Posted on Wednesday, 31 March 2004
Hello Shark Lovers!
I can’t wait to sit down and write about our experiences with sharks this month as it has been one of the best 30 days I can remember! I don’t quite know where to start so I guess I will start at the beginning of the month with a pelagic shark trip.
As I have probably mentioned before we have had an unusually bad Summer and have only been able to go looking for pelagic sharks on six occasions. At the beginning of the month we finally had a break in the weather and headed about 28 miles off Cape Point, holding thumbs that the weather would hold. We were in the area where tuna were feeding so we were pretty positive of the chances of seeing sharks. We only had to wait about 30 minutes before the first shark arrived, attracted by our low frequency sound device. Our guests for the day were the agents for Scuba Pro South Africa and although they were really excited to see their first ever Mako shark, the fact that the shark was only 80 centimeters in length was going to put a stop to any big fish tale! This is the smallest Mako that we have seen. At birth they are between 60 and 70 cm so this shark would have been in its first or second year. I always love to see small sharks because they are usually perfect and don’t yet have any battle scars. They also always seems to think that they are bigger than what they are which makes them very charismatic! After our guests had enjoyed their dive I was able to join Chris in the water. Doing pelagic shark trips are so exciting because it is a challenge each time we go out there to find sharks. When we do find them it is extremely rewarding, as the water is warm and crystal clear blue making the experience of free diving with a shark so much more enjoyable.
I had a great interaction with her making many close passes and a couple of times I had to gently push her away with my camera housing. As she would come towards me she would make fast gaping movements with her mouth, basically a warning sign. We are always very respectful of sharks when we dive with them and realize that even a shark this small is capable of doing damage should we put ourselves in a compromising position. After noticing this warning sign from her we would give her her space until she was comfortable again.
She eventually left after 2 hours, but even 2 hours was not enough time to spend appreciating her!
A few days after this Chris & I were down at the treknets. (Beach seine net fishing) The water temperature has started to cool down now so we thought that there would not be much chance of the treknet fishermen catching any sharks. When the net was about 50 meters from the shore we could clearly see a shark thrashing. As the net got closer we could make out that the shark was not actually in the net, but on top of the net and that is was a ragged-tooth shark! Before the net could be pulled onto the beach Chris was in the shore break trying to free the raggie who while trying to eat the fish in the net had managed to get her teeth caught in the netting. Chris managed to free her and carried her onto the beach to be tagged and then released. She was very docile on the beach and was easily measured at 2.61m total length. This is the third largest ragged tooth that Chris has tagged from the treknets and it took two people to carefully get her back into the water. We were so excited about seeing the raggie as it is the first one we have seen here in 3 years that we did not even notice that 4 bronze whaler sharks had also been caught in the net. The fishermen had left them for us to tag, but because we had spent a few minutes with the raggie we could only tag one and got the other three back in the water as quickly as we could. The bronze whalers are such tough sharks that even though they had been out of the water for a while they were still a challenge to drag back into the water as we had to avoid thrashing tails and teeth!
In the middle of the month our Sharks of Southern Africa expedition began were we had 2 British Ladies join us to look for a variety of different shark species that occur along our coast. Although it is the low season for seeing great white sharks at Seal Island we were successful in seeing them. In the Summer months we generally do not see the sharks actively hunt seals, as they tend to prefer feeding on the variety of summer fish species that are in False Bay. This makes them difficult to find as they are spread out throughout the Bay but we do sometimes managed to draw them up to the boat.
Two of the main target species to view and dive with on this trip were smooth hammerheads and bronze whaler sharks. To do this we headed 400km from Cape Town up the East Coast. We have had very good success with these species here over the past two years, but we always worry that they have been fished out as they seem to stay in this area for a number of months. The first afternoon that we headed out we able to spot numerous smooth hammerheads as they cruised on the surface of the water of this sheltered bay. All the smooth hammerheads here are between 80 cm and 1,5 meters. These are all pups and we believe the shallow area where we see them serves as a nursery for them. The larger adults are found further offshore. The following day we managed to attract them up to the boat, but found it difficult to keep them interested in staying. It was at times very frustrating as we could see 15 to 20 sharks swimming on the surface, but none wanted to eat the fresh yellow-fin tuna bait that we put out for them. Eventually there was one 1.2 meter shark that “played nicely” with us and made some close passes! I love hammerheads especially these small ones as they have so much character. When they try and threaten you they shake their little hammers from side to side and when they come past they really stare hard as you! Hammerheads are the most recently evolved of all shark species with its hammer said to enhance electro receptive and visual perception. This is because they are able to spread the sense over a broader area. The hammer is also supposed to aid locomotion and to pin down prey such as stingrays. This all sounds fantastic, but Mother Nature didn’t make it easier for these little chaps to get hold of a yellow-fin bait and they really battled to get their hammers around it!
