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The A-Z of South Africa’s great white sharks
How they breach, top snack spot, why they can’t be held in captivity + more
Last updated: Tuesday, 24 May 2022
Good news: a juvenile great white shark was spotted in Gansbaai in February 2022, which is a good sign for winter shark-spotting – especially because they’re less present along the Cape coastline these days. Before you go, buff up on your knowledge about them: Here’s our A-Z about this mysterious and formidable king of the ocean.
AMPULLAE MAKE SHARKS SUPER-SENSITIVE
Ampullae of Lorenzini are minute pores around the snout and eyes of all sharks (including rays) that contain a gel sensitive to magnetic and electrical fields. These senses enable them to detect the electromagnetic field of creatures, allowing them to sense what is below or behind them. Recent research has shown that great white sharks are repelled by strong magnets because of this sixth sense, which means there may be an alternative to harmful shark nets in keeping them away from swimming areas.
The little pores around the snout are ampullae, highly sensitive to magnetic and electrical fields. Image: WSDC
BREACHING IS A HUNTING TECHNIQUE
Great white sharks breach when hunting agile prey, such as seals. According to ocean education website ocean.si.edu, they do this by swimming close to the surface, which allows them to reach speeds of up to 65 kilometers per hour. They then can propel themselves up to three metres into the air. It’s very rare to witness this, as it consumes a lot of energy.
A great white takes a good look at WSDC’s boat. Image: WSDC
CARCHARODON CARCHARIAS IS ITS LATIN NAME
Carcharodon carcharias is the Latin name for the great white shark. More commonly, these fish are referred to as “great whites” or “the white death”, but the world is moving towards “white sharks” to reduce the sensationalism around the species, says WSDC.
DYER ISLAND IS THEIR ULTIMATE SNACK BAR
Dyer Island, situated five nautical miles off the coast of Gansbaai and a roughly 15-minute boat ride away, is home to the shark’s favorite food, seals. Consequently, the area has had one of the densest known white-shark populations in South Africa (and even the world).
That said, the presence of these sharks has dropped significantly and studies are in the process of trying to get to the bottom of this. One theory is that it’s a knock-on effect of perlemoen poaching, which has led to a proliferation of kelp, and this has made it easier for seals to hide and also makes it difficult for the sharks to hunt.
EXPENSES: HERE’S THE COST TO SEE THEM
Shark-cage diving and viewing with the WSDC costs between R1 950 and R2 200 for adults and R1 500 for children under 12. Look out for WSDC’s seasonal specials on its homepage.
FEEDING IS A SURFACE ACTIVITY
Great white sharks are surface feeders and thus all its feeding activity takes place on or very close to the top. Cape fur seals are South African great white sharks’ primary source of nutrition. Luckily, there are about 50 000 to 60 000 seals living in the area of Gansbaai (hence the title of “Great White Capital of the World”).
GANSBAAI IS SHARK MECCA
Gansbaai is only 170 km from the City of Cape Town (roughly a two-hour drive) in the Overberg region, and means “goose bay” in Afrikaans. Thanks to the prime shark research and viewing and cage-diving opportunities there, it’s one of South Africa’s greatest attractions. You can find over 100 shark species in these waters, including bronze whalers.
Copper sharks (bronze whalers) often gather in numbers around the boat. Image: WSDC
HOOKAH MEANS ANYONE CAN DIVE
White Shark Diving Company (WSDC) is the only cage-diving tour operator in Gansbaai to offer the exclusive Hookah cage-dive experience. The onboard air-supply system allows divers to remain underwater while in the cage for optimal shark viewing, with no previous diving experience necessary. WSDC regularly runs specials, so check its homepage.
THIS IS WHAT A WSDC EXPERIENCE IS LIKE
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ID DOCUMENTS: SHARKS HAVE THEIR VERSION
The dorsal fin of each white shark is unique and can be used as a way to identify individuals. WSDC’s Shark & Marine Research Institute collaborates with Stellenbosch University to monitor the white shark population via software called Identifin, which was designed in collaboration with Stellenbosch University scientists Dr Sara Andreotti, Prof. Ben Herbst and Dr Pieter Holtzhausen.
You can identify white sharks by their dorsal fins. Image: WSDC
JAWS SUCKED FOR SHARK CONSERVATION
Jaws was American-writer Peter Benchley's best-selling novel in 1974. The subsequent 1975 film adaptation directed by Steven Spielberg made the public view the white shark as a “man eater” – not true. The reality is we are in its territory, and have done far more harm to the white shark species than it has done to ours.
KILLER REPUTATION IS SO WRONG
Despite some people’s opinions, white sharks are not merciless killers. If anything, they are cautious predators and avoid humans more than attack them. The evidence for this is that attacks on humans are often abandoned, which has led experts to believe that great whites mistake us for seals.
LONG-LINE POACHING IS JUST ONE THREAT
Commercial long-line poaching for jaws, teeth and fins is one of the greatest threats to these – and other – sharks, along with the huge demand for shark-fin soup in the East. Then there are shark nets, “ghost” nets (discarded by fishing boats), drumlines, bycatch, and loss of white shark’s own food source due to overfishing and environmental changes. A study by the University of Stellenbosch suggested recently that only between 353 and 522 white sharks still exist along our coastline.
