South Africa’s Big Five: Shark Special
In celebration of the World Oceans Day 2016, we have selected Southern Africa’s five most charismatic shark species that best represent their terrestrial counterparts, the ‘Big Five’. Read on to learn about the best locations and times to encounter these magnificent animals eye-to-eye.
The most dangerous game animals – the Elephant, the Rhino, the Buffalo, the Lion and the Leopard – are famously known as the Big Five. While big game hunting, where this term originates from, has lost it’s glory and appeal to most of us, game watching has become ever more popular: The Big Five now symbolise the majestic charisma of Africa’s wildlife – a picture of untouched, wild landscapes that attracts thousands of safari tourists every year. The public interest (and foreign currencies) ultimately contributes to the protection and preservation of endangered species and their habitats.
Underwater tourism already adds to the protection of some of our endangered shark species. For example many shark cage diving operators keep researchers on their boats and collect valuable long-term data on shark behavior and movements. There is, however, space for many more conservation activities in our water tourism sector and citizen science could be one. Ideally Dive tour operators and fishing clubs around the country would start submitting their sightings to an open-share database (e.g. ELMO or iSpot) and help to monitor and identify areas that require conservation management.
In order to celebrate not only the terrestrial wilderness but also the marine environment we have nominated five shark species as the marine counterparts to the terrestrial Big Five. And because 70% of the Earth is covered with water, we have added an extra, sixth, magnificent species that divers (aka underwater safari tourists) can encounter in Southern African waters.
1. WHALE SHARK (Rhincodon typus)
Elephant (Both species are admired for their sheer size. While elephants are herbivores, Whale sharks filter-feed on plankton.)
Mostly off Natal and Mozambique, but migrates all the way South to the Western Cape.
When and where
Can be observed in Mozambique (e.g. Tofo Beach) all year round. It is also a regular visitor to Sodwana Bay between November and February.
Largest living fish. Follows algal blooms, hence highly migratory.
2. HAMMERHEAD SHARK (Sphyrna sp.)
There are three different species of Hammerhead sharks in South Africa: The Great (S. mokarran), Scalloped (S.lewini) and Smooth Hammerhead shark (S. zygaena).
S. lewini: East coast, KZN and Mozambique
S. makorran: East coast, KZN and Mozambique
S. zygaena: Southwest and East coast, St. Helena Bay to Mozambique
Rhino (Both species are endangered due to the high demand for their valuable appendages: Rhinos are hunted for their horns whereas Hammerheads are caught for their fins, which are highly valued for a high fin ray count.)
When and where
Hammerhead sharks are common on the West and East coast and large aggregations of juveniles have been observed around Algoa Bay. They prefer to stay close to the coast whereas adults are found further offshore. Best time to see them is between December and June at Protea Banks, where Scalloped Hammerhead sharks move in large schools.
Have the widest vision of all sharks. Shy of divers.
3. ZAMBEZI / BULL SHARK (Carcharhinus leucas)
Buffalo (Both animals are known to cause disproportionally many human fatalities.)
East coast from Cape St. Francis to Mozambique
When and where
Observed close inshore. They are known to enter fresh water, especially during breeding season. They are inquisitive and diving with these powerful predators should only be done under experienced guidance. Can be observed between December and June at Protea Banks (KZN).
Omnivorous. Enters rivers and lakes, e.g. the St. Lucia estuary.
4. WHITE SHARK (Carcharodon carcharias)
Lion (Both are commonly presented in the media as the ultimate Apex predators.)
Entire coastline from Namibia to Natal.
Where and when
False Bay, Gansbaai and Mossel Bay are well known for their White Shark abundance and you can find shark cage diving tour operators in all three places. The Robberg Peninsula in Plettenberg Bay is a good place to observe White sharks from the coast. Keep an eye on the seal colony and surrounding waters (Especially around Meiderbank) – on days with good visibility you will be able to see the sharks very clearly. Best time to observe White sharks is during the winter months, from May to September.
Can leap out of water (breach). Preys on large marine mammals such as dolphins and seals.
5. TIGER SHARK (Galeocerdo cuvier)
Leopard (Both species are solitary, nocturnal hunters.)
East coast, Cape St. Francis to Mozambique
Where and when
Protea Banks (KZN) is once more the best place to see them between November and May. Can be occasionally observed off the Eastern Cape during summer months.
Juveniles have a blotchy pattern, which transforms into stripes when adult. Very opportunistic feeder, consumes anthropogenic litter.
6. SPOTTED RAGGED TOOTH SHARK (Carcharias taurus)
Entire coastline, from Namibia to Mozambique
Where and when
During the warmer months (December to June) they are almost a guaranteed sighting when diving in Port Elizabeth. Once it gets colder, between May and October, you will have to travel to Sodwana Bay, Aliwal Shoal or Protea Banks to get the best chances to see Ragged Tooth Sharks.
Intrauterine cannibalism – pups feed on yolk sacs, once consumed the largest pup will feed on the remaining, smaller embryos. Offspring is fully developed and ca. 1m long when born.
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