Coast KZN

04 Feb 2019

Diving for rare hammerhead sharks

(The Mercury: IOL) Picture: Advanced volunteer divers Summer Newton and Nikki Chapman strike a pose after spotting a couple of shark species, including the endangered scalloped hammerhead shark, at the recently approved Protea Banks Marine Protected Area.

DURBAN – A team of dedicated volunteer advanced divers embarked on a citizen science project over December and January at Protea Banks, 7 km off Margate on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast, in the hopes of gathering valuable data linked to the endangered scalloped hammerhead shark.

The project, an initiative of NGO WildOceans, set out to count a reported aggregation of scalloped hammerhead sharks in the recently approved Protea Banks Marine Protected Area to better understand the population numbers, their movements and the importance of the area for their protection.

The activities were filmed and are expected to feature in a marine documentary series called Our Oceans by Wild-Oceans.

The series will profile marine expeditions aboard the conservation research vessel RV Angra Pequena, raising awareness and knowledge about KwaZulu-Natal’s spectacular marine ecosystems, charismatic animals and the learning journey of the scientists and ocean stewards on-board, as well as offer insights from communities along the coastline.

According to African Dive Adventures local dive operator Roland Mauz, one of the lead characters of the episode, Protea Banks, is being recognised as an important ecosystem off the coast of South Africa.

“Shark aggregations in this area, including hammerheads, is unusual and it’s rated as one of the few places in the world where one can see such a wide variety of shark species.

“It’s important for science and for the future to start exploring this area and try to understand this aggregation.”

Mauz, who has dived Protea Banks since 1996, said shark species had changed their arrival and departure times and it could be due to climate change.

“We have more wind than before. Some species have been reduced in numbers and others have increased. I can’t explain why that is, but it seems to coincide with rising temperatures, pollution and overfishing.

“For example, we have more hammerheads than when I started diving in 1996, and can assume that they are running from hammerhead hot spots like the Galapagos, Cocos and Malpelo, where they are decimated by fishermen for their fins. We also have fewer tiger sharks than before.

“Unfortunately, it’s difficult to say why, because we don’t have comparable data,” he said.

Dive team co-ordinator Nikki Chapman said the methods used for surveying were piloted on this expedition and were still being refined for the conditions faced in East African waters.

“I hope that this survey will build awareness of large numbers of scalloped hammerhead sharks in an area which has not been scientifically documented yet, and that it will spark local pride and protection for this species, as they are vulnerable to getting entangled in shark nets and are targeted for shark finning in many parts of the world,” Chapman said.

Underwater camera operator George Kirkinis said people should be excited about seeing the documentary because this was a proudly South African story.

“It’s a film about our oceans, our legacy and our inheritance at the same time. We are custodians of the ocean space and this film highlights what we’re doing right and what we’re doing wrong as custodians,” Kirkinis said.

The onboard data-capturer for the expedition, Zamo Phungula, said every dive produced different and valuable information and that the dots began to connect as more dives were done.

“The divers went down to depths of over 30m in wind speeds that averaged 18 knots and swells reaching over 2.5m. It was evident by the distance drifted by the divers that the currents were very strong. It was interesting to see how temperature also played a role on where and when the hammerhead sharks appeared,” she said