South Africa's waters are teeming with incredible animals, underwater landscapes and diverse ecosystems. Part of this incredible diversity is the over 100 species of shark that call Mzansi home - here's everything you need to know about sharks in South Africa:

(Cover photo by Marco Zanferrari / CC BY-SA 2.0)


On the east coast of the country, the warm Agulhas current of the Indian Ocean flows south towards Cape Agulhas. On the west coast, the cold Benguela current flows north, carrying the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean. While the "meeting point" of these two oceans constantly shifts, they certainly mix, and the variety of life found here makes South Africa one of the most fascinating places to learn about marine biology (and it's why we're called the "Two Oceans" Aquarium!)

Where there is an abundance of food, there is also an abundance of predators, and these oceans are home to some of the most highly evolved apex predators on the planet: sharks.

What kinds of sharks do we have in South Africa?

Sharks are ancient. Not only were they on Earth millions of years before the dinosaurs, but they more ancient than almost all the common forms of life you'd recognize today. Insects, trees, reptiles, mammals, amphibians - sharks are millions of years older than them all.

There are about 440 known species of shark in the world, and South Africa is home to about a quarter of them. Here are a few of our favourites:

Great white shark

  • Largest predatory shark
  • Grows to 6m
  • Accelerates to 56km/h
  • Lives for up to 70 years

Ragged-tooth shark

  • Grows to 3m
  • Slow moving
  • Gulps air for buoyancy
  • Prefers temperate shallows

Tiger shark

  • Distinctive stripes
  • Slow-moving scavenger
  • Grows to 4m
  • Reputation for eating everything

Zambezi/bull shark

  • Found in fresh- or seawater
  • Grows up to 4m
  • Prefers warm, shallow water
  • Fast, agile hunter

Whale shark

  • World's largest living fish
  • 3 000 tiny teeth in each jaw
  • Covered in distinctive white spots
  • Slow-swimming filter feeder

Sevengill/cow shark

  • Seven gills (other sharks have five)
  • Most primitive of shark species
  • Grows up to 3m
  • Large numbers gather in False Bay

Sharks are classified as Chondrichthyes (pronounced "con-drik-thees"). These are fish with skeletons made of cartilage rather than bone (skates and rays also belong to this class). Within the species, there is also a lot of variety – some catsharks can fit into the palm of your hand, while whale sharks can grow to longer than 12 metres!

What do sharks eat?

Sharks have different diets depending on their shape and size. Smaller sharks tend to be bottom feeders, hanging around reefs or the ocean floor where they can scavenge or collect the detritus that falls from the surface. Larger, pelagic sharks – the ones closest to the surface – hunt a variety of fish, or bigger prey like whales and seals.

A great white shark attempting to eat a seal decoy. Credit: Bernard Dupont [CC BY-SA 2.0]

How do sharks hunt?

Great whites are known for being precision hunters, using all five senses that humans also have – plus a few extras – to track down prey. They can sniff out a single drop of blood in 100 litres of water, and see very well in low light. They can also detect electrical impulses given off by other animals, as well as vibrations and pressure changes all along their bodies.

A juvenile blacktip reef shark on the hunt. Credit: Kris-Mikael Krister [CC BY 2.0]

Other sharks have different methods. Ragged-tooth sharks take a gulp of air at the surface and use it to become buoyant, slowly creeping up on their prey with minimal motion. Whale sharks don't hunt at all, but rather swim with open mouths, filtering tiny plankton and krill from the water.

How do sharks reproduce?

Many sharks are ovoviviparous, meaning they produce eggs that hatch within the mother's body. Life can be pretty brutal for a shark pup from the get-go – in some species, the strongest pup will eat its siblings before they are born, leaving just one other.

Others lay "mermaid's purses" – you can see them in our Atlantic Ocean Gallery. Look closely and you'll spot the babies wriggling around inside!


A post shared by Two Oceans Aquarium

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