There can be few animals, other than spotted hyenas and African wild dogs that have been as maligned or misunderstood as sharks. No doubt about it, they’ve had a bad press. Yet, those who have studied them point out that they are amongst the most successful predators on the planet, superbly designed for just this purpose and that they are an invaluable link in the marine eco-system and indicator of its health.
In fact, they are fascinating animals, far removed from their image as rampaging killing machines with a taste for human flesh. Here are some ‘did you knows’ to prick your curiosity: Did you know that the smallest shark found in our waters is the puffadder (another fear-inducing name, unlike its cousin, the rather whimsical pyjama shark)? It is only about 40 cm in length. Did you know that within the limits of Walker Bay alone, there are approximately 62 endemic shark and ray species? Did you know that the Whale Coast is one of the primary shark hotspots in Southern Africa? Did you know that shark skin is as rough as sand-paper and was used as such by sailors on the old wooden sailing ships of yore? Did you know that when the chest or abdominal area of a shark is massaged or butted, it can go into a hypnotic, trance-like state, a strategy used by orcas to immobilise, then kill them?
And did you know that right here in Hermanus there is an internationally-recognised shark research facility which has its home in one of the original stone-constructed buildings that housed Hermanus’s first abalone factory, under the sheltering cliffs of the Old Harbour? It is called the South African Shark Conservancy (SASC) and it was launched 12 years ago by Canadian, Meaghen McCord to extend the range of shark research along the Western Cape coast. It provides an opportunity for practical internships for students from around the world, carries out its own site-based research and data collection, and creates public awareness by introducing visiting adults and children to the magical world of sharks.
One of its ongoing projects is based on a collaborative relationship with WWF-SA and 14 members of the Kleinmond fishing community (see The Village NEWS, 29 July 2020). Baited remote underwater video systems (BRUVs) are deployed by the fishermen to track the movements of sharks and other marine creatures from Pringle Bay to Kleinmond. Each rig remains underwater for 1 hour 6 mins and then it is hauled out and the video memory card retrieved for data capture. Other fishers are trained by SASC to process the data collected from hours of video material. This provides essential information for researchers to determine the health of the eco-system and the movement, behaviour and reproduction rate of sharks in particular.
Another of SASC’s important projects is the tagging of sharks and the placement and monitoring of acoustic beacons in random sites where sharks tend to congregate in Walker Bay. These devices track the movement of sharks, many of the larger seven-gill sharks like Great Whites and Bronze Whalers being transient visitors. “The fascinating thing is that we’ve been able to determine that if these visitors return to our waters, they will do so on exactly the same day of the year as the last time they were here,” says Björn von Düring, Field Operations Manager at SASC.
While there seems to be minimal reduction in the number of endemic sharks in our waters, according to Björn, Great White numbers definitely seem to be declining. He puts this down to a number of possible factors, like the effect of climate change on the water temperature and the acidification of the ocean.
“There are other issues, though,” he adds. “Local fishermen with a permit can take out up to two Bronze Whalers a day, and then, of course, there’s the problem of shark by-catch. When it comes to seven-gill sharks, there’s a real danger of ending up like the Galapagos Islands, where the waters have been completely stripped. In fact, just beyond our own territorial waters, you will find fleets of foreign vessels catching sharks in large numbers every day. It’s really very serious.”
Another very important role played by the SASC is one of academic support. Operations Manager, Natalia Drobniewska points out that world-wide, there is a shortage of field study internships for students, particularly those working towards a post-graduate degree where sharks are the main focus. “At SASC we can take around four interns at a time. Guy Paulet, our Academics co-ordinator, oversees their field work here and liaises with their study supervisor at whichever university they are registered. These interns are absolutely essential to our work here at the Shark Lab. Not only do they assist with our own ongoing research, but they are our main source of income. As you can imagine, Covid-19 has been disastrous from that point of view.”
There are only four full-time staff members at SASC (data capturer, Laila Rouhani is the other member of the team). They carry a heavy workload, including providing a turtle rescue drop-off point for the Two Oceans Aquarium in Cape Town (Björn says he once shared his bed with about 20 turtles), but it would be difficult to find more passionate and dedicated shark lovers anywhere in the world.
Under the present adverse circumstances, they have decided to throw all their energy and enthusiasm into improving the image of the animals they love. The two projects they run year-round, both of which give them enormous satisfaction are a snorkelling adventure for adults and children over the age of 11 (the ability to swim is a must); and an interactive experience with sharks and other marine creatures in the three tanks in the Lab, which is suitable for both children and adults.
A former pre-school teacher herself, Nat loves the response she gets from the children, whether they come in a group or with their parents. “We show them a short video, especially created for children and then we move across to our small tank, which can accommodate some of the smaller sharks like puffadders and pyjamas, together with about 20 – 25 ‘props’ from under the sea, like kelp, various crustaceans, shark egg cases, rocks, shells and so on, re-creating a mini shark habitat, and the children are allowed to touch what they see. They absolutely love that and when they leave, we know we have a new marine conservation convert. We have one little boy who has been back about 10 times to show us what he has found on the beach or in the sea.”
Yachtsman, Björn has been involved with the sea for over 20 years and he says the more he learns, the more he realises how little he knows. “Every day I discover something new; and yet, it’s still only the tip of the iceberg. We don’t snorkel beyond the confines of the Old Harbour, but people are always amazed at how much there is to see. Personally, I love taking bird watchers out with me; they have the patience to just hang out and see what comes by and that’s the best way to do it.” After they return to the Lab, the snorkelers and he work up whatever they have caught – weighing, measuring, tagging. “It’s great for them because they feel they’ve actually contributed to something real and important.”
So if you want to see cat sharks glow in the dark or pyjamas staging an ambush under a rock; in short, if you want to undergo a mind-altering experience under the water this is the time to do it. And what about arranging a children’s birthday party at the Shark Lab? It’ll be a treat they’ll never forget.
Do make sure to book in advance. Lab Tours: 063 5398468; Snorkel Tours: 079 7658131.