Diving With Dinosaurs In South Africa

Monday, March 12, 2012


Just off the Cape Peninsula and south of Cape Town in South Africa, lies an innocuous short stretch of ocean. Like much of the seascape here, kelp sprouts from the kryptonite green water, which laps at boulders straight out of The Flintstones. It looks a lot like the rest of this spectacular coastline. Yet this body of water harbors a prehistoric secret: Just a short hop, skip and a dive away from the shore swim living, breathing dinosaurs.

The name of these astonishing creatures is the broadnose sevengill shark. Yet I prefer their more palatable, less adjective heavy name: cow shark. These fish have glided through our oceans for hundreds of million of years, unblemished by Mother Nature’s marauding fingers. All sharks originally possessed seven pairs of gill slits. A period of tweaking and refining commenced and most species drop a couple of pairs. For some reason the cow sharks kept theirs. In fact, cow sharks have very few modern adaptations, which is why they remain one of the closest links we have to dinosaurs on earth.

For some unknown reason, the cow sharks just love this tiny stretch of water and congregate here en masse, just meters offshore. I’d read about this extraordinary site, yet before now had never had the opportunity to dive here. Shore diving remains one of my favorite methods of exploring the deep blue; there are no boats with their thumping motors, no launches, no traveling out for miles to sea. A shore dive simply features you, your breathing apparatus, your buddies and a gradual descent into an underwater world packed full of goodies.

Unfortunately, these goodies come wrapped in a bitterly cold packaging. Even 10mm of neoprene, hoodies, gloves and boots do little to mask the freezing water here. Our dive guide was free diver and photographer Jacques de Vos. Jacques has spent countless hours underwater interacting with the cow sharks, and has built up an intimate knowledge of their behavior and habits. He stressed that while the cow sharks may appear docile, we must maintain eye contact and not touch them. Attacks on divers are rare, yet it’s important to remain vigilant when dealing with toothy predators like sharks — especially ones that can grow to 13 feet in length and have been found with human remains in their stomachs.

Jacques, divemaster Rob, myself and my colleague — though the local diver center Pisces Divers — entered the water via the rocks. The Cape’s waters welcomed us with an icy blast, jolting our systems, priming our senses. During descents into unfamiliar (and shark-infested) territories, I frequently remind myself that each year more people are killed by their Christmas tree lights, or by falling off their chairs than by sharks. However, it’s easy to lose sight of such rational thoughts in these famously murky waters.

divingwithdinosaursMy mind turned to the ridicule that would ensue at being chomped by a shark named after a chubby, milk-yielding herbivore. I’d never live it down. Thankfully, the chances of being nibbled by a cow shark remain minuscule. My first encounter with a six-foot-long male put me at ease. In fact, I could have sworn it was smiling at me. Much like dolphins, cow sharks’ stubby faces are etched with perma-smiles. Depending on your point of view, this is either quite cute or freakishly sinister. Either way, it’s as unusual as it is mesmerising.

The other notable thing about these sharks is their curious, bold nature. Most sharks, despite their fearsome reputations, remain skittish when encountering humans. Cow sharks, on the other hand, will boldly check divers out, flash a wicked smile and then glide off momentarily, before returning for a second look. They move as if in slow motion, their stout bodies propelled by long, elegant sweeps of the tail. The sharks are a photographer’s dream; willing posers for the camera, unfazed by the flashes of strobes and enveloped by the most spectacular studio imaginable.

Sadly, the fate of the cow sharks may remain a familiar one. They are being fished extensively in these waters. While I was there, reports began to surface of cow sharks being used as bait for great whites by several of the operators in nearby Gansbaai.

Sharks are yet again falling prey to the greatest predator to ever walk the earth: man. Every year, we are responsible for the deaths of up to 100 million sharks. We kill sharks for their jaws and teeth which make tacky souvenirs. We kill them for the oil in their liver, their cartilage, flesh and fins. Now, unimaginably, we are killing them to feed to their own, by those who pass themselves off as shark conservationists.

I left this magical stretch of water full of wonder at the amazing smiling cow sharks of Cape Town, yet appalled at how, once again, we are changing the face of our oceans. Cow sharks have survived five mass extinctions and due to Man’s short sightedness and greed, they now face a sixth.

By Aaron Gekosk


About the Author

Aaron Gekoski_1Aaron Gekoski is a freelance photojournalist and filmmaker. His work appears regularly in National Geographic Traveller, Go!, Men’s HealthFHM, Africa Geographic and many more publications around the world. Last year, Aaron was part of a team that shot Shiver, a documentary on Africa’s shark finning crisis. For more information, please visit AaronGekoski.com.

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