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Photographing the Sharks of Protea Banks
By Don Silcock, December 30, 2020 @ 06:00 AM (EST)

With half a dozen species to shoot, shark photographers are spoiled for choice at Protea Banks
 

Often described as the African equivalent of the Gulf Stream, the Agulhas Current is one of the world’s most powerful oceanic currents, moving almost 70 million tons of water per second! The Agulhas forms to the southwest of the huge island of Madagascar, when the powerful Mozambique Current merges with the equally strong East Madagascar Current. From that tumultuous beginning, the Agulhas runs straight down the 1,200-mile-long east coast of South Africa at surface speeds of up to five miles per hour, bringing warm Indian Ocean water rich with nutrients.

Where those waters touch offshore reef systems along the edge of the narrow South African continental shelf, they are the catalyst and lifeblood for some incredible ecosystems. One of the very richest is Protea Banks, five miles offshore from the seaside town of Margate in KwaZulu-Natal province. The Banks enjoy a reputation as one of the best places in South Africa to dive with sharks, but it must be said that it is also adventurous diving in often quite challenging conditions—because what the Agulhas Current gives, it can also take away!
 

Margate in KwaZulu-Natal province is the jumping-off point for shark diving at the Banks
 

Everyone pitches in for a typical beach launch

 

Shark Country

Protea Banks is a large, submerged shoal about half a mile wide and just under four miles long. The average depth is around 100 feet, but some key locations are much deeper, so bottom times, air consumption and decompression limits are hardly abstract issues when diving here. The shoal rises up from the short but sloping South African continental shelf just before it plummets down into the 11,500-feet-deep Natal Valley, creating an almost perfect aggregation point for the rich marine life of the east coast.

Depending on the time of year, you can see six or more different varieties of sharks at Protea Banks: ragged-tooth sharks, oceanic blacktips, bull sharks, tiger sharks, scalloped hammerheads, and great hammerheads. Often these varieties are in large, if not astonishing, numbers, particularly the hammerheads and the raggies.
 

Divers descend at the Northern Pinnacle, ready for some raggie action
 

Oceanic blacktips are the most common sharks found at Protea Banks
 

Where the huge flow of water that is the Agulhas encounters shoals like Protea Banks and nearby Aliwal, it produces complex eddies and upwellings, rich with nutrients from the deep waters to the east. This adds to the already fertile brew coming down from the north and creating the perfect conditions for fish spawning grounds and nurseries. Thus, the foundation for the pyramid of marine life is created, and towards its apex are sharks—so many of them that virtually every dive is a shark dive. Encounters vary in nature from random sightings to intense in-your-face interactions on baited dives. But you won’t see any cages here: All encounters are in open water.

My experience of diving Protea Banks has been with African Dive Adventures, and I have nothing but praise for the way the owners, Roland and Beulah Mauz, run their operation. With over 20 years’ experience of Protea Banks, they know it better than anybody else. It’s not easy taking people out to dive safely in deep water with strong currents and lots of sharks, but they have refined their operation—together with all the behind-the-scenes logistics that support it—extremely well. 
 

A bull shark—locally known as a “Zambi”—gets into position for a portrait
 

Oceanic blacktips are the main event on baited dives

 

Oceanic Blacktips

Not to be confused with the smaller blacktip reef variety, oceanic blacktips (Carcharhinus limbatus) are by far the most common sharks of Protea Banks. Although not a true pelagic shark like the oceanic whitetip, they spend a great deal of time hunting in the waters around the Banks and often appear both during ascents to the surface and at safety stops.

Stout bodied, medium-sized sharks that grow to about eight feet in length, oceanic blacktips have a distinctive light band on their flanks that stands out against their bronze coloration and light underbelly. They typically feed on smaller sharks, rays, cuttlefish and bottom fish, but are infamous for stealing catch and are not exactly popular among the Margate fishing community.

Generally, they are not aggressive and seem wary of divers. Still, easily enticed by baiting, they are the main attraction for the regular baited dives on Protea Banks. In the presence of food, they are much less cautious and can become quite “sporty” around the bait box.
 

