Finless Wonder...

Finless Wonder... by Graeme Duane 16 Nov 1999

During feb/march most of the Ragged-tooth sharks that frequent Aliwal shoal on the Natal coast, begin moving north, into the warmer sub-tropical waters of Maputoland to breed. They stop feeding and algae begins to grow on their teeth as they prepare to drop pups.

Ragged tooth sharkThis is a prime time to get good shots of them up close in clean blue water, very different from their usual habitat further south. These sharks migrate up the South East African coast from Cape waters, possibly following the Sardine run (see diary 1) and coinciding their hunt for sardines with their annual breeding migration. They also get caught in the Shark nets by the hundred during this time of the year.

To get back to filming, I went to Sodwana bay in March during a calm spell in the weather and hitched a ride out to sea with one of the SCUBA boats. The boat dropped me off at a reef I know well, on their way to another SCUBA diving spot. The arrangement was that the skipper would fetch me an hour later on his way back.

On arrival at my reef, I tested the current strength and having decided that I could maintain my position for the pick-up, I bade farewell to the skipper and jumped overboard with my camera and lights.

The water was crystal blue and warm and I could see the sand and reef 15/16 metres below. I had to follow the reef to where it petered out onto sand and there I saw from the surface twenty or thirty silouettes of large Ragged-tooth sharks. Having arranged my lights and camera settings, I prepared for my first dive, relaxing and "breathing up" to saturate my body with just the right amount of oxygen.

Shark with no finsI left the surface, pushing my camera-rig ahead of me with one hand, equalizing with the other. Approaching the bottom, I positioned myself on course with an approaching raggie. I rolled the camera and switched on the lights when it was four feet away. The result was startling, the shark, on being confronted with 200watts of artificial light, turned in a split second and fled with a loud thud of its tail!

I canned the light idea and left the units and battery in a cave nearby. Having rested on the surface after my fright, I headed down once again, and lay in the path of an approaching shark...

Lying on my back in the sand, the shark swam a foot or two above me; it was like a low-flying boeing passing over, smooth and powerful... eyeballing me all the time. (Was thankful to see a healthy growth of algae on its teeth!) After using this lightless and quiet method for half an hour, I had ten minutes of great unique shots of the sharks. I decided to change surroundings a bit and headed further onto the reef.

Swimming into a small "arena" of coral, I came across something quite unexpected and amazing. Filming a shark entering frame, I suddenly noticed that it was missing almost every fin on its body!

I had always heard of the Japanese shark-fin soup trade and the gruesome stories that accompany it but had never seen anything to support them. What appeared in front my camera is proof of the awful effects that this bizarre business leaves in its wake.

Movie Clip (337KB)The shark, eyeing me suspiciously, had been caught in a long-line trawler's net, "finned" on deck and hurled overboard alive, a mere by-product of Shark-fin soup! Every fin except the top of its tail had been severed, but had miraculously healed and the shark was apparently living a fairly healthy life as a "paraplegic". It could regulate its bouyancy perfectly and merely floated around the reef.

It is apparently common practice for long-line trawlers, who by the nature of their methods, capture a high number of big pelagic sharks, to fin the hapless animals, turf the evidence back into the sea, and hide the fins in the bottom of the tuna holds to be sold later to dubious, independent fin buyers who lurk in every tropical and sub-tropical port or harbour. The money gleaned from this illegal operation is used to pay the crew "bonus" salaries.

copyright ©1999 Graeme Duanne