By Andrew C. R. Cobb
Despite his threatening appearance the
sand tiger shark (Carcharias taurus) is harmless.
© D. Perrine / Shark Foundation
Fifty kilometers south of Durban, off the coast of KwaZulu in Natal, South Africa, lies the
small town of Umkomaas which is the starting point for a fascinating voyage to the sand tiger
sharks (Carcharias taurus) on the Aliwal Shoal.
The Aliwal Shoal was formed 80'000 years ago from a sand dune. It all began with the
shifting of the continental plates which caused a rise in the sea level of the Indian Ocean and
hence flooding of the dune. In the thousands of years that followed the deposit of seashells
and other reef-building materials led to the welding of a massive sandstone core.
Today, Aliwal Shoal is the home of many different species of fish and other living marine
organisms, including sea turtles, dolphins and humpback whales, as well as the famous sand
tiger sharks which the local South African population affectionately calls "raggies" (Editor's
Note: "Raggie" is an abbreviation for ragged-tooth shark, one of the English names of the
sand tiger shark).
The Agulhas current.
© Shark Info
Sand tiger sharks undertake annual migrations in South African waters, spending the time
between June and end of November in the Aliwal Shoal. In late November they leave the
region and swim approximately 300 km north to Cape Vidal where they mate. The pregnant
females then swim northwards towards the Mozambique coast while the males swim to
another unknown location. At some point the females then ride the Agulhas current (see
map) back south where they bear their young off the coast of Port Elisabeth and Plettenberg
Bay approximately 9 months later, completing the cycle and followed by recommencement of
Not even 20 years have passed since the first divers dared to swim in these waters despite
shark warnings from the local population. I belonged to this first group of divers and must
admit that, at that time, even I expected to experience "Jaws" in person. But contrary to our
fears no incidents occurred with these animals.
I was a police diver then, and after the dives I would report on sand tiger sharks and their
behavior at our monthly group meetings. Graham Carter, deputy director of the Natal Shark
Board (NSB), was also in this group at the time. (Editor's Note: The NSB is a semiprivate
institute established for the purpose of answering questions on shark problems). Up until
then the NSB had already investigated sand tiger sharks, but the Aliwal Shoal with its sand
tiger sharks was still unknown to them. In 1994 the decision was thus made to instruct a
group of diving teachers and have them collect data for the NSB.
Umkomaas and Aliwal.
© Shark Info
The Aliwal Shoal is a paradise for many species, not only for sand tiger sharks, but its
preservation initially had to be fought for and the fight is far from over. The Aliwal Shoal
region, including the entire southern coast of Natals, was threatened with destruction due to
environmental pollution in the early phase of our research. The main problem was the
SAICCOR cellulose (dissolving) plant in Umkomaas which dumped its entire untreated
effluent into the ocean. The suspended matter reduced visibility to less than one meter and
the foam made entire beaches unusable. Even the periodical widespread dying-off of
freshwater and ocean fish was not unusual. A solution had to be found.
In 1994 public anger at pollution on the coast of Natals found an outlet after the change in
government and a newly elected Minister of the Environment who was sympathic to the
cause. This resulted in the establishment of the "South Coast Marine Pipeline Forum
(SCMPLF)" which was unique in South Africa's history because it gathered all affected
parties at one table, not only representatives from public authorities and industry.
Transparency was required, and for the first time the public was represented in such a forum.
This is astonishing considering that under the former government the subject of effluent
emissions stemming from factories was treated behind closed doors.
The Pipeline Forum commissioned social and environmental studies. A study on the social
aspect of environmental pollution compiled by the Geographical Institute of the University of
Natal clearly showed that the value of having clean coasts is considerably more important
than optimizing profits of the affected industries. After all, the owners of the three largest
ocean pipelines had to pay the city of Natal millions of rands (several hundred thousand
dollars) to clean the ocean and the coasts. SAICCOR, the cellulose plant in Umkomaas, had
to extend their pipeline from 3 to 6 km and was forced to construct a special water treatment
plant to remove at least 50,000 of the total yearly 460,000 tons of lignosulfates, a byproduct
of cellulose production, from the effluent.
These measures, especially the pipeline extension, were effective very quickly. Umkomaas'
beaches are again free of foam, the sea is blue and even in Aliwal water visibility has
considerably improved. However, it would be foolish to give an "all clear" signal because
410,000 tons of lignosulphonate are still pumped untreated directly into the ocean.
In many of my lectures I pointed to the problem in Aliwal Shoal and managed to motivate a
group of people with the same viewpoint to form the "Aliwal Rescue Action Group". This
group was very active and beginning 1994 was granted a hearing with the responsible
government offices. Both the African Minister of the Environment and the Director of the
Marine Fishing Authorities agreed that this region must be protected. Unfortunately, in 1994
there was a change in government and the Minister of the Environment was replaced. This
meant the end of the initiative and the need to search for a new solution. We agreed that an
underwater park had be established which would simultaneously cover all of the different
fields of interest. I took these plans to the South African Tourism Authorities whereupon a
workshop was organized to deal with the problem. A respective initiative has since been
caught up in beaurocratic red tape.
Although the initiative has still not been approved, the change in government definitely also
had its positive side. The new Minister of the Environment, Professor Kadar Asmal, helped
the Department of Water Affairs, among others, to assume a new more plausible position, a
prerequisite for the success of the South Coast Pipeline Forum.
Thanks to all the improvements in water quality, diving with the sand tiger sharks in the reefs
of Aliwal Shoal has again become very attractive. Unfortunately, this was too quickly
recognized by greedy diving businesses. On busy weekends 20 boats can be found directly
on the Aliwal Shoal, and some of the divers are even equipped with spears. It is now a race
against time until this region receives the necessary protection, for the continual invasion into
the resting areas of the sand tiger sharks will sooner or later chase them away.
The opportunity to dive in harmony with the ocean and its inhabitants, the sand tiger sharks,
is an absolutely fascinating experience. By literally becoming a part of their world, one can
study their natural behavior and interact with them undisturbed in their natural environment.
However, later generations will be robbed of this privilege unless we demand additional
measures to protect the Aliwal Shoal from pollution and from excessive diving tourism. We
must protect Aliwal for the sand tiger sharks and for mankind. And we have no time to simply
be content with our previous achievements, instead we must continue to fight for the
protection of this unique marine region before it literally disappears before our eyes.
* Andrew C. R. Cobb
is a leading personality when it comes to shark protection in the KwaZulu
region and South Africa. He was the first shark diving teacher and guide officially accredited
by the South African Tourism Authorities.
May be published only by indicating the source: Shark Info / Andrew C. R. Cobb