Just another day at the office.

Photo by Ingrid Sinclair

Yesterday the Two Oceans Aquarium collections team was called out to Strand by the City of Cape Town to help free a shark that had been stuck in one of the tidal pools at Harmony Park Resort since Friday. No one knew what kind of shark it was and guesses around the office included spotted gully shark or pyjama shark. Turns out our guesses were wrong … it was in fact a male broadnose sevengill shark (Notorynchus cepedianus), aka cow shark.

Wetsuits on for the first of two times on Wednesday. But knowing Two Oceans Aquarium Collections Officer Deen Hill, a surf session was probably on the cards after work. Photo by Ingrid Sinclair

City of Cape Town Coastal Management Officer Sarah Chippendale met us on the scene on what was a rainy, windy and frankly cold (and early) Thursday morning on the beach. A fair-sized crowd also gathered as Operations Manager Tinus Beukes and his team members Simon Brill and Deen Hill walked down to the tidal pools, clad in wetsuits and carrying nets, fins, stretchers, goggles and snorkels.

Two Oceans Aquarium Collections Officer Simon Brill carries the net that would be used to try and corner the shark. It's longer than you think. Photo by Ingrid Sinclair
"I love this part of the job." - Simon Brill. Photo by Ingrid Sinclair

The first step was to read the shark’s mind. What would his movements be and how would the team be able to get close enough to him to get him into a stretcher while making sure the animal experienced minimal stress?

Simon and Tinus head to the north side of the pools with the net, while Deen gets ready for his swim from the south side. Photo by Ingrid Sinclair

Tinus reckoned the shark was doing laps around the pool and based on that he and Simon moved to the north of the pools while Deen jogged to the south end and jumped into the water, swimming towards the shark.

Deen gets ready fo swim towards what he and others assumed was a gully shark. Photo by Ingrid Sinclair

Since wild animals should always be handled with care and caution, and since safety always comes first (for the people and the animals), Deen decided not to force the shark into the net, but instead followed it closely and gently coaxed it towards Tinus and Simon. This went on for some time and the team was close to the northern edge of the pools when we heard Deen’s incredulous shout: “I think it’s a cowshark?!”

Simon and Tinus wait on one end while Deen gently coaxes the shark (still not correctly identified at this point) towards the net. Photo by Ingrid Sinclair
A short scuffle with what is now recognised as a broadnose sevengill shark. It takes real skill to be tough and gentle so as to not hurt the animal! Photo by Ingrid Sinclair

Simon and Tinus then ran over to where Deen and the shark were and a light scuffle broke out as the men tried to restrain the shark and get it into a stretcher. By the time they did this it was a fact – a male sevengill shark had been trapped in the tidal pool.

Onlookers were thrilled to be able to come this close to the sevengill. Look at the beautiful white spots - male sevengills are considerably smaller than females and have thinner skin too, according to the experts. Photo by Ingrid Sinclair

This was a particularly special moment as the Two Oceans Aquarium together with Woolworths is supporting Dr Alison Kock’s five-year study on these mysterious sharks. The thing is, so far Dr Kock has only found and tagged female sevengills (around the Miller’s Point area), so finding and possibly being able to tag a mature male was a massive coup for her research project.

While keeping the shark cool and plying him with seawater, Deen and Simon answered the gathered crowd's sevengill questions. Photo by Ingrid Sinclair

Simon and Deen were ready to release the shark but Tinus asked them to hold on and to move him into a transport tank conveniently attached to the Aquarium’s bakkie (you never know when this may come in handy). Tinus knew that Alison would be thrilled to be able to tag this male sevengill, so he telephoned her as well as our resident vet Dr Georgina Cole (who is actually on study leave) and told them to hurry to the scene.

Dr Georgina Cole arrived and checked the sevengill's gills, breathing and movements to ascertain what kind of anaesthetic to use and whether it was safe to continue with the procedures. Photo by Ingrid Sinclair

Together the doctors would insert an acoustic telemetry tag as well as a microchip, and would take blood and fin samples, muscle biopsies and various measurements.