While local fishermen aren’t admirers—the sharks are known to steal their catches—oceanic blacktips make for a handsome addition to your portfolio
 

Oceanic blacktips frequently appear at safety stops and during ascents to the surface

 

Ragged-Tooth Sharks

Also known as gray nurse sharks in Australia and sand tigers in the U.S., ragged-tooth sharks (Carcharias taurus) are also a regular feature of winter at Protea Banks. They gather to mate, with the first males arriving around the end of April, and numbers steadily increasing through to June, when the females also appear. At the peak, from mid-June to the end of July, there are hundreds of raggies patrolling the Banks.

Primarily a bottom dweller, raggies can be encountered in midwater and, like oceanic blacktips, are said to steal fishermen’s catches. They are also known to surface and gulp air into their stomachs, which they use as a pseudo-swim bladder to control buoyancy when hunting—a technique that allows them to hover and approach their prey with great stealth…

Raggies are large sharks that grow to well over 10 feet in length. Their impressive sets of needle-like teeth pierce, secure and hold rather than sever, and they also have very powerful jaws that allow them to hold onto their catch before swallowing it whole.
 

The entrance to the Main Cave at the Northern Pinnacle
 

Ragged-tooth sharks mainly hunt at night, so there is no real way to observe them at their most active. Instead, we encounter them during the day when they hang out in gutters and caves to shelter from prevailing currents and potential predators. Observed this way, they seem completely docile. They patrol slowly round and round in an apparently aimless fashion, but they are actually resting—basically sleep-walking—and have slowed their metabolism right down to conserve energy.

The best places to see the raggies at Protea Banks are the two caves on the Northern Pinnacle. Referred to as the “main cave” (or “first cave”) and the “second cave,” both have large openings, which makes for safe entry and exit. But at a depth of around 115 feet, the caves are deep, so bottom times are limited. Hanging out with the raggies is an intriguing experience, as it’s a rather cramped space and they are, after all, quite a large animal, but they simply ignore and avoid you. To get a good portrait, the best technique is to try and position yourself in a spot where they will pass by.
 

Ragged-tooth sharks gather in the Main Cave
 

The raggie’s rows of protruding needle-like teeth are unmistakable

 

Zambezi Sharks

Bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas) are also a regular feature of Protea Banks and are most commonly seen from November to July. In South Africa, they’re known as “Zambies,” taking their name from the continent’s fourth-largest river, the Zambezi, where they have been seen over 1,000 miles from the coast. Bull sharks are the only species of saltwater shark that can survive for long periods in fresh water.

Zambezi sharks are large and robust-bodied sharks with distinctive broad, flat snouts. Indeed, their overall appearance, together with their small eyes and general demeanor, is why they are called “bulls” elsewhere. Their average length is around 7.5 feet, but larger ones are not uncommon, and the biggest captured was a 13-foot-long female. Rated as the third most dangerous shark in southern Africa, Zambies are thought to be responsible for most shallow-water attacks on swimmers.

At Protea Banks, encounters with Zambezi sharks come in two flavors. First, the random ones on both the Northern and Southern Pinnacles. These are quite common but rarely are they close encounters, as the area is rich in tuna and the sharks seem well fed. Second are those on the baited dives, where typically between five and 10 Zambies gather some 50 feet below the bait box. Usually, they stay there and if you go down to get closer, so do they, and before you know it, 130 feet is approaching!

Occasionally, however, they will come up, at which point the oceanic blacktips will quickly fade into the background and the show belongs to the Zambies. They really are an impressive, if somewhat intimidating, shark that shows no fear or hesitation when they do come close. The encounter is clearly being conducted on their terms…
 

Zambezi sharks may be named after Africa’s fourth-longest river, but these are the same formidable animals we know as bull sharks
 

While random encounters are possible, Zambies are best lured with bait

 

Tiger Sharks

Huge, awe-inspiring animals, tiger sharks (Galeocerdo cuvier) completely dominate the proceedings when they appear, for two reasons: their size and their reputation. They average around 13 feet, but larger ones are quite common and while that length, combined with their incredible stripes, gives them a substantial presence, it is their girth that impresses most. They simply ooze power and strength in a way that only apex predators can. Combine that presence with their reputation as the second most dangerous shark in South Africa (after great whites), and it is easy to understand why tigers command so much respect.

