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Shark Bytes

February 2006 Shark Bytes

written by Monique Fallows

Posted on Tuesday, 28 February 2006

We have had a great month and have seen and dived with a good variety of sharks. We had a group of four students that spent 2 weeks with us hoping to see as many sharks as possible. Although we had some trying days with the weather we still managed to observe 9 different species of sharks.


We had one exceptional pelagic trip off Cape Point. We had only been waiting 40 minutes when Chris and I sighted a large dark shape moving up our chum slick. The dark shape materialized into a very large female mako. We guestimated her to be about 2, 5 meters (9 foot) in length. She is the second biggest mako we have had the priviledge of visiting our boat. We get excited when any shark is with us and as we so rarely see the big mako’s it causes great excitement as well as pandemonium on the boat! Apart from the students that were on board we also had 2 Swedish guests. As they were the more experienced divers they were in the water first with Chris and all had a tremendous dive with the ever obliging shark. She came and went for about 2 hours and then after a long wait, and just before we were about to leave, a good size blue shark arrived.


One of the Swedish guests was a rep for Mares and he had been diving in a Yum Yum Yellow wetsuit. It is widely assumed that the colour yellow attracts sharks and for this reason both Chris & I have yellow fins. And yes, it does seem to work when I think about how often we have to keep the sharks away from our fins!


At the end of the trip Bosse very kindly gave his Yum Yum suit to Chris. Chris was very excited but I am not so sure if I feel the same way… At least we will have a chance to test the theory. Also if you happen to see a yellow-marshmellow-looking diver you should have no doubts as to who it is!


On a pelagic trip earlier in the month we had about 40 yellowfin tuna around the boat for most of the day. These spectacular fish became bolder and bolder as the day wore on. We had a skip jack tuna on a bait line in case any shark arrived and to our great surprise some of the bigger fish were coming up to this bait and eating chunks of the skipjack. I was even able to get some on them to chase the bait as I pulled it along.


On the last pelagic trip with our student group we could not go the usual 20 miles off Cape Point due to weather conditions so had to make do with an area just outside Cape Point where we have had success with sharks before. It is not a true pelagic environment as the water is usually not blue and warm but because the area is often abundant with bait fish and other smaller game fish we have seen both mako and blue sharks on previous occasions. Chris was also hoping to catch a soupfin (tope) shark. These sharks usually occupy the lower water column and the only way for us to be able to see them is to catch them. We used a barb less hook and heavy tackle to minimize the stress on the shark.

Unfortunately the species of shark is heavily exploited for commercial fishing and the population is dropping all the time. The meat is exported to Australia and Argentina where it is used predominantly in fish and chip shops.

The most interesting fact about these sharks is that they live a long life. At the maximum length of 1,7 meters (6 feet) they would be in the region of 50 years plus.

On a pelagic trip earlier in the month we had about 40 yellowfin tuna around the boat for most of the day.

I had never seen one before but we did not wait to long before we caught one on the bottom. After we all had a good look we released the shark, which swam away very strongly. Although they usually travel together in large shoals we did not see any other but did manage to attract a blue shark to the boat that stayed with us for a good 2 hours.


Typically at this time of the year we would be spending a lot of time with the beach seine net fishing crews so that we can tag and release shark and ray by-catch. This summer season has been a very poor year for the type of fish that they are trying to catch. Because the wind has been so strong they have not been able to fish and when the weather has allowed for fishing there really has been nothing to catch.


On one of the few days that they were pulling in their nets we went down the beach with the student group. The net produced one bronze whaler shark (copper shark) that we were able to tag and release. The bronzies are hardy sharks and as we are able to get the sharks back into the water very quickly their survival rate is good. Not only does the shark survive but the many people who watch the treknets are able to see a shark first hand and we feel that this is invaluable for the positive promotion of sharks.


Our colleague, Rob was able to take the students to Seal Island in the hope of seeing a great white shark. This is the low season for white sharks but on occasion the is an off-chance that you can see one. They were lucky enough to see two different white sharks in one morning up at the boat. We have been to the Island since with no luck! From now on though the chances will get better and better and I personally cannot wait to see the “big beasties” again!

