Sharks of Sodwana Bay

Latest update August 11, 2019 Started on June 1, 2018

Sodwana Bay is set in a UNESCO World Heritage Site boasting spectacular marine biodiversity. Our mission is to collect urgently needed ecological data on the sharks in the area, to establish an appropriate conservation and management plan.

June 1, 2018
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In The Field

What happened at Sharklife in July?

  • We've been in the water with over 30 indo pacific bottlenose dolphins
  • recorded dusky and spinner sharks
  • observed humpback whales and spinner dolphins from up close
  • tested our new ROV from National Geographic, figured out we need a controller to use it in the field
  • applied for research funding (cross fingers!)
  • applied for research permits with the park authorities (cross fingers harder!)
  • applied for funding so we can take out over 1800 local children on ocean tours within the next year (just don't stop crossing fingers!)
  • had 3 lovely interns painting our intern camp
  • re-organised the lab and designed a fact hunt through our museum
  • gave shark conservation talks to over 300 international students
  • taught freediving courses in absolutely green water (it's not usually like that!),
  • gave shark workshops to 12 external students
  • designed the layout for a new lab
  • collected even more bottle lids for the sweetheart foundation that recycles them and uses the funds to provide wheelchairs from those most in need
  • made lots of contacts with international researchers
  • and finally we have 13 newly hatched chicks on the Sharklife camp

Sound good? Come and join us for an internship or visit our shark museum when you're around! For more information take a look at our facebook page or visit our website.

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July at Sharklife

Heres a quick video of what we got up to here at Sharklife during July! If you want to learn more about our internships follow the link below! Share to any friends who you think might enjoy the internships here at Sharklife.

Posted by Sharklife on Tuesday, August 6, 2019

We have been having so much fun here at Sharklife over the last two months (apologies for the lack of updates). One of our absolute highlights was being accepted for a Sofar Trident Underwater Drone as part of the NatGeo S.E.E. Initiative (Science, Exploration and Education), which aims to empower ocean exploration. We are still getting to grips with our lovely new piece of tech and will hopefully become pro Trident drivers in no time.

So a little catch up about all the awesome things that were going on at Sharklife in June:

June was a fantastic month for the growth of Sharklife. We finished our internship camp, which is looking jaw-some (sorry had couldn’t help myself). We now have 5 individual shark themed rooms for our interns to rest their weary heads after long days of shark (and some sometimes turtle, ray and cetacean) fun. Some days our interns and staff take to the water to practice our freediving skills and collect data for on-going research projects, other days we turn back into terrestrial beings and make use of our lecture room and laboratory space.

Some of our June highlights included:

  • being in the water with 7 bull sharks, 1 dusky shark, and a scalloped hammerhead and giant manta ray that only that cameras spotted.
  • being accepted for the Trident underwater drone and the arrival of our drone
  • performing a necropsy on a beached pregnant spinner dolphin (very sad)
  • teaching 120 students from Iceland and the USA about shark conservation
  • starting a sea turtle ID database (we love sharks but we like other animals too)
  • saved a bird, saved and then lost a baby rat (told you we like other animals too)
  • had our first interns move into the new internship camp
  • conducted freediving courses, reaching some of our own personal bests
  • continued our community collection of bottle tops and bread tags to support the Sweethearts Foundation who recycle them and use the money to fund wheelchairs for those most in need
  • collected rubbish from the ocean, beach and land #saynotoplastic
  • lots of office time reading a tonne of papers, composing project proposals and learning a lot!

Follow us for more updates, and visit our website for more information on our internships (2 weeks, 1 month and 3 months) and to find our FREE online shark courses

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June 2019 at Sharklife

Want to see what Sharklife got up to in June?? Here's a short video of our June! To find out more about our up coming internships check out the link below...

Posted by Sharklife on Saturday, June 29, 2019

Feeling more complete with our full Sharklife team together in Sodwana we have been making the most of the fantastic sea conditions over the last couple of weeks. With 20-30m visibility, calm waters, and sun overhead, we have been visiting some of our shark hotspots to see who we can find. We have had some fantastic encounters with bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas), and several species of reef sharks, as well as Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops aduncus), and giant guitarfish (Rhynchobatus djiddensis), which is commonly mistaken for a shark but is in fact part of the ray family.

