Shark Week, Shark Tank, feeding frenzies — sharks just generally have become a cultural phenomenon and South Africa has some of the baddest in the world.
The beautiful, mysterious, revered, and feared archetype of the sea is the shark in its myriad forms. South Africa holds some of the most wondrous beach stretches in the world, and lurking in her waters are a multitude of shark species. Recoil all you’d like when scrolling through these photos, but remember: the scariest thing about sharks is their possible extinction. Here are 10 of South Africa’s most prominent species, from a very well-researched compilation by Oceans Africa.
This article was originally published Oct 14, 2014.
Called “raggies” by South African beachgoers, these brownish-olive-gray sharks are dotted with black spots that fade with age. Migrating north in the winter from the East Cape into the warmer pools of KwaZulu Natal, they are a regular feature at favorite diving spots like Sodwana Bay or Protea Banks. While their pointed forehead and jagged teeth may startle, raggies are not considered an aggressive shark species.
Sleek and bronze in color, with unique silver margins (“tips”) on all of their fins, this well-traveled African shark can reach up to three meters (almost 10 feet). Seen from Sodwana Bay all the way up to the Red Sea, it’s versatile in all kinds of depths and usually travels alone. Not usually a threat to swimmers or divers.
Also known as the broadnose sevengill, the cows are part of a species known as hexanchiformes, characterized mostly by their seven paired gill openings — most other sharks have only five. Another distinction is the lack of a dorsal fin. Living as long as 49 and growing up to three meters (almost 10 feet), they are shallow-water dwellers, rarely swimming deeper than 50 meters (164 feet).
Virtually without distinct markings, the clean body of the dusky is gray-bronze with a lighter belly. Growing up to 4.2 meters (13.8 feet) in length, they are found mostly around Cape Town’s beaches, although the dusky is the most frequently caught shark in KwaZulu Natal waters.
Like a jet plane speeding through water, the gorgeous mako is blue-gray, holding a prominently pointed snout and a sickle-shaped tail. Many mistake makos for the great white (read on), although they are much shorter. Adults reach about four meters (13.1 feet) and have larger eyes. Known as the fastest fish in the sea, they can swim up to 35 kilometers (22 miles) per hour, often performing acrobatic leaps out of the water. Diving with makos off of Cape Town is becoming a popular activity.
A rounder, blunter-edged shark with a spherical snout, Zambezi sharks’ fins actually do not follow biological suit — they are markedly sharp. Often seen around Protea Bank and KwaZulu-Natal, the Zambezi can survive in fresh water for long periods, often swimming upstream in estuaries and river mouths. They are known to be aggressive.
Otherwise known as the copper shark, these are more difficult to identify as they share the characteristics with other local sharks, such as the blacktip. They are bronze-gray, although their fins are slightly darker than their bodies, which are also slightly arched above the gills. Bronze whalers are normally bottom feeders although they are known to follow the sardine trail up the Wild Coast to KwaZulu-Natal. They prefer cooler, temperate waters.
One doesn’t have to go into detail to describe perhaps the oddest-looking fish in the world. However, there are nine different species of hammerhead, three of which frequent South African waters. They can be told apart by the shape of their heads. The great hammerhead has a nearly rectangular head, notched in the front and center. The scalloped hammerhead has a scalloped front edge to its head, and the smooth hammerhead has a front edge more smooth and convex in shape, lacking a central indentation like the other two. Very shy of divers and highly migratory, the hammerhead is usually found around the Western Cape during summer.
Here is where fear begins to strike. In most cases, if you leave sharks alone, they’ll leave you alone. While the tiger shark can reach up to seven meters (23 feet), the females only grow up to four meters (13.1 feet) and they’re the ones most often spotted off South African coasts. Their name comes from the vertical bars that line their backs. If provoked, they are known to kill, although they mostly feed on smaller, bony fish. Tigers prefer tropical, warmer waters off the African coast.
Strike up the John Williams soundtrack. This is the royal hunter of all seas. Really only threatened by the orca or the human (homo sapien), they are found in most waters worldwide, temperate or tropical. An average of seven meters (23 feet) in length, they weigh up to 1800 kilograms (almost 4,000 pounds) and are easy to identify — hope you never have to firsthand. Great whites have a charcoal-gray upper half, a pure white underbelly, and a dorsal fin that’s unmistakable. While greatly feared, they are often blamed for attacks that other less infamous sharks perform on divers. South Africa loves them, nevertheless. A thriving cage-diving industry has popped up around Cape Town and Mossel Bay, near seal colonies where great whites love feeding.
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