Up to this point the students had seen 5 different sharks and on the last day we decided to do a snorkel in the Cape Point Nature Reserve to hopefully see a variety of endemic sharks.


On our first dive we had great visibility and saw a number of large striped cat sharks as well as a puff adder shy shark and a couple of brown shy sharks. These are all endemic to the South western coast of Southern Africa and although they are not very big (between 30cm and 1 meter) I still get a great thrill of seeing them underwater. Unlike a lot of bigger sharks they are not afraid to come close to you and you can quite easily pick them up and have a look at them if you wanted to.


On the second dive we wanted to try a spot for Spotted-Gulley sharks. They are the South African cousins of the American Leopard shark. They are very “sharky” looking and can grow up 1, 8 meters and can also live up to 30 years. They are highly resident sharks and thankfully they are protected from commercial fishing.

When we entered the water where we occasionally see them Chris immediately spotted a number of them just outside the kelp bed. They are extremely shy animals and when you dive with them you have to be very cautious so as not to frighten them off. We have learnt to be absolutely motionless in the water and if possible to try and hide in the kelp. The sharks seem to be unfazed with us like this but as soon as anyone makes any movement they dart off very quickly.

So, on our best behavior, we were able to observe about 40 different gully sharks cruising around in close proximity to each other. A good number of them were extremely swollen large females which would possibly indicate that they are pregnant. They are also covered with mating scares. It was a fabulous dive and I think for me the highlight of the month.


After our student group had finished with us Chris & I went back to the dive spot on 3 mornings. Only on the third morning where the conditions suitable to dive. Bait fish in the area has also attracted a number of Cape cormorants. When we first got in one of the cormorants must have been confused as to what we were and came to give me a very close inspection. At first I was totally amazed watching this bird swimming underwater, it was so graceful! Then it just came closer and closer. Instinctively I held my breath so that I would not chase it away and I actually thought that it was going to peck my mask! At the last second it decided not to but this did not diminish from our experience. Later on we spotted another cormorant trying to peck a striped cat shark whilst underwater…not sure what was going on there but I know that we would certainly like to encounter the birds on a dive again!


The sharks, not to be out done by the cormorants, were also sighted in good numbers including lots of large females again. As the sharks were so shy we were unsuccessful in taking any images of them but it was still great just to see them.


I was unable to be on the last pelagic trip of the month on Saturday but Chris and the guests on board had a bad experience of coming across a shark longliner. The longline was in the process of being hauled in and the catch consisted of hundred’s of mako and blue sharks.

Sharks are extremely successful predators and ironically this is greatly counting against their survival. A longline is set with baited hooks that stretch kilometers long the sea surface as well as a few hundred meters below. As soon as one shark takes the bait and is caught it starts to struggle. This struggling in turn attracts another shark which will also take a baited hook and start to struggle free. And so the cycle continues until there can be hundreds of sharks on one longline.


Four years ago the South African Fisheries Department issued a number of experimental shark longline permits. They went and did this without any idea of what the pelagic shark stocks are like off our coast. Now that the four years have been completed they have re-issued the permits to avoid legal battles with the companies who have these permits.


Although we are not scientists we are the only group in the whole of South Africa that is actively collecting data on pelagic sharks. Since we started in 1999 our wait for the first shark has increased from 40 minutes to 2 hours. We feel this is a very telling indication of how rapidly the shark stocks are decreasing.

We have brought this to the attention of the Fisheries Department and this has failed to have any impact on their decision making.


We extremely upset as we feel that each shark’s life is important and we are powerless to do anything about it.

The only thing that we are able to do is inform the public as to what is happening off our coast and how our Government is not doing anything about protecting our very valuable shark stocks.


We have put some images of this longline on Photo’s of the Month. It is not nice, but it unfortunately this is what is happening.


And for a light hearted moment have a look at the new Mountain Dew Ad http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5GX-URQjIOk 

You may see a few familiar faces!

We are going to be visiting Madagascar next month. We hope that we will be able to let you know about all the sharks that we encountered here next month!


Until then,

Best wishes

Monique Fallows.


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