that took less than 1 minute to complete. When the shark appeared finished we deplyed our decoy seal (made from pieces of synthetic carpet). A well placed toss and a splash solicted a return visit from the shark. NOTE: the shark is a male about 13 feet long tagged previously…nicknamed “Salty”.

White shark 9.4.14 (2)

Salty sniffed this decoy and instantly realized that he had been duped. With a magnificent thrash of his tail he whacked the imposter hard and swam away.

White shark 9.4.14 (3)

AWSC Trip 9.15.14  67666

Outer Cape with WD

Shot acquired while flying with spotter pilot Wayne Davis on one of our days off the water. Note: This is a favorite surfers break off of Wellfleet

Seals in Truro 9.2014

This haul out of grey seals off of Pilgrim Heights is presently the largest gathering of seals on the Outer Cape this summer.

White shark 9.17.14 (1)

Dr. Greg Skomal tags his 10th white shark off of Monomoy this week, a 14 footer nick named “Surf Hunter”.

White shark 9.17.14

Working off NAuset Beach

Here is what they see from the beach on most days we are out.

Working off NAuset Beach (1)

A Surfer trying his luck close to the beach

Read more.. Saturday, September 20th, 2014

Wild Cape Cod Notebook: Winter

Orleans - Nauset Beach

We have spent a few days hiking the beaches on the Outer  Cape as well as on Barnstable’s  Sandy Neck enjoying the winter landscapes. Largely desolate and dramatic we have also been hoping for good views of one of the many Snowy Owls that have been visiting Cape Cod from the Canadian Arctic the past month. Though we have been fortunate with a couple of nice long distance sightings we continue to look for better images. As our search continues please get outside and  check out and appreciate the beauty of winter on Cape Cod.

Sandy Neck - Cape Cod Bay side

Sandy Neck - Great Marsh side

Wellfleet - LeCount Hollow

Eastham - Coast Guard Beach

Orleans - Nauset Beach

Truro - Ballston Beach

Eastham - Coast Guard Beach

Read more.. Sunday, January 12th, 2014

Ecuador: In the Cloud Forest

Capitalizing on our time in South America we continued our exploration of wildlife by journeying north to Ecuador. Yet another country set in the Andean Highlands and exceptionally bio-diverse especially in the bird world we were eager to spend a few days here before we ventured out to the Galapagos. From Quito,the capital city we journeyed north and west to a beautiful private reserve that had been rescued by an entrepreneur and restored with a superior lodge to allow visitors to enjoy a very special area of unique wildlife, Here is a description by the owners of the lodge – “The wonders waiting at Mashpi Lodge will delight the worldliest nature lover. Perched at 900 m (3,116 feet) above sea level and surrounded by lower montane rainforest and cloud forest, the Lodge is surrounded by a profusion of plant species, from ferns and bromeliads to hundreds of orchid species, many newly-discovered. A staggering 500 species of bird – including some 36 endemics – are estimated to inhabit the forest, fluttering through the canopy. Monkeys, peccaries and even puma make their homes inside the Reserve crisscrossed with waterfalls between dramatic, verdant hills.”

Read more.. Wednesday, December 18th, 2013

Green Water…White Death

wild cape cod

Third in a series of photographs leveraged to raise
awareness, the 2013 poster edition of wild cape cod
illustrates a story of predation and power.
Taken a few moments after a failed attack,
this photograph captures a great white shark
as she circles back for another strike at a one of
the area’s many seals.

Poster is 22″ x 28″ and printed on high quality photographic paper suitable for framing
Cost $50.00 signed and dated
Send inquiries to john@commonflat.com
All Proceeds will be used to support Cape Cod based conservation efforts

Read more.. Thursday, December 12th, 2013

The Strange Natural World of Chihuly

Garden at the foot of the Needle

As the winter solstice approaches and the days are ever shorter in the Northern Hemisphere we look for opportunities to experience nature in many ways. Some not so natural. For instance on a recent visit to Seattle we finally had a chance to tour the Chihuly Garden & Glass Exhibition at the foot of the famous Space Needle. An absolute WOW! Here are a few snaps we managed on the magical mystery tour. If you are ever in Seattle please make a point to visit.

