There is nothing quite like seeing an apex predator in the wild and divers are very fortunate to have the privilege to get up close and personal with one of the world’s most striking predators. South Africa is home to a great number of shark species that attract thousands of tourists every year. Great Whites, Tigers and Bull sharks are just some examples of over 100 different shark species living in the oceans around the South African coastline.
With such an array of species, it’s no wonder there are so many research and conservation organizations in the country that do exceptional work. These entities are collecting important data that is showing how important the shark species is, not only the ocean’s survival, but that of mankind too.
So, what’s the big deal, they’re just fish with teeth?
Sharks have an undeserved reputation as being man-eaters. Considering the millions of people that use the ocean everyday whether for recreational or occupational use, as few as 10 people die from shark interactions annually. If they were the man-eaters we made them out to be, that number would be much higher. More people die from accidents with household appliances in one year than people have died from sharks in the last 100 years.
The shark is an important part of the ocean’s ecosystem, but more importantly it’s their role in the survival of the planet we need to be concerned about. With an estimated 100 million sharks being killed every year, ocean ecosystems around the world have been severely destabilized and unbalanced. Sharks help maintain a healthy gene pool by predating on the weakest of their prey, ensuring the strongest survive to continue the species.
If we wiped out the Great White Shark population in South Africa, there would be an abundance of seals, this growing population of seals, now the new apex predator in the area, would very soon consume to a point of extinction many crustaceans and small bait fish resulting a complete collapse of many fishing industries and worse, the collapse of an entire ecosystem.
Education about the importance of sharks and changing people’s perception of sharks are small actions that can make positive change. An organization that has been working hard to educate people about sharks is “Sharklife”.
I recall becoming a Sharklife Instructor in 2008 when the organization had just started offering a range of courses on several of the shark species found in South Africa. Courses were offered on specific sharks and required a number of dives to study the shark’s behavior and unique characteristics. One of the challenges we faced as instructors was guaranteeing shark sittings on training dives. Some sharks are much easier to encounter reliably than others.
We had some interesting dives experimenting with different non-invasive methods of attracting sharks for our students to study. The most noteworthy of these experiments was trying find what would attract Bull Sharks. These elusive predators can be very inquisitive and engaging which made for some exciting learning experiences.
Today Sharklife has a permanent base in Sodwana Bay, South Africa. At the current premises, Grant Smith, Sharklife managing director, oversees a number of research projects and conducts research internships for candidates from all over the world. In addition to the various shark courses on offer, there is a shark museum with some fascinating displays and shop where you can purchase a host of different shark related products.
Through scientific research, education and awareness bring about positive change to the current destructive trends of ocean exploitation.
Sharklife Current Aims:
- To develop a compassionate desire to conserve sharks by altering public misconceptions about sharks and replacing the “Jaws” syndrome with positive understanding and respect.
- Reduce anthropogenic threats to over exploited marine species by increasing awareness and encouraging sustainable seafood choices.
- Increase marine tourism and transform shark populations into a sustainable living resource by developing educational ocean experiences for all South African’s
In line with aim number 2, one of their achievements was the removal of shark nets in the Rocky Bay area in Kwa-Zulu Natal. An initiative that started in 2008 and took years of relentless campaigning resulted in the removal of the shark nets in this Marine Protected Area. The capture of 14 Tiger Sharks on the 18th April 2012 was a catalyst that renewed efforts for the lifting of the nets and on the 30th April 2014 the nets were lifted for the last time.
More information about this campaign can be found here: https://www.sharklife.co.za/index.php/our-projects/completed-projects/shark-net-removal
How can you get involved?
Visit their website, www.sharklife.co.za and sign up for free shark course. You can even adopt a shark and join as a monthly member.
Regardless of the organization you support, something has to be done before it really is too late to turn back and recover. There are hundreds if not thousands of initiatives out there to get involved with or contribute to and I know all of them appreciate the smallest donation of time or money.
Personally, I would hate to never again see the wonder in a diver’s eyes when they interact with a shark for the first time.
Article by PJ Prinsloo – www.pjptech.co.za
Wining and Diving – South Africa
The Wining and Diving series sees Nick and Caroline Robertson-Brown embark on a tour to tickle the taste buds as well as to discover amazing dive sites in wine-making regions around the world. Some of the best wines are influenced by sea breezes and a coastal climate, allowing two of Nick and Caroline’s passions to be combined into one epic journey.
**Please note, Nick and Caroline are not encouraging drinking before diving! The two activities are kept well apart on each of these trips.
South Africa’s coastline is wild and rugged and has some of the best marine encounters and diving in the world! It is also home to some superb vineyards and so this is a top destination for Wining & Diving! If you have enough time, then try to fit in several destinations on a tour; take in the Sardine Run, go Great White Shark cage diving, snorkel with Blue and Mako Sharks, try to find Sevengill Sharks in the kelp forest, meet the raggies and oceanic shark species near Aliwal Shoal and make sure you dive with the Cape Fur Seals just down the road from Cape Town. Head north for the stunning reefs of Sodwana Bay and even fit in a land safari too! But make sure you make time to visit some of the top vineyards at Stellenbosch and Constantia too, which are just a stones throw from Cape Town and can be done on a day trip.
Our tour took in the lot and this is an experience to be shared with friends. You have to be lucky with the Sardine Run, but the rewards are great if you are there at the right time, with dolphins, sharks, whales and seabirds all competing for the feast of sardines that migrates up the coast in early summer. It is fast and furious, but can also involve long days out on the boat bobbing and waiting for the action to happen.
