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 Toying with Tiger sharks, Shark Diving-South African style

written by Andrew Woodburn, Wild Woodburn Photography, underwater and shark photographer

I live in Johannesburg South Africa, about as far as one can get (6hr drive) from the sea in South Africa, and have been taking underwater photographs for many years now and have thus developed a speciality based on ocean big animals. With this in mind, South Africa has provided an unbelievable spectrum of big animals and nature spectaculars. These happenings have formed the basis of features such as the BBC blue planet with the sardine run and white shark footage. The worldwide dive traveller and Discovery Channel viewer I’m sure by now would put the country on the map for Great white shark viewing.

In addition to this awesome eco dive tourism , South Africa has been producing world class shark viewing out of cages based on sand tiger sharks (Raggies at Sodwana bay and Aliwal shoal) mako and blue sharks (off Cape point) and bull sharks (at Protea banks).

The elusive tiger shark was rarer on my hit list compared to white sharks, bulls, hammerhead, sand tigers or oceanic white tips. I had listened with envy to fellow divers who would tell me of 4m plus tiger sharks swimming within a group of scuba divers just the day after I had been at the very same diving spot. So when a shark viewing team started working and presenting tiger sharks as an open water scuba option, in warm clear water, there wasn’t even a moment’s hesitation for me to try and create an opportunity to experience this phenomenon. That was over 5 years ago now.

Most of the global tiger shark interactive options include mostly safety divers fending sharks off with long poles or divers huddling in reef holes for protection. So when Mark Addison of Blue Wilderness and I were sitting on a boat doing sardine run work and he started talking of his vision to build a unique programme where all users of the ocean would benefit, sharks, divers, scientists, surfers and bathers, I was in complete support. Bathers and surfers, how could this be so, don’t sharks attack these ocean users. The tiger shark programme has been an all inclusive programme with Mark Addison providing key access to tiger sharks while scientists could attach sonic transmitters to them and monitor their movements while receivers on both ocean reefs, shark nets and buoys at surfing spots would identify sharks movements and the potential behaviour changes that might occur due to active shark eco tourism.

Over a few seasons Mark Addison and his, by now growing in fame, and mostly female tiger sharks built a database of interactions and experience. This actually was nothing new as Mark Addison had been interacting with tiger sharks as a free diver and spear fisherman on the Kwa-Zulu Natal south coast for many years and had noticed that very infrequently was there aggressive behaviour but rather curiosity. Following this he began the programme with dedicated individuals supported by father Brent Addison and brother Wayne. One season we went out to sea for the day, about the 10 January and was lucky enough to catch a 22kg tuna which provided wonderful sushi that evening and the rack was to be the first of the shark seasons titbits. We spent 1h40mins at 14m in a cave freezing due to a lack of motion and waiting. Mark said he saw a small juvenile shark on the periphery of vision and felt it may need about 3 weeks of regular work to put it at ease. This was how it all started with loads of effort and patience.

Seasons later there is now an established methodology providing the most interactive and close up encounters with big tiger sharks. Diving occurs from 9am and launches through the South African surf with RIB boats loaded with divers and lunch. The divers will wait till one or two tigers approach the boats anchored at particular places. A shark wrangler will then enter the water to asses the shark’s behaviour and water conditions. This is an exciting role to play, using free-diving techniques only the wrangler will make contact with the animals and then invite the divers in. Divers are told to stay to one side of the floating buoy and allow the tiger sharks to maintain their cruise patterns. With this process underway anywhere from 1 to five or more sharks may be in attendance while divers remain in tight group between 5m and 10m deep.

Diving with these tiger sharks is the most interactive and close encounter I have ever had with multiple big sharks. These animals can approach you from above, below, behind or circle you. This is real adventure diving, no cages, no cold water but rather a slow intimate interaction where each stripe and mark on the sharks can be seen and examined. They seem to find us as interesting as we find them and maintain a rigorous pecking order to manage social interaction between sharks. As the dive progresses the sharks become more relaxed and as divers also realise and adapt to this unique process drift apart a little. The sharks can then swim amongst the group which adds to the excitement as there can be multiple interactions at one time. The behaviour that carries on around you also involves pilot fish and remoras all playing the game. Interestingly while tigers are about there isn’t a single other shark that may be seen, it’s as if the order starts with them and then might descend to bulls, black tips and others. The images of streamlined large powerful sharks slowly and calmly swimming through streaming sunlight, as silhouettes, and presenting stripy details, muscular energy and dark eyed curiosity is an experience that will remain with me forever.

Tiger shark and free diver with no shark cage copyright Andrew Woodburn

I dived for 70mins with these majestic wonders of nature and within that time surfaced to change film 5 times. Each foray to the surface alone was a interesting session thinking tigers would follow me up to capitalise on my lack of support and separation from the herd, but never once did I have a perilous experience. The wrangler himself remains on the surface at the buoy watching over things and indicating when divers are in the wrong position. As sharks approach him to investigate he merely places his hands on their snouts and pushes them through his legs or off to one side. He almost makes them seem like puppy dogs even hitching a ride on the odd occasion. Towards the end of the dive as diver’s surface and fewer remain, the sharks seem to lose interest although one or two may remain to have a last look.

The post dive elation and wonder of the group is unbelievable. People were jabbering away uncontrollably after a once in a lifetime experience. This interaction is unbelievable and converts any anti sharker into a shark conservationist instantly, contrasted with gruesome pictures of shark fining these live creatures are priceless.

The value of them has become interlinked to surfers and scientists in that funding from the surf clubs has bought more sonic trackers to follow where these sharks go and to understand what danger they may pose , at what time of year and day. As much as this ground breaking work may be inspiring it is still saddening that we don’t fully understand where these beauties go in the off season and what dangers they face. Constant long lining and uncontrolled shark finning offshore may mean more than one of these regulars might not be returning the following season.

When I look back on that one dive I still see visual replays that send shivers of inspiration down my spine, so much so that I have repeatedly tried to recreate the conditions and attendance but without success. For most dive travellers, the chance of experiencing this event is increased by spending longer than I had (2 days) at the ocean edge, enjoy classic diving on wrecks and open ocean reef with unique ocean creatures such as the weedy scorpion fish (rhinophius frondosa), manta rays, bottlenose dolphin, sand tigers (ragged tooth shark) and incredible features such as cathedral o Aliwal shoal to add to your international divers logbook. Adding to your tiger shark safari the Big five (Lion, Leopard, buffalo, elephant and rhino) on traditional safari shouldn’t be passed up, with some of the worlds best safari lodges a few hours drive away.

Shooting tiger sharks: Andrew Woodburn Shoots both digital (Nikon D70) and Film Nikon F100 in SEA&Sea housings with interchangeable strobe rigs from YS90 to YS350 strobes on variable arm setups. Shoot tigers with a min 20mm lens and be careful not to light any floating particles in the water. Insulate the strobes as these sharks will be curious about the charge stored in the capacitors and want to either chew them or come very close to inspect them.

Andrew Woodburn is a freelance adventure photographer who lives in South Africa.

He has been diving over 17years and has been lucky enough to photograph whales and sharks to minute sand divers and the oceans abstracts. He has been published in Men’s health, Shape magazine, Travel Africa, Divestyle Magazine and Marie Claire as well as winning numerous U/W photo awards. Andrew believes that the more people see what is under the ocean the more they will value those things and hence stand up to defend them when the time comes.


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