Read more.. Monday, December 9th, 2013

Wild Cape Cod Notebook: Atlantic White Sharks

The Cape Cod fall has been spectacular especially in this month of October. The weather has been largely sunny, temperatures have been mild and the strong storms with easterly winds have held off.  With the Massachusetts Shark Research effort under the direction of Dr. Greg Skomal winding down and all tagging efforts complete for the 2013 season we decided to take advantage of a beautiful sunny day and get up in the air with veteran pilot and fish spotter Norman St. Pierre of Chatham. Our experience gives further credence to advice top wildlife guides and naturalists always say – the more time you spend in the “field” the better chance you have of seeing something extraordinary.
Field Report follows:
Weather conditions were not ideal as we had westerly winds with gusts to 25 knots giving a little challenge to flying in a small plane but the east side of the outer Cape beaches were protected from the wind and the sun shined exposing clear emerald green water near the beaches. We scanned the Chatham outer beaches carefully from the Minister’s Point cut in the north  to Monomoy Point in the south. The tide was high and slack water occurred during our flight at around 1330 hrs.  Almost immediately we spotted a white shark in shallow water just south of the new South Beach cut . The shark was about 100 yards off of the beach. Approximately 300- 400 grey seals were hauled out on the sand and perhaps another 50 were in the water at the edge of the surf inside the new cut area on the south side of the channel. We made several passes to take photographs and then proceeded south toward “shark cove”.  Approximately 1 mile north of the “cove” we spotted a 2nd white shark. This shark was about 25 yards off the beach and closing on a group of seals at the water’s edge. Again approximately 200 – 300 seals were hauled out in the near vicinity on the beach. Others were in the water but very close to the surf line. We again made several passes to photograph the shark and surroundings then proceeded south to Monomoy Point, circled the south end of the island but found no additional white sharks visible form the air. However a group of about 100 – 150 seals were hauled out at the south end of Monomoy.
Upon returning north we approached the area of the second shark sighting just in time to observe a predation attempt about 20 yards off the beach. We observed significant thrashing and splashing at the surface as it appeared the shark rushed a smaller seal that had strayed just a little off shore. Thrashing appeared to be created by many and very rapid strokes of the shark’s tail as it accelerated in attack mode and presumably some action from the seals attempt to escape to the beach. The seal escaped to the beach and hauled out but it was not immediately clear if it had sustained damage in the attack from a first look at the images recorded. We will study the images further.

After the predation event we followed the shark for a few minutes to see if it would initiate another attack. It approached another small group seals slowly but once observed by the seals (we saw them raise their heads and look )  the shark headed away from the beach to deeper water. We then made our way north across the main Chatham inlet scanning the east side of North Beach Island to the Minister’s Point cut . Finding no additional sharks in the area we returned to the airfield.

Now in thinking about the experience…it is a huge WOW! The “holy grail” in studying natural behavior in white sharks around the world is to see natural predation. Scientists, naturalists and photographers have devoted countless time and resources to witness and record these events and they are fleeting when they come if you are fortunate to see them. (See previous blog.commonflat post from August 2013 on this in South Africa). Only a hand full of people have seen Atlantic white sharks attack live marine mammals. The photographs are even more scarce because it is a rare and chance encounters that lasts only for a few seconds. Norm St. Pierre and I were very fortunate.  And what a glorious environment to witness this amazing stroke of natural hunting behavior from one of the earth’s greatest predators. Wild Cape Cod indeed!

Monomoy Island looking north to "Shark Cove"

Seals haul out at the new South Beach cut

Aftermath of an attempted white shark predation on seal

White shark moves off shore into deep water

Read more.. Monday, October 21st, 2013

Flight & Pursuit: Autumn Migrations

Autumn Sky - South Beach, Chatham

Beautiful fall weather continues here on the outer edge of Cape Cod and a continuing flow of returning raptors are visible in our open spaces and barrier beaches….but you have to look for them. Had a brilliant encounter with a pair of red tailed hawks in Chatham today. See below. Also as previously reported – sightings of Marbled Godwits are rare – anywhere. This fall we were blessed with sightings and images in three different areas. Mount Desert Island, ME, Tern Island, Chatham, MA and Del Mar, CA. shown in our previous post on our visit to Maine in late September.

In addition we decided to include some similar images of raptors and shorebirds we recorded while we were in California observing the west coast migration a month ago. So much is similar as many bird species pass from the Arctic nesting areas south using the Pacific flyway on their annual migrations to warmer climates for the north American winter just as we see in the Atlantic corridor here on Cape Cod. Do not miss our first ever sighting of a Long billed curlew – found in an estuary near Del Mar, CA.