And when Dr Alison Kock arrived, her excitement was palpable. Photo by Ingrid Sinclair

“Going out expecting to find a gully shark and coming across a male cowshark was fantastic,” says Simon. “The first challenge was removing him from a fairly large pool, which we managed to achieve without too many hassles. Then, keeping the animal happy and healthy till the vet arrived posed the second challenge.”

Drs Cole and Kock checking out the acoustic tag to be inserted into the shark. Photo by Ingrid Sinclair

Alison and Georgina arrived, as did Alison’s research assistants Dave van Beuningen (Shark Spotter research assistant), Leigh de Necker (MSc student at UCT doing her thesis on sevengill feeding ecology) and Tamlyn Engelbrecht (MSc student at ICT doing her thesis on sevengill spatial ecology). Pippa Elrich of the Save Our Seas Foundation (which supports Dr Kock’s project as well as a number of other shark research programmes) was also there to document the impromptu but important tagging process.

Tamlyn Engelbrecht is doing her MSc on the spatial ecology of sevengill sharks. Photo by Ingrid Sinclair

Tagging and performing biopsies on a wild animal, especially a wet one, is tricky business. Utmost care is given to the handling of the shark, and Dr Cole monitored our sevengill’s health closely before deciding to go ahead with the minor procedures.

Leigh de Necker is doing her MSc on the feeding ecology of the sevengills. Here she assists Dr Cole with instrument sterilisation. Photo by Ingrid Sinclair
It is of vital importance that operating instruments are sterilised. Leigh and Dr Cole rinse instruments with sterile water after sterilizing them with a cold chemical sterilant. Photo by Ingrid Sinclair

It takes practise, preparation, cleanliness, care and speed, gentleness and above all focus to perform these tasks without stressing the shark too much. Communication between team members is vital too – everyone was certain of their role and followed Dr Cole’s instructions closely.

Pippa Elrich (with camera) is a multimedia journalist for the Save our Seas Foundation, which funds a number of ocean-related research projects. Photo by Ingrid Sinclair
Two Oceans Aquarium Operations Manager Tinus Beukes checks the time to make sure that the shark is not out of his natural habitat for too long. Photo by Ingrid Sinclair

Teamwork was everything on the day and the visceral excitement (and a fair number of onlookers and cameras) did not get in the way of the highly professional and fast operation.

Dr Cole makes her first incision as the team supports her - ensuring her instruments are nearby and that the shark does not suddenly move. The rain makes things slightly more urgent. Photo by Ingrid Sinclair

The number-one priority was to get the shark back in the water as quickly as possible.

Insertion completed, Dr Cole sutures the wound in record-time. Photo by Ingrid Sinclair

Tinus decided that it would not be wise to release the shark back into the rocky shore of Harmony Park, as Deen and Simon would be unable to swim with the animal for a while to make sure that it was in good nick. So, extremely slowly, they drove up the road to the Gordon’s Bay harbour where they could release the shark by swimming out and along with it.

Dr Cole extracts the shark's blood for further study. Photo by Ingrid Sinclair

"I am thrilled we have tagged this large male, hopefully he is the first of many more and I look forward to tracking his progress over the next few years,” said Dr Kock. “I am very thankful to everyone involved for contributing to this successful story."

Dr Kock measures the shark's fins and body with pieces of string. Photo by Ingrid Sinclair

“Once the tag was inserted we woke him up and released him back into his natural environment,” says Simon. “All in all it was a fantastic and rewarding day for all involved.”

Shark Spotter research assistant Dave van Beuningen's happy face says it all; Deen and Simon carry the shark, in a stretcher, to freedom. Photo by Georgina Cole

The end of a long week for the sevengill and a long day for the team. Photo by Georgina Cole. 

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