The following day we tried a different area where had had seen bronze whalers in the past. We waited a good few hours and did not have any luck so decided to try for the hammerheads again. In no time we had a few around the boat so Mandy & Fiona got in to dive with them. They hadn’t been in the water more than five minutes when a small bronze whaler came up to the bait. We were all very excited and had not expected to see them here. In no time there were four around the boat. The hammerheads seemed to give way to them and moved off and then more and more bronze whalers began appearing. While this was all getting exciting a dark shape moved up from the bottom and came within 1 meter of the divers on the surface! When I saw it my heart stopped as it was a large shark of about 2,5 meters! When we realized that it was a ragged-tooth shark we all calmed down and Mandy then popped her head up and calmly asked what shark it was. When we answered that it was a ragged tooth she said, “oh! Am I supposed to be in the water with it?”. I think that the shark got more of a fright than we did and that we only got to see it for that one moment. It is highly unusual for a ragged-tooth to approach a bait on the surface like that so I guess that we all just got very lucky.
As the day wore on more and more bronze whalers appeared and at the height of it we thought there to be about 40 sharks. Chris was in the water with them and he said that it was absolute chaos to try to fend away some many of them. They were never openly aggressive, just curious as to what Chris was as.
After seeing some great sharks in this area we headed back to Cape Town for the last leg of the expedition where our goal was to find mako and blue sharks.
We were lucky with the weather and headed off Cape Point for what promised to be a beautiful day. While waiting for sharks we had a shoal of yellow-fin tuna come up our chum slick and were able to watch them from the boat. As we were watching them a very large mako shark arrived on the scene. To see a large mako is something that we have been waiting for for a long time and at 2.6 meters she is the largest we have seen. As you can imagine we were so excited and for the first 40 minutes that she was there I could not stop shaking! Having never been in the water with a large mako we did not know what to expect so we gave her at least 20 minutes to calm down before anyone got in. When in the water with any pelagic shark one must realize that the open ocean is basically a blue desert and anything that a shark comes across can mean a potential meal to it. For this reason they will check you out to see if you fall into this category. As you can imagine there is a very big difference in having a 2,6 meter shark and a 80cm shark having a look! Chris got in first, armed with a blunt pole. The shark came toward him in an instant and Chris had to push her away. Unlike most makos encountered her approaches were much more determined. She also definitely behaved as if she was the dominant being, and she was very much so! While Chris was photographing her there had be someone constantly fending her off and on the boat we had to fend her off the motors which she was very curious about as well. I was at first wary about getting in the water, but Chris later needed my help so I got kitted-up. Being in the water with that animal was a life experience. I have never felt such a presence from an animal. The amazing thing about free diving with sharks is that the risk is entirely ours. They could at anytime do something unpredictable, and they have the choice to do this, but they allow us into their space. To me this really says a lot about a species that is generalized as a Man Eater and I hope that by relating our experiences to others we will get the message across that this is not so.
This large female had 2 longline hooks in her mouth and a trace trailing behind her. She is one of the lucky ones to break free, but thousands of sharks are being harvested along our coast annually. They are mostly being killed for their fins and are sold for sharkfin soup. These sharks need so much help and very quickly. We realize that one of the most important needs is to get legislation passed to restrict shark fishing. At present there are no quota restrictions on shark longlining, nor are there size restrictions. In fact there is no protection at all for these offshore sharks. It is going to be a long road but we are working on putting together a very strong body of people who are able to campaign for these sharks’ conservation needs.
In “Photo’s of the Month” we have put up images of the small and large mako; the ragged tooth that was caught in the treknets; and just in case the Scuba Pro guys have been exaggerating about the size of their mako, there is a size comparison image!
We hope you enjoy and until next month..