So far we have been using freediving and hand held cameras as our main method for collecting data on shark and ray sightings; unfortunately, this method comes with limitations, including limited bottom time, long recovery time, and disturbance to the animals. Over the coming months we plan to improve and expand our data collection by utilising a Trident underwater drone during surveys. By using a drone it will be possible to get closer to the animals without disturbing them. Not only is it important to us not to cause disturbance or stress to the animals, but the drone footage will facilitate the collection of size and sex data which is crucial for building a comprehensive knowledge of the demographic groups using the park.

Possibly the greatest benefit of using a Trident underwater drone for our research will be to collect important photo-identification data, particularly for bull sharks who are heavily prosecuted, and for the pregnant ragged-tooth sharks that visit the park each year during their gestation period. Bull sharks have unique shading around their face and ragged-tooth sharks have unique spots along their body which in both cases these marking can be used to identify individual’s overtime, using a non-intrusive non-extractive method.

We started collecting photo-identification of the ragged-tooth sharks last season using freediving, and although we were able to collect some clear photos, it was difficult to collect photos of both the left and right side of the sharks leaving us with an unknown number of individuals as the right and left side photos couldn’t be matched up. Our data collection this season will be greatly facilitated by the drone which can be easily moved around the sharks without disturbing them, making it possible to collect left and right identification photos at one time. The ragged-tooth shark database will be a continuous project that can be used to further our understanding of the movement patterns of ragged-tooth sharks within the park, without causing any stress to the sharks that are undergoing a crucial life stage in our waters.

Looking forward to updating you again soon.

Press follow to keep updated with our project.

For information about shark workshops, free online courses or doing an internship with us visit our website

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Expedition Background

Throughout the world’s oceans sharks are under extreme pressure from fishing and habitat degradation, with many populations becoming depleted or considered under serious threat of extinction. Despite the continuous decline, basic ecological information for many shark species remains absent or incomplete. South Africa and Mozambique have been named as two of the seven countries of the world identified as a Chondrichthyes (sharks, rays and chimaeras) triple hotspots (Stein et al. 2018). A triple hotspot is categorized as an area with high species richness, high species endemicity, and richness of evolutionary distinct species (Stein et al. 2018), with 107 shark species being assessed and categorised by the IUCN within Southern Africa. Despite this, 20.6% were categorised as Data Deficient, and 32.7% as ‘threatened’ with extinction (Vulnerable or higher), which is twice as high as the global percentage, 15.9% (Ebert & van Hees, 2015). This high percentage of species threatened with extinction and clear lack of knowledge within this hotspot region highlights the urgent need for a comprehensive shark assessment study to better understand the; species diversity, relative abundance, distribution patterns and species-specific habitat associations (Simpfendorfer et al. 2011, Espinoza et al. 2014), in order to distinguish ecological roles, establish appropriate conservation and management regimes, and assess risk of exposure to fishing, habitat degradation and climate change.

Our study region, Sodwana Bay, is located on the east coast of South Africa close to the Mozambique border. Sodwana Bay lies within iSimangaliso Wetland Park, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. The primary reason for establishing this MPA was to maintain the ecological value of the region by managing both consumptive and non-consumptive activities taking place within it. Due to the high economic importance of the area it is managed as a multiple-use MPA allowing some activities such as recreational fishing and SCUBA diving. In addition to these local activities there is an ever increasing fishing pressure taking place in neighbouring Mozambique, a country already struggling with overfishing and lack of resources in enforcing fishing laws, a problem of overfishing and fishing rights being allocated to in appropriate fishing companies. Unfortunately, due to the wide ranging movements of many shark species and the high value of shark fins on the Asian market, the sharks that inhabit this area are at an ever increasing risk from fishing pressure driving population decline. There have been numerous reports from local artisanal fisherman in Mozambique reporting a rapid decline of shark species seen and caught in the area since the arrival of the large fishing fleets. Given sharks crucial role as the immune system of the oceans, the decline or loss of sharks to the greater region, including Sodwana Bay, would inevitably have devastating effects on the rest of the marine ecosystem.

