Often when we think about contests between predator and prey, it’s a high-speed chase that comes to mind, or an awe-inspiring defensive display. But sometimes, as is the case with this Cape fur seal and the unwieldy octopus it’s just caught, finding and catching one’s prey is only half the battle. Subduing and actually eating the thing can be quite another.

Cape fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus pusillus) are common in the waters off Africa’s southwest coast, including here in Cape Town’s False Bay. Cold, nutrient-rich currents provide a steady source of food for a wide range of organisms, and the seals aren’t picky eaters. As generalist carnivores, they prey on just about anything they can catch, from mackerel, sardines, and squid to crabs, lobsters, and the occasional octopus. While each of these creatures presents its own set of challenges, octopuses are unique. The powerful, shell-less mollusks are well known for their ability to squeeze out of all kinds of tricky situations, including the toothy grasp of a predator. And they’re tough to chew, as anyone who’s ever eaten under-cooked octopus can attest.

Undeterred, the opportunistic fur seals have found a way to both subdue and process large octopuses whenever they’re fortunate enough to catch them. Like energetic dogs with their chew toys, the seals use the speed of their own movements and the resistance of the surrounding water to their advantage. By repeatedly shaking, dragging, and slapping their prey across the water’s surface, the mammals begin to gain the upper hand—stunning the octopus at first and then, slowly, tearing the mollusk’s body into bite-sized bits. It’s an unceremonious end for the octopus, but a critical source of calories and protein for the seal.

While Cape fur seals face their own natural predators, including the sharks and orcas that patrol South Africa’s waters, their greatest threat is humankind—particularly during the breeding season when the seals come ashore to mate and give birth. Congregating on beaches by the hundreds or thousands, the slow-moving mammals make easy targets, and hunters, seeking the animals’ pelts, take advantage—as they have been for centuries. Today on the shores of Namibia, where more than half of the Cape fur seal population breeds, commercial “furriers” still harvest some 80,000 pups and 6,000 bulls each year to supply markets with seal-derived products and pelts. In contrast, South Africa ended its commercial seal trade in 1990. Since that time, the population has rebounded and now appears to be stable—a testament to both the effectiveness of simple conservation efforts like this and the Cape fur seal’s resourcefulness.

False Bay, Cape Town, South Africa

Wim van den Heever

Wim van den Heever has been interested in both photography and nature for as long as he can remember. Raised in a family where photography was more a lifestyle than a hobby, he had many opportunities while growing up to visit Southern Africa's Game Parks. He now travels the world to capture images of extraordinary wildlife and natural phenomena, and hopes that his photos serve as a reminder not only of the beauty of nature itself, but also the threats it faces.

Steven Bedard

Steven Bedard

Steven Bedard is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of bioGraphic. He has spent the past 20+ years writing and producing science content for long-form feature stories, short- and long-form documentaries, immersive, multi-screen experiences, interactive simulations, and hundreds of articles and essays on topics ranging from astrophysics and archaeology to genetics, evolution, and public health. As a former field biologist who spent the early 90s studying spotted owls and northern goshawks, he has found his happiest place covering nature, conservation, and solutions to the current biodiversity crisis for bioGraphic.

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