It was going to be just another late afternoon swim at Santos beach, a favourite in Mossel Bay for the visitors that stream into the town over the holiday season, stretching its resources to the limit. Late afternoon is usually when the crowds have thinned out, the sun is less fierce and you can actually swim without bumping into others.
By the time we got to the beach on this particular afternoon, it was cloudy with a cool breeze and a light spatter of rain – driving there, the usual comments of “it’s raining, we are going to get wet” were being bandied about, raising a few chuckles. It all worked in our favour as, by the time we had parked and walked across the cool sand to deposit our towels and gear near the water, there was but a handful of people in the water and we joined them eagerly.
The sea was calm, quite chilly, but we were soon in and enjoying the refreshing conditions, not expecting the natural extravaganza that was to unfold before us.
I noticed some terns gathering further out and plunge diving, so I guessed that there were fish around. Soon a few gulls joined the terns, settling on the sea in the same spot. Then we saw dark forms in the water quite close to where we were swimming, the forms changing shape as we watched, moving about like black ghosts.
Suddenly, a large, black, shiny seal surfaced nearby, causing a missed heartbeat or two….. it’s well known that these waters are favoured by large sharks which have a predeliction for these meaty creatures. We watched it move about nearby, then swim into deeper waters, half expecting a shark to rise out of the water and grab it with mighty jaws.
There was clearly food available for predators and seabirds alike – the numbers of terns and gulls was increasing by the minute, literally as we watched from our waist-deep position in the water. Moving closer to shore, until we felt a tad safer, we watched enthralled as the bird numbers grew further. Terns were plunge diving less than 10 metres from us and when the dark shapes we had seen earlier rose to the surface and magically turned into a mass of tiny silver fish, the terns took it in turn to fly in, dip down gracefully to scoop a fish or two, then fly off and let the next bird in line repeat the process.
The Swift (Greater Crested) Terns were so adept at this that many emerged with 3 or 4 of the fish held sideways in their bills – much like the famous Puffin images that one sees. A fisherman informed us that the fish were anchovies – something was causing them to rise to the surface, creating a brief maelstrom of silver bodies and turning the surface of the sea into a frothy jumble. The terns were queueing up to take part in the bonanza, like tiny planes coming in to land on an aircraft carrier.
By now the shoals of anchovies were so close to shore that some were being caught by the small waves and washed up onto the sand, where they were left in tiny desparation until kids came to scoop them up and throw them back in the water – their lucky day, except if they were taken in the seabird feeding frenzy of course.
As we slowly left the water, picked up our belongings and headed to where the car was parked, there were perhaps a couple of hundred seabirds filling the sky above the sea. More proof, if needed at all, that amazing experiences happen when least expected – this one will remain with me for ever.
Footnote : I did not have my camera with me, something which I initially regretted as I could have taken some memorable shots, but thinking about it I decided it was for the best – not everything has to be recorded digitally – that’s why we have a brain…