When you think of Africa and its incredible wildlife you almost inevitably conjure up images of endless plains, scattered with antelope huddling together under the deceptively disinterested gaze of the ‘king of the beasts’. It may then surprise you to learn that Namibia is also home to more than half the world’s population of Cape Fur Seals. A population of approximately 1 million these intelligent and gentle creatures grace the cold Atlantic coastline of this desert dominated country.
They can be found almost anywhere along the 1,200 km coastline, but primarily are located in colonies dotted up and down the coast. The largest of these is the famous Cape Cross Seal colony, where December’s breading season can see populations in excess of 100,000! Crammed onto the little beach a packed and noisy throng of barking mothers and lost, crying pups fight against the constant roar of the ocean for attention, this makes for a memorable – if smelly – stopover. The females grow to about 90kg and have a life expectancy of about 20 years, while the males prior to breading pile on the pounds, growing to an immense 350kg.
Once on land the males will often not eat for up to 3 months as they use up their reserves of stored energy to defend their harem of females against rogue male impostors. The energy needed to survive this fast requires them to eat up to 14% of their body weight per day in the period leading up to the breeding season. This results in a total estimated consumption of 900,000 tonnes per year, which is 300,000 tonnes more than the whole Namibian fishing quota for the year.
This inevitably sets man against animal with annual culling still being a very contentious issue. Research though would indicate that only half of the seals diet is made up of commercially viable fish and their feeding has little to no effect on the bottom feeding fish stocks. Still the Namibian Government has this year granted a quota of 86,000 seals to be culled, the majority of these being pups and the remainder being bulls, killed for their genitals which are sold in the Far East as an aphrodisiac.
Last week my family and I popped down to the coast to spend a little time learning more about these fascinating creatures. Our base was the resort town of Swakopmund, staying in the comfortable and homely Sea Breeze Guest House, but the real base for seal viewing is the port town of Walvis Bay, located just 30km south of Swakopmund. Besides being Namibia’s main deep sea port, Walvis also offers a number of leisure based boating activities from catamarans to the very popular sea kayaking. We chose to travel with Mola Mola Coastal Safaris, one of the oldest and most reputable operators at the coast.
We departed the yacht club at nine for a three and a half hour trip in search of the seals and dolphins and we were not to be disappointed. No sooner were we away from the quay side than we spotted an old friend of Wally’s, our captain and vastly experienced guide for the day. Sally the seal hopped aboard our shiny new motor launch with the ease of an acrobat, and with the aid of a sardine bribe let Wally talk us through her layers of waterproof fur, whiskers and powerful flippers.
Our boat was soon joined by a school of Heavyside Dolphins, indigenous to the west coast of Africa and they jumped and raced our boat, fighting for space under the prow. We were also lucky enough to spot a group of Bottlenose Dolphins who also were good enough to put on a spectacular show of speed and athletic prowess. Pelicans swooped over the boat, eager to grab a fish on the wing from Wally’s outstretched hand, seagulls whirled and a cheeky cormorant settled on the boat, waiting patiently for breakfast. All this feeding left us feeling rather peckish too, so right on queue the fresh oysters, snacks and champagne were served, making for the perfect end to the perfect boat trip!