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Odd happenings in the ocean: Abandoned by great whites, Cape Town is now short of whales too

19 October 19

A survey of the population of southern right whales off the coast of Cape Town has shown the second-lowest incidence of the aquatic mammals in 24 years and scientists in South Africa are linking the scarcity to climate change.

The release of the findings of the survey, which was undertaken by the Whale Unit of the University of Pretoria's Mammal Research Institute, comes as the city's tourism industry is already puzzled by the sudden departure of great white sharks from False Bay, which lies off the east of the city. None of the sharks have been seen this year.

Shark dives, where tourists are lowered into the sea in a cage, and whale watching are popular tourist activities in the region around Cape Town.

The whale survey, which was conducted by helicopter, found 200 of the whales in a stretch of False Bay, down from over 1,000 last year, the university said in a statement. Still, in 2016 only 119 were seen. The changes may be related to climate conditions in the Southern Ocean, which lies off the Antarctic.

"We believe the whales are not finding enough food, due to changes in the climate conditions of the Southern Ocean, possibly related to climate change," the unit said.

"Right whales eat krill and copepods and with not enough food they cannot store enough energy to complete the costly migration and reproduction. This has implications for population recovery."

Southern right whales can grow to 16 meters and weigh 60 metric tons.

The loss of great white sharks from False Bay, where they are famed for leaping out of the water in pursuit of seals, prompted the city to put out a press release in August noting their disappearance, drawing the ire of state officials.

The sharks support a cage-diving industry that provides employment for as many as 750 people, according to a city agency, and a vibrant documentary making scene. There's concern that many of the thousands of tourists who view sharks off the city's coast may go elsewhere.

Spotters, who began monitoring the city's beaches 14 years ago after a series of fatal shark attacks, haven't seen a great white in 2019 after averaging 205 sightings between 2010 and 2016. Sightings fell to 50 last year. A number of whale carcasses that washed ashore had no shark bites, an unusual occurrence.





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