Protea Banks is thought to be a breeding and birthing area for tiger sharks. The main season is from March to May, but sightings are possible all year round. Tigers typically feed on fish and other sharks but are also well known for attacking turtles on the surface: Their extremely powerful jaws can bite right through those tough shells. Indeed, it is their tendency for stealthy, but devastatingly destructive, attacks from below that has earned tigers their fearful reputation in South Africa. Such attacks on humans are more than likely mistaken identity—as opposed to specifically targeted—but their jaws are so powerful, the end result is deadly.
 

Deadly, beautiful: When it comes to reputation, tiger sharks are second only to great whites
 

As with Zambies, in-water encounters with tigers at the Banks come in two flavors: random ones during the dive and on baited dives. The random encounters are exactly that, and their intensity is entirely at the discretion of the individual. They may come in close and check you out or simply ignore you—it’s up to them. Typically, they will give you at least a cursory inspection, particularly so on the Northern Pinnacle, as that seems to be a favorite spot.

On baited dives, they are attracted by the scent of the bait box and patrol around it as if trying to understand the source. They often disappear in one direction and reappear from the opposite direction, having checked the broader area. That behavior aligns with the tiger’s role as an apex predator and contrasts intriguingly with that of the blacktips, which seem totally focused on the bait box.

The tigers are formidable and exude total confidence and mastery of their surrounding environment. Eyeball-to-eyeball encounters with them on the baited dives are incredible and an experience that will stay with you long after your time in South Africa has come to an end.
 

Big, bold and unpredictable, the tigers are kings on Protea Banks

 

Hammerheads

Protea Banks plays host to both scalloped (Sphyrna lewini) and great hammerhead (Sphyrna mokarran) sharks at various times of the year, although encounters with them are rarely the in-your-face variety. If you’re lucky, a great hammerhead may be encountered—usually briefly—in midwater during a staged ascent to the surface. A scalloped hammerhead may pass below you during an ascent or on the safety stop, but while tantalizingly close, they are almost impossible to photograph.

From late October through early May, scalloped hammers gather in huge schools with animals numbering in the hundreds, as part of their annual migration. But these notoriously shy animals are incredibly difficult to get close to. Instead, you will see them in the distance, where they appear as a moving wall of large animals. Interestingly, when really large aggregations of scalloped hammerheads are seen on Protea Banks, it is believed they are exfoliating by rubbing up against each other, as a great deal of slime is present in the water.

Great hammerheads also appear around the same time as the scalloped hammerhead schools but are most common during March and April. Typically solitary animals that are usually quite shy around divers, they can often be seen cruising along the bottom, scanning the reef for prey. Significant animals with an incredible presence, they sashay through the water towards you with total confidence. Anecdotally, it seems that higher numbers of great hammerheads result in significantly fewer scalloped hammerheads…
 

Schooling scalloped hammerheads are a breathtaking sight

 

Final Thoughts

The “rainbow nation” of South Africa is an incredibly diverse and interesting country with much to see and do on land. It also offers some tremendous diving that varies from the semitropical reefs of Sodwana Bay near the Mozambique border in the northeast to the great white cage diving around Cape Town. In between those extremes is the rich marine ecosystem of Protea Banks and its remarkable shark populations.

It has to be said, however, that diving Protea Banks is not for everyone. The conditions can be downright challenging, and you really do need to be a competent diver to make the most of what there is to see there. But accept those challenges and prepare properly, and you will be richly rewarded with some exceptional encounters and, with a bit of luck, some awesome additions to your portfolio.
 

Protea Banks promises truly adventurous diving for any big animal photographer
 



In more normal times, Don is based in Bali, and his website www.indopacificimages.com has extensive location guides, articles and images on some of the world’s best diving locations and underwater experiences. Make sure to check out DPG’s Photographer of the Week article featuring more of Don’s awesome pictures.

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