Marbled Godwits - Mt. Desert Island, Maine

Turkey Vulture heading south, Mt Desert Island, Maine

Hunter Moonrise - Chatham, MA

Black bellied plover and a short-billed dowitcher, Tern Island

Marbled Godwits in Chatham

Snake River, Chatham

Marbled Godwit in Chatham

Pair of Red Tailed Hawks, Chatham

Northern Harrier - Stage Harbor, Chatham

Set up for watching waterfowl at the Powderhole, MNWR

Yellow rumped warbler, MNWR

Red shouldered hawk, near San Diego

Marbled Godwits near Del Mar, CA

Long billed Curlew lands near Del Mar, CA

Godwits and Pacific Willets near Del Mar, CA

American Kestrel hovers near Del Mar, CA

Osprey hunts near Del Mar, CA

Shooting shorebirds near Del Mar, CA

Beautiful Point Loma, CA

Marbled Godwits on Tern Island - Chatham, MA

Read more.. Saturday, October 19th, 2013

Report from the Pacific

Many of you will have seen our report from Guadeloupe Island and our experiences in crystal clear water observing white sharks of the Pacific. In planning the trip we (err I) realized that the dates of the trip would include the date of a certain birthday milestone for Pam. Finally had a chance to review the video footage from the trip and now offer the attached clip which will give you just a little bit of the feel of what diving with massive white sharks is like. Your heart pounds and spends a lot of the time in your mouth! Still amazed at the memory of the experience even now a few weeks ago.

Read more.. Thursday, October 17th, 2013

Wild Cape Cod Notebook: Autumn

The beauty of this time of year on Cape Cod is exemplified by the diversity of observations that one can have in a short period of time given migration and weather patterns of the season. The following sightings all occurred within the past week in the mid Cape region and waters. The red tailed hawk below was astounding in its concentration as it lifted off from its perch and kept focus while generating lift in the most beautiful way.

The shorebird southerly migration is slowing down but still plenty of dunlins coming through along with a complement of red knots, black bellied plovers and some other south bound stragglers. The beautiful greater yellowlegs pictured here was extraordinarily comfortable with the presence of the camera in great afternoon light. We continue to watch for the presence of peregrine falcons which are beginning to pass through the barrier beaches hunting along the way. No sightings yet but hoping….

Finally on a remarkable sunny fall day we worked with Dr. Greg Skomal and the Cape Cod Shark hunters on the final tagging trip of the 2013 season. With the help of Wayne Davis in a plane we observed four different Atlantic white sharks. One shark was conservatively estimated at 16 feet long and an estimated 3500 lbs. A truly massive female that was tagged and named Luci and will now be followed with hopes that she will help researchers decode the mysteries of where these amazing predators go when they are not in Cape Cod waters. Kudos to the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy for all the hard work that went into raising awareness and funds for our magnificent apex predator seasonal visitor. Note: These are images of three different white sharks sighted in a single day. The 4th was spotted by the pilot but we were not able to follow it from the tagging boat.

Dunlin in flight

Red Knots and Dunlins in Flight

Black bellied plovers in flight

Very large white shark in motion off Monomoy

Read more.. Saturday, October 5th, 2013

Report from the Pacific

How do you follow up an epic experience such as cage diving in crystal clear water with earth’s most charismatic apex predator – the great white shark? We took a long shot and joined a local whale watch operator in San Diego to try for one more “life” experience before we headed back home. Our goal was to find the largest animal ever to inhabit the earth in the wild – the elusive and endangered Blue Whale! A sighting would be a first for us and we knew the odds were not in our favor.

Our craft was perfect for the task – a surplus Navy Seal inflatable that could seat 6 comfortably and make about 30 knots in calm seas. A bit slower in choppy seas and you better be prepared to hang on for a bumpy ride. September is not a typical month for Blue whale sightings which are still considered fortunate and rare anywhere in the world since whaling in the modern era has reduced their numbers to a fraction of their historic population. But our amazing luck was with us as about 20 miles offshore (now back in Mexican waters) we came across a gathering of 25 blue whales feeding on the surface over a 2 square mile area. Watching these beasts glide across the surface (several of them were 100 feet long!) was breathtaking. Our naturalist on board said he had not seen so many Blue Whales together in one area in his five years of guiding there.  Another incredible experience. WOW! Take a look!

Read more.. Sunday, September 22nd, 2013