Great whites are by far my favourite shark and probably the most well known of all the sharks, but they certainly aren’t the only species of shark in the cold Cape waters we conduct our research in. One of the most fascinating things about sharks is their enormous diversity and because we spend significant amounts of time on or under the water we are privileged to be able to observe many of these species.
Endemic puffadder shyshark in False Bay
There are over 400 species of shark (excluding their relatives the chimeras, skates and rays) worldwide with new discoveries every year. South Africa has about a ¼ of these and is a shark hotspot. There are close to 100 (98 to be exact) different species of sharks in South African waters. Approximately half of these are regularly found close to shore, while the rest are illusive and spend most of their time in deepwater over 100 meters (some down to 2000 m). The east coast because of the warmer water is more diverse with almost double the number of shark species than the Western Cape. On the east coast there are approximately 80 species, while in the Western Cape there are just over 40 species, but many species occur in both areas.
Cape Town is home to about 40 species, while False Bay may play home to about 20 different shark species depending on the season. Summer time, October – March sees the greatest number and different species of shark in the bay. White sharks are by far the best known but other common species include bronze whalers (copper sharks) reaching 3 meters and feeding on fish, squid and other smaller sharks. Ragged tooth sharks are also summer visitors in False Bay reaching over 4 meters. Both of these may often be mistaken for white sharks from a distance and are present in greater numbers than white sharks. Even basking sharks may visit Cape waters in spring and these too may be confused with the white sharks. However, there is a wide variety of completely harmless sharks that call the bay home. The sevengill cowsharks are top predators common in the kelp forests around the peninsula. Feeding on seals, other sharks and fish their diet overlaps that of the whites, but only reaching 3 meters they can find themselves on the white sharks menu. Smaller shy sharks and spotted gullies are common and seen on many dives. Feeding on small fish and crabs they are a delightful distraction for any diver.
Demersal sharks are sharks spending most of their time at or near the bottom and these include your commercially exploited species the soupfin or school sharks and smooth hounds. Pelagic sharks are those found in oceanic waters mostly in the water column and near the surface like the mako and blue sharks. At least five species are endemic to South Africa which means they are found nowhere else. These are the puffadder shyshark, brown shyshark, Natal shyshark, pyjama shark, flapnose hound shark and whitetip weasel shark.
White sharks are undeniably the kings of the sea, but these lesser known species offer just as much reward when seeing them in their natural world.