The Sharks of South Africa
Updated: Dec 12, 2019
In my life, there isn’t really anything more important to me than my family. If I didn’t have their support and love, I probably would not be on the path I am, towards a career based around my passion for the ocean. Mistakenly, I thought I would only ever have one of these, and yes that’s true for blood relation, but I discovered this summer that family includes much more.
In July of this year, I got the opportunity to travel to Gansbaai, South Africa to be a part of a volunteer program with the Shark and Marine Research Institute. In this program, we not only assisted with White Shark population studies, but also population studies on the smaller kelp forest dwelling sharks, like the dark and puff-adder shysharks, soupfin and smoothhound sharks, as well as leopard catsharks. The hands-on experiences were unforgettable and we also toured around South Africa experiencing its beautiful countryside. However, what has stuck with me even more than the experiences, are the people I met while I was there. People from different parts of the world with the same passion for the marine environment all coming together to learn and do something about the massive decline that is happening right now in all of our oceans. Being with these people every day for a month and a half, it’s hard not to grow close, and that is exactly what happened. We became our own little sharky family, intent on helping the animals we love so much. It’s unbelievable how fast you can build a connection with people when they share the same convictions and ideas. One of the hardest things I did there was to leave, it was the same feeling as leaving home for the first time. However, I take pride in knowing that I have a new South African family that I can always count on, one that spans around the US and Europe too.
In studying Great White sharks, we assisted by joining White Shark Diving Company cage diving boat and taking environmental data, such as swell height, visibility, temperature, etc., as well as identifying the White and Bronze Whaler sharks that passed by the cage. This data was then taken and compiled into a database to study later for any correlations between environmental factors and what sharks showed up to the boat. In addition, we also helped with the compiling of a White Shark dorsal fin database, that is used to definitively identify the sharks and note all the times that the individual sharks have been in the bay. This process involved obtaining dorsal fin photographs of the sharks around the boat, which were then edited and cropped to a standardized form. These photos were then entered into a program that maps the back-edge line of the sharks dorsal fin and provides a series of photos that match, from most likely to least likely. We then matched the dorsal fins manually with our own eyes and once a match was found, it was entered into the database under the correct shark with the date that the photo was taken. This allows the scientist to go in and determine what years and what time of year the sharks were present in the bay. It’s funny, but you actually grow attached to the White Sharks, as the same ones will come around the boat for about two months at a time. For me, I grew attached to a shark we called Brandy, who was the largest shark in the bay at the time, and the most majestic and curious animal you have ever seen. Despite her size, she was incredibly sneaky and would occasionally get the bait when we weren’t paying attention. However, whenever she showed up, all the other sharks would disappear, and she would hang out for hours.
White shark smile!
Though this research was extremely important and very interesting, my favorite part of the whole experience was catching the smaller sharks. This was done by either boat fishing, harbor fishing, or hand catching the sharks on snorkel. The snorkeling surveys were the most fun because you got to catch the sharks by hand, and see the amazing life that exists in the kelp beds where these sharks live. Once we caught the small sharks, we would measure them, take a genetic sample (a small clipping off of their dorsal fin), check their sex, and finally, if they were large enough, tag them with a small numbered tag. I found these studies very fulfilling not only because they were so hands on, but also because understanding the population of these smaller sharks helps understand changes in the White Shark population, as they serve as an important prey source for the large Great Whites.
We also helped to place BRUV systems on the see floor to assess the abundance and diversity of animals underwater. BRUV stands for Baited Remote Underwater Video, which involves, in this case, a metal frame weighted down. On one side of the frame, a canister filled with smelly sardines and salmon is attached, while on the other side a GoPro video camera is secured positioned to watch the bait. Then this system can be lowered over the side of the boat to the bottom to give a glimpse as to what is going on down there without the influence of divers or subs. It was cool to see, as what we saw totally changed according to where we dropped it. If we dropped it on the rocky kelp beds, we generally saw an abundance of small sharks, fish, octopus, and hagfish. However, when we dropped it on a barren sandy bottom, the only thing we glimpsed was a huge number of snails and crabs, as well as a passing smouthhound shark and a curious dark shyshark.
Leopard catshark ready for release after a scientific workup
Honestly, until I went to South Africa, I was totally under educated as to just how dire the situation is for the White Sharks along its coast. Their population is constantly declining due to bycatch, beach nets, drumlines, and a pair of male orcas called port and starboard. Right now, they probably have only around 300 individual White Sharks along the entire South African coast, which is not enough to keep the population going without genetic complications. White sharks especially, as apex predators, are essential to keeping the ecosystem balanced and without them chaos ensues. For example, due to the reduced White Shark population, the Cape Fur Seal population has skyrocketed and these animals are decimating the local endangered African Penguin populations. We are the primary cause of the decline of many species of sharks, and so we need to take responsibility for our actions, do whatever we can to help, and be a voice for these amazing silent predators of the sea. Local clean ups, speaking up for more environmentally friendly beach protection devices, such as the Sharksafe Barrier, and telling others about the troubles and importance of these animals are just a few small things that each and every one of us can do to help. However small the action may seem at the time, when these tiny events are carried out by many people, they build up to a big change. There is always the opportunity to make a difference, it’s just a matter of finding it and using your passion to make the most of it