The diversity of sharks

Hanli Prinsloo is a South African freediver and ocean advocate. She is the founder of I AM WATER, a Durban-based charity that seeks to reconnect South Africa's underserved urban youth with the ocean.

Words & photograph by Hanli Prinsloo

It’s a clear blue sky, warm air and a slight breeze – winter in this part of the world is not true to the word. We sit on the boat, drink water, share shark stories and wait. One fin, two fins, three fins, four… the black tips have arrived. As they dash at the sardines thrown in the water, their bright silver flanks make the light dance in the waves. They are oblivious to their own beauty, quietly intent on not missing any fish. I pull on my fins, slip on my mask and gently drop into the water. My silver suit reflects light into the sky, the black tips part and let me through. To them I am just another big fish in the water, scavenging for the same scraps. I float at the surface, breathing deeply and slowly through my snorkel – slowly in, even more slowly out. My heart rate calms down and my mind gets quieter. I am ready to dive. One last deep breath into my stomach, taking in as much air as I can – one small kick forward, then two more and I’m down. I equalise my ears, kick some more – and fall. I relax my muscles and let the water catch me, pulling me deeper, past neutral buoyancy and through the free-fall to the sandy bottom below. It’s silent. I am alone at a depth of more than twenty metres, where almost no rays of sunshine can penetrate the dense water. Small particles drift around me and I hang quietly in the dusky light. Looking up, I see the blacktips moving in tiers up to the surface. Silhouetted against the light they create an improvised ballet that could grace the world’s stages. 

Then I see her. Like a prima ballerina, biding her time in the wings, she is circling on the edge of my field of vision. Immediately I know who she is. Her movements are as different from the blacktips dashing around above as the languid circling of a great eagle bears no resemblance to the flapping of a sparrow.

I had been a competitive freediver for many years when I had my first encounter with a tiger shark. Like most of the great predators on our planet, this striped beauty is as misunderstood as she is complex. An intelligent survivor known for eating just about anything, but also a beautiful animal that is surprisingly easy to interact with on one breath. It was a revelation for me to use my hard-earned skills as a deep diving freediver to explore the ocean wilderness and her animals. I have subsequently dived with numerous species of sharks and other marine megafauna around the world and what never ceases to amaze me is just how different they all are!

If you’ve grown up with Labradors and then get to spend some time with a Jack Russell terrier, it quickly becomes apparent that these are two very different creatures. Personally, I love seeing all the ways in which the various sharks I dive with can behave and how these behaviours can be translated using dog species as metaphors. It’s a language many people understand better than philosophical descriptions of the nature of specific shark species. 

For me, black tip sharks are like a pack of terriers. They are fast and nippy and more interested in food than interacting. Blue sharks are like cocker spaniels, their big soft eyes and tendency to want to get really close is like the snuffling nose of a spaniel. Then there are the shortfin Makos; fast and intent, they waste no time and swim rapidly close the surface. I find them slightly unsettling and deeply inspiring for their speed and agility, so I think they are like Australian cattle dogs, more intent on the job at hand than anything else. Then of course there’s our beloved sevengill sharks cruising in the False Bay kelp forests. They are like lazy old basset hounds that would much rather just lay in front of a fire than go about their daily survival. That being said, I have only met the so-called ‘cow sharks’ at night, and apparently they also have the capacity to transform into pitbulls when the occasion calls for it. I am yet to see this transformation! The lemon sharks in the Bahamas are like a distant relative of our blacktip reef shark terriers, but slightly larger and more sedate, until food appears in the water and they turn at lightning speed- the Weimaraners of the Caribbean!

And then of course we have the tiger sharks, graceful and swaying that reminds me fondly of a great Dane. Large, personable and somewhat predictable.

I’ve thought long and hard about what breed best describes great white sharks. Our apex predators that have inspired thrillers in a way that no other creature – though so many others are much more threatening – ever have! We love to fear them, we love to study them and we love to shroud them in mystery and myth. I have not yet been freediving with a great white, but I have spent much time studying and observing them from a boat, and I have watched more experienced freedivers swim with them. And truth be told, they’re not a Rottweiler or a Staffordshire Bull Terrier… no dog can match the presence of this creature. Like the solitary grizzly bear or the lone wolf, the great white is a unique creature of beauty and majesty, to be respected and protected. It is not on my agenda to ride the fin of a great white, not out of fear, but because I think some things are sacred and worthy of respect. 

It’s important to rethink our ideas of what a shark is. This way, we can embrace their diversity and enjoy the incredible variety!

Issue Eight
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This column appears in ISSUE 8: The billion $ shark of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue Eight
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_sealegacy
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_sealegacy

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