Photographing Africa's "Flying Sharks"

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It is unquestionably one of nature's greatest David-and-Goliath confrontations, and all who have witnessed it are left with tremendous respect for both prey and predator.

Over the years we have recorded very specific data as to what sharks we are seeing. We try to collect as much data from each animal as possible by noting body markings, injuries, or other abnormalities. Our data is interpreted by various groups around the world, and one group in particular, ReefQuest Expeditions, comes out in organized groups each year, hoping to learn more about the sharks.

Our images are used around the world for exhibits, usually with a conservation thread. We also have a range of posters and postcards that we market. Our Web site sells high-quality photographic prints and markets the expeditions that we run. We have a free monthly newsletter detailing our daily activities and conservation work with sharks.

Our images have appeared in some of the world's largest newspapers and magazines. We do not allow our images to be used for negative shark features.

Are sharks threatened in South Africa by tourists and fishers?

Undoubtedly they are threatened. Even though the great white is protected in South Africa, very little is done to enforce that protection, and the law is in many ways toothless.

Unfortunately, the [authorities] have not yet realized the importance of conserving our shark resources, and whilst job creation in the tourism sector is one of the key aims, they fail to realize that without a resource there will be no tourism.

Illegal fishing for great whites openly takes place in South Africa, with the perpetrators being so brazen as to advertise their activities in some of the world's largest game fishing magazines. On a larger scale, commercial fishing for various species of sharks goes unchecked, and virtually no regulations are in place to prevent the decimation of our shark stocks.

On several of our offshore trips to dive with makos, we have seen shark long-liners targeting makos and blues. [Long-liners use fishing lines up to several miles long with many baited hooks in series.]

Not only does the commercial sector not realize or care about the damage they are doing, but many wealthy game fishermen in South Africa also target game sharks, with relatively few of them tagging and releasing them and many selling these sharks for an absolute pittance.

The threat posed by tourists is inconsequential in terms of the commercial threat. However, the operators who facilitate these trips may be more of a threat in the way they handle these sharks.

In the white shark cage-diving industry, many operators use shark livers and shark heads to attract the sharks, to such an extent that they have created a fishery for seven-gill cow sharks (a species that has a limited home range and is rapidly declining in number) just to be able to attract great whites. This obviously goes against the grain of wanting to show your clients the beauty of sharks and trying to conserve them.

Up on [South Africa's] Natal coast, the ragged-tooth sharks attract thousands of divers each year. Some of the operators in this area are very insensitive to giving the sharks space during pregnancy, and their clients are allowed to disturb the sharks simply to get a picture or close encounter.

Another severe threat posed to large sharks along the South African coast is the Natal Sharks Board, which nets hundreds of kilometers of [swimming beaches], killing thousands of sharks each year—including [as many as] 60 great whites a year. This is done all in the cause of bather protection, yet the Cape Coast, which has the largest white shark population, has no nets, and there has been no abnormal increase in shark attacks over the last decade.

The electronic barrier [deployed in South Africa as another method to keep sharks out of bathing areas] could be further developed to cover a larger area. Even the simple creation of tidal pools would go a long way to giving tourists the option of using the sea … without thousands of threatened sharks and marine mammals having to die [by being caught in the safety nets used to protect swimming beaches].

Our aim is to try to make as many people aware of the beauty and importance of sharks, the threats they face, and what we can do to protect them and conserve them.

Next: Shark Photography, Warning Signs, and Scariest Moments >>

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