Flying into Durban you can often combine Aliwal Shoal to start your Sardine Run trip, to get the chance to dive the famous Cathedral Rock and then drift out into the blue for Blacktip and Tiger Sharks.
Gaansbai is the most famous place for Great White Shark cage diving, although recent years have seen numbers falling away, possibly due to the presence of Orca.
Cape Town offers penguins, Blue and Mako Sharks, Sevengill Cow Sharks, Great Whites and the chance to mess about with Cape Fur Seals, who will seek out divers and play among the kelp fronds for as long as you can stay in the cool water. It is here that you can add a few days visiting vineyards and touring the stunning countryside before you head home.
We would love to go back and spend more time in South Africa, as we did not have time for the Mako Shark snorkeling and would like to try again for the cow sharks too. South Africa has so much to offer it is very hard to fit everything into a single trip! It is a high energy and super-productive trip under the water and a wonderful place to relax with your favourite glass of wine in the evening.
The diversity of South Africa’s Kwa-Zulu Natal South Coast
If you know anything about diving in South Africa, you probably know that you can expect to see a wide variety of sharks. From the Great Whites, Makos and Blue sharks in the Western Cape to the Tigers, Ragged tooth (Sand Tigers/ Grey Nurse) and Bull Sharks in Kwazulu-Natal. You have probably also heard of Aliwal Shoal, a reef structure approximately 5km off the Kwazulu-Natal Coast, usually dived from the towns, Umkomaas and Scottburgh.
People travel from all over the world to dive on Aliwal Shoal. When they get there, they discover the region has so much more to offer. Yes, there are the wild game safaris, incredible local craft breweries and a host of other tourist activities. But let’s focus on the diving.
The fossilized sand bank of Aliwal Shoal is home to a wealth of diverse sea life. Apart from the sharks, whales, dolphins and rays, you are likely to encounter hundreds of different species of sub-tropical creatures.
This rocky reef structure presents you with exciting pinnacles, drop-offs and caverns, which during the right time of year, are usually filled with docile Spotted Ragged Tooth Sharks. Dozens of interesting dive sites like Raggie’s Cave, Cathedral, Shark Alley and Manta Point are some of the most frequented by divers.
Of course, with a reef structure that has pinnacles as shallow as 6 or 7 meters, ships were bound meet their demise. Two incredible wreck dives in the area are “The Nebo” and “The Produce”. The wrecks themselves are both interesting and unique, but one of the most incredible sightings divers look forward to seeing, are the enormous Brindle Bass, also known as the Giant Grouper. Growing up to 2.7 meters, they are definitely a giant fish that can be a little nerve-racking to bump into.
To the south of Aliwal Shoal there are even more dive sites that offer not only an abundance of typical sea life but the opportunity to see some of the rarest marine animals.
In November 2019 a team of divers recorded a Coelacanth on a deep wall. The Coelacanth, “Dinosaur Fish”, was once thought to be extinct. However, there have been numerous sightings of the fish on the South African coast, mainly in Sodwana Bay north of Aliwal Shoal, which makes this particular find very interesting.
The elusive and elegant Thresher Shark has been seen on a number of occasions, most notably at a site called Allen’s Cave. This dive site with a maximum depth of 36 meters features some incredible rock formations with gullies, ledges and swim-throughs. During the Ragged Tooth Shark season, there are often sharks resting inside the swim-through.
Umzimai Wall is a site dived less frequently which means that divers are spoiled with inquisitive and curious marine animals. It’s the huge wall and fascinating reef structure that really is the star of the show. Although you can spend a great deal of time at 25m on this reef, the wall descends down to 40 meters. As with many of the deep reefs in this area, you will see long spiraling whip corals that will dwarf many a diver.
Other notable dive sites south of Aliwal Shoal include Landers; Half Acre; Butchers and Fern Reef, all with unique and interesting attractions.
If you’re into some deep wrecks, there certainly are a number in the area that will no doubt impress. The Griqualand is one such wreck that lies in 52 meters of water north of the Aliwal Shoal reef system. At almost 500 tons, this steamer, which sank in 1970, requires more than one dive to truly appreciate all it has to offer. Divers can swim along its mast, that is still intact, and lays across the sand while witnessing a large school of Daga Salmon darting around the wreck. Look out for the enormous Brindle Bass that could be hiding in the shadows of one the holds. And of course, keep an eye out for the sharks that often visit while you’re doing your decompression.
If the weather isn’t great for diving or if you just need to dry out your gills, there are a multitude of activities to keep you busy. Divers visiting South Africa will enjoy seeing the marine big five, but don’t forgot about the big five land animals. A trip to South Africa will not be complete without a visit to some of the best wildlife viewing the world has to offer. Many parts of the country have world-class lodges and camps nestled in the bush affording visitors an unforgettable wildlife experience.
The adventurous could go on hiking or mountain-biking trails, ziplining, bridge swinging or even river rafting. Those that prefer a slower pace can enjoy a round of golf at one of the many golf courses in the area.
Whether you are an entry level diver or an advanced technical rebreather diver, there is something for everyone and enough to see to keep you busy for weeks. South Africa is an incredibly diverse nation with so many attractions whether on land or underwater, that you are spoiled for choice. The hard part is deciding where you want to visit first.
Images: Kristof Goovaerts
Article by PJ Prinsloo – www.pjptech.co.za