Sand tiger sharks, referred to as ragged-tooth sharks or “raggies” in South Africa, are tailor-made for aquaria. They adapt well to a life of captivity, are safe to divers if not provoked but look quite ferocious with their big, pointed, irregular teeth. For this reason they have been exported from South Africa to a number of countries. Normally they are caught on heavy fishing line from a boat and placed in a holding tank. As this causes much stress and damage to the shark local diver, Mark Addison, pioneered a lasso type of device for catching raggies without hook or line. We put this device to the test during the making of a Discovery Channel documentary for “Shark Week”.
We launched through pounding surf from the Umkomaas River mouth. Mark is one of the most experienced surf launch skippers on the coast but a launch in big surf always makes me rather apprehensive, especially with a boat full of expensive camera equipment. We left the safety of the river and, as our boat passed under the railway bridge, all I could see in front of me was a white wall of crashing waves. Mark skillfully worked his way up and down, parallel to the beach where the waves were smaller, looking for a gap. Half way out, a big set came at us with walls of water, feathering at the top in anticipation of breaking, towering above our little inflatable boat. Mark applied full power and spun the boat around, allowing the waves to break before reaching us, thereby expending most of their energy. The next attempt was successful. The boat ramped some steep swells and we were past the surf zone. The boat crossed a line that looked like a stroke from an artist’s brush, where brown river-stained water changed to clear sea water. We then set a course for Aliwal Shoal, famous for its underwater rock formations of weathered sandstone and a summer stop-over for the raggies.
We descended to the reef, Mark armed with his raggie lasso. Almost immediately on arrival at the bottom, Mark disappeared into a cave and I switched my video lights on. At the back of the cave, I could make out the shadowy shapes of three raggies in the gloom. One of them, a small 1.5 metre animal, swam from the cave and Mark quickly slipped the noose over its head and pulled it tight. Then all hell broke loose. Mark made for the surface, trying to control the madly gyrating shark with its sharp pointed teeth, snapping at everything in sight. While normally not aggressive towards divers, raggies occasionally bite swimmers and have been known to show aggression towards spearfishermen with speared fish. For this reason we were relieved when the animal was finally lifted from the water and deposited safely into the portable water tank on the boat.
The teeth of the ragged tooth shark are very different to those of the white shark. Raggies' teeth are sharp, round and curved and are designed to hold their prey while they swallow it whole. The white shark, on the other hand, has sharp, heavy, triangular teeth for cutting their prey, such as seals, firstly to kill them and then to reduce the carcass to manageable pieces.
In recent years the diver pressure on Aliwal Shoal, especially during weekends and holidays, has increased to such an extent that it is having a noticeable effect on the raggies, often making them scarce and skittish during the day. Therefore Mark suggested that I try at night to see whether I could get more exciting footage.
At dusk, as Mark and I descended towards the reef below, I could sense a change in the atmosphere. As I busied myself with the camera controls, I drifted off in the strong current and soon found myself alone. As I reached the reef a large raggie swam straight for me, showing none of the shyness of the daytime dives. After nearly bumping into me it swam off into the gathering gloom. With a mixture of anticipation and apprehension I switched my powerful underwater video lights on in the hope of attracting Mark's attention.
I soon met up with Mark who proceeded to lead me to a part of the reef known as Raggies Cave where the reef formed a kind of amphitheatre. As Mark set up some bait, raggies began to appear from nowhere. The smell of the fresh tuna combined with my bright lights seemed to both excite and confuse the sharks, causing them to continually bite my camera. Those rows of needle-like teeth look more formidable at night as they glistened in reflection of the lights. At one stage the raggies seemed to get into a rhythm, with about six of them swimming in a circle, each taking turns to bite my camera, an operation that took place unnervingly close to my hands!
At times I would swim very close to them at their side. This made them continuously swim in a tighter circle, pushing my camera with their bodies and making lighting very difficult. On numerous occasions I gently pushed a shark away from the camera with one hand while filming with the other.
The highlight of the evening was when we presented the sharks with whole fish. Raggies cannot swallow whole fish tail first as the fish's spiny dorsal fins catch in the shark's throat. Therefore, when a raggie catches a fish from the tail end it must work it around in its mouth until it can safely be swallowed head first. This is done using a series of quick snapping movements as the raggie dare not drop its prize for fear of it being grabbed by another prowling raggie. While doing this, the raggie's jaws are extended forward with their teeth protruding, a very scary sight when you are only centimetres from the action.
One raggie that I filmed had a huge semi-circular scar at the top of its head. This was not a love bite from an amorous mate but a bite to kill, presumably inflicted by a bull shark. When this shark first arrived on the scene it was very skittish and bolted for cover at the slightest provocation. However, as the dive progressed it became bolder. I was filming another raggie in the process of swallowing a fish when the scarred shark rushed in and pulled it right out of its mouth.
While Mark and I worked with the sharks, my daughter, Jade, was observing the action from the safety of a nearby rock. Suddenly a raggie swam between her and the rock and, as she tried to push it away, it bit her on the arm. Later that evening I was booking her in at the casualty section of the local hospital while trying to keep as lower profile as possible. The conversation went something like this:
Nurse: “Good evening sir, how may I help you?”
Me: “We would like to see a doctor”
Nurse: “For you, Sir?”
Me: “No, for my daughter”
Nurse: “What is the problem?”
Me: “She has been bitten”
Nurse: "By what?”
Me: “By a shark”
“A SHARK, GOOD GRIEF!!!!” she shouted and the previously library-like surroundings broke into a buzz of activity with all and sundry gathering around Jade. As she was quickly ushered into the procedure room I thought to myself: “Aren't humans strange beings, if it had been a dog bite or a car accident it would have been considered mundane, but a shark bite, now that's exciting, in fact downright scary.”
“You are my first shark bite victim” the young doctor, who was also a keen diver, proudly announced to the assembled audience. Anyway, a few stitches and injections later Jade was raring to go again, her love for sharks even more entrenched than ever before (much to her mother’s dismay).