Great whites get all the glory, but South Africa is home to an incredible variety of shark species, most of which pose little threat to people…
Shark species play a vital role in keeping marine ecosystems in check. Most of these pose little or no threat to humans, but there are one or two fins you should keep your eyes peeled for.
1. Cow shark
Cow sharks are the most primitive shark species surviving today and make up the Hexanchiform genus of sharks. The rare sevengill cow shark is found in colonies around Cape Town and can grow up to 3,5 metres in length. They look quite fearsome, especially when they gather in a group to feed, but are generally not aggressive and pose little threat to humans. That doesn’t mean they’re not highly effective predators: sevengill cow sharks regularly snack on seals and other sharks and are also known as the “wolves of the sea”, thanks to their remarkable habit of “hunting” in packs. These species prefer shallower, rocky habitats close to shore, making them a major diving attraction around Simonstown (a 50 minute drive from Cape Town’s Central Business District), where they can be observed in channels in the kelp forests. Don’t expect to see a dorsal fin breaking the surface though – they don’t have one. Other evolutionary anomalies include seven gills on each side of the head as the name suggests – most other shark species only have five.
2. Zambezi shark
The multi-taskers of sharks, Zambezis have the unique ability to alter their body chemistry to survive in freshwater and are generally found around river mouths and estuaries, where they hunt for food. Known as bull sharks elsewhere in the world, Zambezis typically occur along the South African coastline from the Eastern Cape to KwaZulu-Natal but in 2012, a huge pregnant female was found over five kilometres up the Breede River in the colder Western Cape waters, prompting scientists to rethink their habitat. Zambezis have rounded, blunt snouts and are grey in colour with a well-developed dorsal fin. They can grow up to four metres and are aggressive predators. That said, they pose little threat to divers but have been responsible for numerous attacks on swimmers and surfers. Best avoided by not swimming around open river mouths, especially where the water is murky.
3. Ragged tooth shark
A pronounced overbite and rows of protruding teeth give ragged tooth sharks a fearsome appearance, but these bucktoothed beasts are in fact a docile species and a favourite amongst divers. Ragged tooth sharks grow up to three metres in length with thick, rounded fins and have a copper-coloured body with spots that fade as they get older. Affectionately called “raggies”, they gather in large numbers on the reefs of Aliwal Shoal and Sodwana Bay in KwaZulu-Natal but they are also found as far south as Cape Town. Unlike other sharks that rely on their swim bladder to stay afloat, raggies have to regularly take a gulp of air from the surface to allow them to stay afloat and prefer shallower waters.
4. Whale shark
Despite their enormous size, these majestic creatures pose no threat to humans and are a bucket list item on any diver’s itinerary. Whale sharks are filter feeders who jut out their enormous jaws to suck in water and siphon plankton through a set of filtering pads that stretch across their huge throats. They are easily identified through the white spots and pale stripes that cover their massive bodies. The head is blunt and broad and the two dorsal fins are found far back on the body. Whale sharks can grow up to a whopping 12 metres in length and typically occur in sub-tropical to tropical waters around the world. They are most commonly found in South Africa along the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal up to Sodwana Bay and into Mozambique. If you’re lucky enough to encounter one, relax and enjoy your moment with this magnificent denizen of the sea.
5. Tiger shark
Found in temperate to tropical waters, tiger sharks get their name from the dark, vertical stripes along their backs. They have been described as voracious predators and are often found around river mouths and harbours. They can grow to a massive seven metres in size. Most species seen in South Africa are the smaller female sharks though, which reach up to four metres in length. Tiger sharks are slow swimmers but have an elongated caudal or tail fin, which allows them to generate a short, sudden burst of speed. They are territorial and have been involved in a number of shark attacks on swimmers and surfers, especially around islands like Reunion and Hawaii, but the confirmed number of attacks in South African waters is very low. The reefs around Aliwal Shoal on the south coast of KwaZulu-Natal are world famous for their resident population of tiger sharks who can often be seen on diving excursions.
6. Hammerhead shark
The hammerhead is in fact nine different species that are found worldwide, but three of these species call South Africa home: the great hammerhead, the scalloped hammerhead, and the smooth hammerhead. You’re not going to have any problem identifying a hammerhead shark, thanks to the distinctly flattened head shaped like a hammer with eyes on lobes located on either side. Hammerheads are big sharks – the great hammerhead can grow to over five metres in size, and both the scalloped and smooth hammerhead may reach four metres. Adults are typically found in deeper water while juveniles prefer hanging out inshore, especially in the Western Cape and northwards during summer. Hammerheads are shy and pose little threat to humans, but attacks aren’t completely unheard of and have mostly involved the great hammerhead. Large schools of hammerheads have been observed following the sardine run, an annual migration of huge shoals of sardines up the coast, and along the Protea Banks, eight kilometres off the KwaZulu-Natal coast.