Having been around for more than 400 million years, sharks have managed to remain virtually unchanged in form for about 70,000 millenia. Thanks to their ability to adapt to evolving marine environments, sharks have successfully sustained their survival to the current day. They are the top predator in a wide range of ecological systems. Each shark specie should be considered in its own right, capable of fulfilling its special ecological function. Large pelagic sharks in South Africa are marked in recognized areas where food is abundant and that provide optimal resting spaces for the creatures. These include Sodwana Bay, Aliwal Shoal and Protea Banks.
Thundered scalloped hammerheads have been seasonally sighted by divers on Protea Banks. They are frequently encountered by divers over sandy bottoms where sand sharks also prefer to rest. Known for being a challenge to photograph because of their relative shyness, hammerhead sharks in their adult form can be found in deeper waters offshore. Juveniles are commonly sighted inshore during summer starting in the Western Cape northwards.
Zambezi or bull sharks can reach lengths of more than 4 meters. This robust specie has a predominantly grey body and a lighter underbelly and is known for its freshwater capabilities. Bull sharks are largely confined to river mouths, estuaries and coastal waters. Implicated in plenty of attacks worldwide on surfers and bathers, Zambezis favor murky and inshore waters. They are often sighted on Protea Banks in KwaZulu Natal, where they are not considered threats to divers despite their inquisitiveness. Tiger sharks are another unmistakable submarine presence. They grow to 7 meters in length although South African sightings have typically been of females shorter than 4 meters. Tiger sharks tend to either shy away or cruise past divers. They respond well to baiting and will stay around divers in a baited environment.
Aliwal Shoal and the rest of KwaZulu Natal
Blessed with plenty of gullies, caves and pinnacles, Aliwal Shoal is the seasonal residence of hundreds of ragged-tooth sharks. Divers who visit the area between June and October will experience many sightings of large and fully mature ragged tooth sharks. Raggies, as they are affectionately called, are perhaps the best loved species in South Africa, growing to 300 kg or 3.2 meters long. They move from the Eastern Cape to mate in KwaZulu Natal’s warmer waters during the winter months. Congregating in large numbers, raggies are a steady diving attraction at Aliwal Shoal, Protea Banks and the Quartermile reef at Sodwana Bay.
Bronze whaler sharks are principally sighted in shallow waters of cooler, temperate conditions. They favor the Cape, with large numbers of them keeping pace with the sardine run up the Wild Coast to KwaZulu Natal. They feed on small sharks, bony fish, squid and skates near the bottom. Also known as grey shark in some areas, a bronze whaler has no distinctive markings, which distinguishes it from other species.
Other South African areas
Found in the coastal waters from Cape Town to the tropics, dusky sharks are never implicated in human attacks and are commonly caught by fishers. They are the most common catch in KwaZulu Natal shark nets. The world’s largest living fish, the whale shark, reaches lengths of 13 meters and maximum weight of 13 tonnes. Whale sharks prefer balmy waters of 21 to 25 degrees. They are most commonly seen in the summer months off the KwaZulu Natal south coast, Ponta Do Ouro Mozambique and Sodwana Bay. Since 1991, the great white shark has been protected in South African waters, where no one is allowed to catch them or to even try to do so. Orcas and man are its only known predator. Attaining a length of 7 meters and over 1800 kg in weight, great whites are sighted in all tropical and temperate waters worldwide, often seen close inshore.
Shortfin Mako sharks can be found offshore in most regions of South Africa, with dives scheduled from Cape Town during the summer months starting November through May. Blacktip sharks or Oceanic Blacktips are sighted in open ocean as far as the tropics and in east coast estuaries, serving as a highlight on baited dives. Cow sharks can be easily encountered in shallow waters less than 50 meters deep.