White sharks are more at threat from humans than we are from them. Image: WSDC
MATING HABITS ARE STILL LARGELY UNKNOWN
Researchers are largely in the dark about white shark courtship, coupling and reproduction. What is known is the female reaches sexual maturity at between 12 to 18 years of age, so its reproduction rate is low, which makes it vulnerable to extinction. Most large sharks are ovoviviparous, meaning they incubate and hatch their eggs in the womb and only give birth once the young are developed enough to survive on their own, at about 1 metre long.
NO TO CAPTIVITY: THEY DIE
Many aquariums around the world have tried, but nowhere is the white shark on display. White sharks are known to become very stressed in captivity. In the sea, they move constantly, albeit slowly on occasion, and can move across vast areas. When placed in a tank, they constantly swim into the glass and eventually die.
White sharks swim far and wide, studies have shown. Image: WSDC
OCEAN IS THEIR OYSTER
White sharks are found in almost all coastal and offshore waters in all major oceans, especially those bodies of water surrounding South Africa and Australia. A study found that sharks tagged in South Africa moved across our seas, Mozambique, Madagascar and the high seas.
PROTECTING THESE SHARKS IS VITAL
The white shark is an apex predator, and its disappearance will have an effect on the trophic levels below it. WSDC is fully committed to the preservation of white sharks and the marine environment as a whole. It has various conservation and social-responsibility initiatives and is involved in facilitating and funding several ocean conservation enterprises.
It supports on-going research through its non-profit organisation Shark & Marine Research Institute, which monitors the shark populations along the Gansbaai coast. Research projects are run in collaboration with the Department of Environmental Affairs and the University of Stellenbosch.
QUESTIONS: THERE ARE STILL SO MANY
Despite years of research, we actually know very little about white sharks and one of the most phenomenal aspects of these formidable creatures is their ability to remain elusive and unpredictable. A lot of information – how long they live, how many months they gestate for, when they reach maturity and so forth – is still subject to debate because reports are often based on rough estimations or speculations.
Despite our fascination with these creatures, they are tricky to study and much is still unknown. Image: WSDC
RESEARCH IS IMPORTANT AND IS SHARED
WSDC conducts multiple collaborative research projects through its Shark & Marine Research Institute. From ethical angling, tagging, measuring and genetic sampling to data collection via snorkelling surveys conducted in the local kelp forests, where smaller shark species are caught by hand. All the data collected is analysed and submitted to a national database to aid the government in making better management decisions affecting our oceans and sharks.
SHARKSAFE BARRIER: WSDC IS TESTING IT
WSDC is involved in the innovative new technology to promote beachgoer safety, without costing the lives of marine creatures. The Sharksafe Barrier is an eco-friendly and non-lethal alternative to shark nets and drumlines that uses strong magnets (which we referred to in the A section above), and using a kelp forest-style barrier (see the above paragraph) that keeps great white sharks at bay.
THIS TEAM WILL KEEP YOU SAFE
WSDC’s crew members are specialists in shark behavior and have full safety authority credentials.
UNIQUE EXPERIENCES DON’T COME BETTER
Shark-cage diving in South Africa is on the Top 10 experiences of virtually all South African travel guides. Although at present, white sharks are less visible, there are many other shark species around, such as bronze whalers, which can congregate around the boat in big numbers. WSDC allows a maximum of 22 passengers on board its boat and a maximum of eight divers in the floating cage, and significant time is spent with the sharks.
You’ll be in excellent hands with this experienced team. Image: WSDC
VOLUNTEERS, THIS IS A LIFE-CHANGING GIG
The WSDC’s Volunteer Programme offers volunteers the chance to become involved in groundbreaking research while studying white shark populations and behaviour, shark and ray diversity and abundant fish biology, marine debris accumulation and ocean conservation. Assistant researchers will also receive first-hand experience onboard WSDC’s tourist boat, play a vital role in data collection and management, as well as get ample cage-diving time during their volunteer adventure to learn more about apex predators.
WSDC IS A WINNER
WSDC is the winner of the TripAdvisor Certificate of Excellence for five years running, from 2014 to 2019, and is bound to get you closer to white sharks than any other operator. Holders of the Traveller's Choice award from 2020 to present and represent the world's top 10% activities to experience as rated by TripAdvisor.
X-TRA FAST: THESE SHARKS MOVE IT
Sharks are poikilotherms, meaning they are “cold-blooded” animals whose internal body temperature varies widely. White sharks, however, are unique in that they are also heterothermic, which means they maintain an internal body temperature around five to 15 degrees warmer than the surrounding water. This enables their muscles to contract more quickly, so it can swim faster. Recording sensors suggest they can reach speeds of 30kph.
Did you know a white shark can reach a speed of 30kph? Image: WSDC
YEARS OF EVOLUTION AHEAD OF US
The white shark is probably one of the oldest species that we can still see in the ocean today. Earliest ancestors of great white sharks were around 400 million years ago, but whites probably arrived around 60 to 100 million years ago.
ZERO: THE NUMBER OF ACCIDENTS WSDC HAS HAD
WSDC has been operating for 20 years with a 100% safety record. The staff and crew members are well-trained and the company facilities are constantly upgraded to ensure continued growth through customer satisfaction.
WHEN + WHERE TO GO
MORE WAYS TO EXPERIENCE THE CAPE
So now you know everything about white sharks. Is it not time to go diving?
Contribute to the body of knowledge on white sharks. Consider volunteering.
The White Shark Diving Company has won Tripadvisor awards and is the top operator for shark dives in the area.