Sharks in South Africa – The citizen science project ELMO

Which sharks in South Africa are there?

That is a good question I don’t know.

But a good place for advice with regard to this question is the ELMO project. I got to know this interesting project during my three-month stay at the ORCA Foundation in South Africa.

ELMO is a citizen science project that provides long-term data about sharks, rays, skates (together the Elasmobranchs or in latin name the Elasmobranchii) and Chimaera (from the order Chimaeriformes).

Both the Elasmobranchs and the Chimaera belong to the cartilaginous fishes (Chondrichthyes) as their skeleton – like the name suggests – is made of cartilage. While bone is a hard, cartilage is an elastic tissue.

Referring to the initial question: Which sharks in South Africa are there?

According to a study from 2015 there are about 204 different cartilaginous fishes in southern Africa (that means 17% of all cartilaginous fishes worldwide) whereas biodiversity is greater in the eastern waters with 175 species than in the west with 96 species.

That is a rich biodiversity.

However, 32.7% of cartilaginous fishes in southern Africa are either „vulnerable“, „endangered“ or „critically endangered“ according to the IUCN.

That is more than twice as high as the global average of 15.9%.

On the Website of the ELMO project is a species list about all cartilaginous fishes in southern Africa, including sharks in South Africa.

But if you want to know places where to spot sharks in South Africa, you can use the interactive map on the ELMO website.

This is a very convenient map for all shark observers, but also very important information about the distribution of sharks, rays, and skates in southern Africa.

However, this map is still not complete and the ELMO project relies on the help of people that informs the team about new shark or ray sightings.

This project is great, as everyone can participate!

It doesn’t matter wheather you are snorkeling, diving, swimming or on a beach walk.

Everyone can contribute to the project.

How does it work?

If you spot for example a shark in South Africa you can report this information to the ELMO team.

If you spot a shark in South Africa or any other cartilaginous fish and you want to report your sighting to ELMO, provide as well information about what you were doing in that moment, and furthermore, try to identify your finding. If you do not know the species you can try to use iNaturalist or iSpot Nature.

ELMO needs to know when and where you have seen a shark or any other cartilaginous fish, but also the weather condition (cloudy/cloudless day, swell and/or sight). Ideally you can provide your information together with a photo of your sighting. Even strandend sharks, rays or skates can be reported to ELMO.

Another possibility to help ELMO is collecting egg cases.

All rays, skates, chimaera, and some sharks are oviparous, that means, they lay eggs. They lay their fertilized eggs on sandy ground or like sharks attach them on seaweed or rocks. The egg cases contain yolk that feeds the embryo until hatching.

Empty egg cases are washed ashore after hatching.

Some egg cases are washed onto the beach which you can collect and identify for the ELMO project.

But if you see an egg case under water when snorkeling or diving, do not disturb the egg case. It is very likely that the egg case still contains a living embryo.

There is an informative page on the ELMO project website that tells you how you can support the project with egg cases. On this website you also get support with identifying the egg cases.

Why is this important?

With a growing knowledge about sharks, rays, skates and chimaera, data-based and informed decisions by scientists, politicians and other stakeholders can help to improve the protection of Elasmobranchs and Chimaera populations. If there is a decline in populations it is easier to convince politicians and other policymaker to protect these sharks, rays or skates, respectively. Thus, long-term data can support informed decisions to protect cartilaginous fishes.

Sharks in South Africa in the Robberg Nature Reserve

During my stay at the ORCA Foundation we went several times to the Robberg Nature Reserve (where the Cape fur seals live) in order to spot sharks from an observation platform.

As the Robberg Nature Reserve is home to a colony of Cape fur seals, sharks like the Great white shark frequently visits the waters around the Robberg peninsula.

Thus, the Robberg Nature Reserve is a great place to spot sharks in South Africa from land.

However, if you want to spot sharks at the Robberg Nature Reserve, you need some good binoculars.

The focal length of my camera was not sufficient to photograph the sharks.

Haie in Südafrika

Shark observations can be perfectly combined with a walk through the Robberg Nature Reserve.

Haie in Südafrika

Even before entering the Robberg Nature Reserve great landscape views are guaranteed. You already get a glimpse on what you will expect at the Robberg Nature Reserve.

Beautiful landscape after beautiful landscape will follow.

Haie in Südafrika

Haie in Südafrika

Some walking trails are with a handrail…

Haie in Südafrika

… others are rocky…

Haie in Südafrika

… and other walking trails are sandy.

Haie in Südafrika

But if on a rocky or a sandy trail, we continuously looked out for sharks.

Sometimes we spotted other animals like this Southern rock agama (Agama atra).

Haie in Südafrika

Of course we also took a rest at some places like on the beach…

Haie in Südafrika

… where you can watch the waves of the sea.

Haie in Südafrika

During our walks we constantly collected trash. Be it in the Robberg Nature Reserve or at Nature’s Valley, we continuously collected trash.

Haie in Südafrika

The ORCA Foundation reports all sightings of sharks and every egg case we found to ELMO.

Sharks in South Africa in Nature’s Valley

When we went to Nature’s Valley we were looking out especially for egg cases from rays and sharks.

Haie in Südafrika

The wind distributes the egg cases to all possible directions. Sometimes in rock crevices.

Haie in Südafrika

Nature’s Valley is anyway a paradise on earth and worth a visit. On one morning after bird ringing we went to Nature’s Valley were we observed the end of a beautiful sunrise…

Haie in Südafrika

Haie in Südafrika

… and looked out for more egg cases of rays and sharks. Be it in wood washed ashore…

Haie in Südafrika

… or in small rock crevices.

Haie in Südafrika

On one day I saw a stranded shark on the shore…

Haie in Südafrika

… which I tried to identify with iNaturalist and iSpot Nature. So far the community could not identify this shark. However, both communities suggest a smooth-hound. Of course I sent all the information and the picture to the ELMO project team.

If you are on a holiday in South Africa and if you want to support sharks in South Africa during snorkeling, on a beach walk or any other activity, I hope I gave you some inspiration about how you can get involved in this citizen science project.

As you can see, there are many ways to support sharks in South Africa.

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