It is an exciting time of year in South Africa’s seas. Upwellings of cold, nutrient- and plankton-rich waters off the West Coast in winter trigger the annual sardine run, which sees huge, oil slick-like shoals of sardines (Sardinops sagax) travelling along the eastern coast. Trailing them are frenzied predators such as common dolphins, gannets, cormorants and sharks.
For freedivers like me, it’s a chance to jump into the water to view what David Attenborough described on television as “The Greatest Shoal on Earth”.
Gannets turn into missiles as they dive into the water and the silver, boiling shoal morphs into tunnels as sharks charge through them at full speed.
WATCH: Spinner shark charges through a shoal of sardines off Umdoni. Filmed by Andy Coetzee.
Humans also join the frenzy from the beach. Sardine seine netters travel up and down the KwaZulu-Natal coast in bakkies full of plastic crates. If you follow one, you are bound to end up in the action.
As the shoals are pushed into shallow waters by spinner (Carcharhinus brevipinna), dusky (Carcharhinus obscurus), blacktip (Carcharhinus limbatus) and bronze whaler (Carcharhinus brachyurus) sharks, huge seine nets are dropped around them, dragging hundreds of sardines on to the beach where they are scooped into crates.
“It has been interesting how many spinners and blacktips have been with the sardines this year,” said Dr Ryan Daly, top marine predator researcher at the Oceanographic Research Institute.
Daly said this year’s sardine run has been one of the largest and most consistent on record.
Unfortunately, sharks that chase the sardines often end up in the seine nets too, where it can end badly for them.
Andy Coetzee, a nature conservationist and avid freediver, reckons fishermen frequently reach for their knives. And once they have the shark out the net or off the end of their lines, cut out its cartilaginous jaws. Dried and mounted, these jaws end up hung on walls, as trophies. The rest of the carcass is left on the beach.
And because sharks are often associated with fear and attacks, crowds can be delighted when these incredibly important animals are caught and killed.
Estimates vary on the number of sharks killed globally every year, with figures ranging from 100 million sharks to 273 million. The shark fin trade is believed to be a major contributor to the slaughter.
In False Bay in Western Cape, an unprecedented complete absence of white shark sightings has been noted, according to Dylan Irion, project leader of what has been dubbed “The great South African white shark count”.
This has raised fears of a local extinction. But, as Irion explained, much painstaking work, bringing together photo-ID datasets and information collected from acoustic receivers, must be done before scientists can come up with reliable numbers.
Meanwhile, there is good news to share from elsewhere in the country.
The public’s response to entangled sharks during this year’s sardine run has been amazing.
At the start of the sardine run, a shark release in Ramsgate, filmed by Faeez Mamdoo, made local news. Once the shark is pulled out of the seine net by fishermen and bystanders, it rolls around in the shorebreak while members of the crowd scream in fear. But when it swims away freely the whole crowd cheers in celebration.
About two weeks later, on Monday 15 June, a female bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas) was caught in a seine net at Rocky Bay.
Gareth Liesegang of Amith’s seine netting crew immediately cut the net to free the shark. The rest of the crew and bystanders then worked together to pull the shark out of the net and return her to the ocean.
“It was amazing to see everybody getting involved and cheering as the shark was set free,” said Jessica Escobar-Porras, a shark scientist based at the Aliwal Shoal Marine Protected Area. “It is a great change in people’s and netter’s attitude towards sharks.”
In their house
Just a few days after releasing the bull shark at Rocky Bay, Coetzee filmed another shark being rescued from a seine net at Pennington beach by two fishermen, Keagan Murgatroyd and Arrin Walton.
According to Walton, the fisherman seen on video hauling the shark out of the net by its tail caught three sharks in their net that eventful morning. Walton managed to release two by lifting the wing of the net, but one shark was trapped in the centre of the net, where sardines are channelled.
From the shore, Walton immediately alerted Murgatroyd about the shark and that became the priority.
“Leaving the shark on the beach didn’t even cross our minds,” said Walton. “When we are in the water, we are in their house. I wouldn’t want anyone coming into my house and throwing me out, and I’m pretty sure the shark wouldn’t either.”
Walton has spent much of his life in the ocean — surfing, diving and fishing with sharks — and has never felt threatened by them.
“It has been fantastic to see the change of attitude and behaviour of the general public towards sharks,” said Coetzee, who filmed the release.
Having previously witnessed netted sharks killed and left on the beach, Coetzee was grateful the public was now making a concerted effort to return sharks safely to the water.
On 23 June, 14-year-old Zachary Berman captured drone footage of a safe encounter between a white (Carcharodon carcharias) shark (as great whites are also known) and paddlers in Plettenberg Bay. In the video, the naturally curious shark investigates the surfers and kayaker, who quickly but calmly exit the water when they spot the creature.
Caitlin Judge was one of the surfers in the water that day. In a Facebook post that went viral, Judge shared her thoughts on the way the media reported the interaction.
“He (the shark) cruised on past me, very relaxed. This isn’t abnormal here. Plett is a great white hotspot,” Judge shared.
According to the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI), a surge in shark activity on the West Coast is normal at this time of year as sharks target seals and fish close to the shore.
“However, the media depictions of this interaction paint a different picture,” said Judge.
Judge was disappointed that danger and fear were still the main aspects of a popular narrative for the species. “This could have been a great opportunity to show a very calm interaction, which is much more the norm than any attack,” she said.
The Facebook post was shared nearly 500 times, with many people agreeing that perceptions about sharks should change.
Berman, 14, who filmed the encounter, urged surfers and swimmers to be careful, but pointed out that the footage shows the calmness and beauty of the remarkable animals.
Less than 24 hours after capturing the shark encounter, Berman returned to the same location and captured another safe encounter between sharks and surfers.
Project leader of Cape Town’s Shark Spotters Programme, Sarah Waries, told the NSRI, “It is important for people to remember that white sharks are naturally inquisitive apex predators and, though shark bites are rare, water users must understand the inherent risk associated with sharing the ocean with these animals and change their behaviour accordingly to avoid encountering sharks.”
While many people still fear sharks, it is wonderful to see how perceptions about them are changing all over the world. This new attitude is thanks to campaigns like Shark Attack, which tackles misconceptions and raises awareness of the importance of sharks and the need to protect them.
The campaign celebrated Shark Awareness Day on 14 July, sharing that South Africa was one of the top three global hotspots for shark and ray diversity. It is home to 204 different species, of which 69 are endemic to the country.
South Africans should be proud of this. We are privileged to have sharks in our waters, where they keep our ocean ecosystems healthy and balanced. In so doing they ensure the ocean has enough food and oxygen to provide for us. It means we can go to it again and again — for our livelihoods and wellbeing.
During this year’s sardine run, nothing has made me prouder than witnessing fellow South Africans protecting our sharks. I hope we continue to do our bit by keeping sharks in the ocean where they belong and standing up for them when a tired old story needs to be changed. DM
This story was produced for Daily Maverick by www.rovingreporters.com.
Marine biologist Natalie dos Santos is currently undergoing training as an Ocean Watch correspondent for Roving Reporters. She is also enrolled on the WILDOCEANS Ocean Stewards programme and is currently researching loggerhead turtles through the University of KwaZulu-Natal.
Read her previous story on the turtles at Bhanga Neck.