The aim of this study is to build baseline ecological data of the sharks of the Sodwana Bay region to improve our knowledge of shark diversity, distribution patterns and species-specific habitat associations. The findings can be used to determine areas of further research; better understand the intricate ecosystem links between species and habitat; assess species risk to anthropogenic activities, and inform conservation and management strategies for sharks within the iSimangaliso Wetland Park, a World Heritage Site.

To achieve the aims of this study multiple sampling methods will be simultaneously employed. As supported by WWF Guide to Effective Design and Management of MPAs for sharks and rays a range of non-lethal data collection techniques will be used including; • BRUVS (baited remote underwater video systems) – to determine species diversity, size, and relative abundance between different areas and over time • UVC (underwater visual censors) – using a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) with cameras to move along transects in areas identified as preferable habitat for different species of shark – allowing real time identification of species , abundance and size with the added manoeuvrability that BRUVS are lacking and can be used in the water column, and to explore deeper areas, increasing habitat coverage • Surveys would take place throughout the year to improve seasonality of data collection covering temporal differences in species presence and distribution

Data collection wills include; • Species • Size • Sex • Behaviour • life history • Location • Habitat type • and Environmental variables such as temperature.

Data will also be collected on other significant marine animals such as rays, turtles, marlin and cetaceans. We were even lucky enough to see a whale in April this year, which could be the first South African sighting of the elusive Omura's whale (awaiting confirmation). You never know what you might come across in this beautiful area of the world.

In addition to surprise visitors, Sodwana Bay, is home to a seasonal aggregation of pregnant ragged-tooth sharks (Carcharhinus taurus) who migrate to these warmer water between December-March each year during their gestation period (Bansemer & Bennett, 2009). Ragged-tooth sharks are listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN Rest List, and like other sharks are extremely vulnerable to population decline due to their K-selective life history, characterized by slow growth, late maturity and few young. In order to get a more detailed understanding of how these female ragged-tooth sharks are using the Park we started to collect photo-identification data last season, by utilising the unique spot patterns of individuals at a known congregation site. This study is to be continued and expanded to a number of other potential sites next season. Underwater behavioural surveillance will also be conducted to determine whether SCUBA divers are affecting or impacting the natural behaviour of these sharks that are undergoing a critical life stage within this World Heritage Site. The use of an ROV next season, which begins in late November, will allow data collection with minimal disturbance to the sharks, and can be used to collect identification and size data, as well as to monitor disturbance from SCUBA divers.

These projects are expected to run over a number of years to gain a thorough knowledge of the sharks of Sodwana Bay and how these vulnerable and somewhat, misunderstood animals can best be conserved and managed in this area to ensure their protection and promotion in this highly important region.

We are very excited about the growing momentum of this expedition and hope you follow our journey.


Bansemer, C.S. & Bennett, M.B. (2009). Reproductive periodicity, localized movements and behavioural segregation of pregnant Carcharias Taurus at Wolf Rock, southeast Queensland, Australia. Marine Ecology Progress Series, 374: 215-227.

Ebert, D.A. & van Hees, K.E. (2015). Beyond Jaws: rediscovering the ‘lost sharks’ of southern Africa. In: Ebert DA, Huveneers C, Dudley SFJ (eds), Advances in shark research. African Journal of Marine Science 37: 141–156.

Espinoza, M., Cappo, M., Heupel, M.R., Tobin, A.J. & Simpfendorfer, C.A.(2014). Quantifying shark distribution patterns and species-habitat associations: Implications of Marine Park Zoning. PLoS ONE 9(9): e106885. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0106885

Simpfendorfer, C.A., Heupel, M.R., White W.T. & Dulvy N.K.(2011). The importance of research and public opinion to conservation management of sharks and rays: a synthesis. Marine and Freshwater Research, 62:518-527.

Stein, W.R., Mull, C.G., Kuhn, T.S., Aschliman, N.C, Davidson, L.N.K. et al. 2018. Global priorities for conserving the evolutionary history of sharks, rays and chimaeras. Nature Ecology and Evolution, 2:288-298.

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