On 4 August 1995 a large, spotted, female ragged-tooth shark, or ‘raggie’, was caught in the shark nets at Amanzimtoti in KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa. She struggled desperately to free herself but the net only cut deep into her flesh. When members of the Natal Sharks Board found her during a routine net maintenance check she was badly injured but still alive. Tagged and released, she continued on her journey south.

Ninety-one days and 1 369 kilometres later, the shark arrived at Die Plaat, Struisbaai, on the southern Cape coast. Hungry, she snapped at what appeared to be a tasty morsel and found herself caught on a large baited hook. A long tug of war followed but, exhausted, she eventually gave up the struggle and was pulled out of the ocean by angler André Small, taking part in a tag-and-release tournament. Weighing a handsome 89 kilograms, the raggie was the prize catch – and just what Dr Pat Garratt, director of the Two Oceans Aquarium at Cape Town’s V&A Waterfront, was looking for.

It was a very tired and stressed shark that was transported on the back of an open van to the only protected pool in the vicinity, at Cape Agulhas nearly 20 kilometres away, where the aquarium staff would collect her. Twenty minutes after being caught she was carefully placed in the pool. Close to death, she was again saved, this time by the angling team’s manager, Mackie, who jumped into the pool and swam around and around with her for over an hour until she was strong enough to swim alone. Eleven hours later the aquarium staff arrived to collect her. It was the raggie’s first moment in the limelight, as bright floodlights illuminated the pool and curious Agulhas residents gathered to watch her being gingerly transferred into a holding tank. The transport back to the Two Oceans Aquarium was successful and she was introduced into the largest display there, the I&J Predator Exhibit.

For three months the shark, named Maxine after Mackie who had saved her life, refused to eat. It was only when a much-prized shoal of longfin tuna was placed in the tank with her that she regained her appetite, feasting on the fish over the weeks that followed. Eight years later, she has grown into a magnificent animal of over 150 kilograms and bears only a faint scar behind her gills as a reminder of her entanglement in the shark nets. She’s lucky to be alive, as only 40 per cent of ragged-tooth sharks caught in the nets survive.

Safe in her new home, Maxine patrols the predator tank and enthrals visitors from around the world. She is a minor public figure in her own right and a wonderful ambassador for her species. Now it is time for her to return to her natural environment and brave its elements once more; next month she will be released back into the ocean.

I met Maxine and became curious about the scar behind her gills two years ago, while filming in the predator exhibit. Dr Garratt told me her story, and when he later informed me that she was due to be released, I realised that here was an extraordinary shark whose life history encapsulates in many ways the plight of sharks worldwide. By touching the hearts of millions of people, as she had mine, she could play a pivotal role in increasing awareness of this plight and of Africa’s marine environment in general. Months of hard work followed, during which I developed the Maxine, Science, Education and Awareness Programme – or, in short, the M-Sea Programme.

Sharks This programme, which has recently been endorsed by the World Conservation Union (IUCN), is a collaborative initiative between the Two Oceans Aquarium and the non-profit organisation I founded, AfriOceans Conservation Alliance (AOCA). It will underpin an ongoing, long-term effort to promote ocean conservation in Africa and ensure the survival of Africa’s sharks as part of the broader AOCA Africa Shark Conservation Programme. To begin with it will be limited to South Africa, but later will be extended to neighboring countries where the threats to sharks and marine resources are of growing concern.

There are three major components to this ocean conservation initiative, of which one, the Maxine Science Programme, is the first of its kind in South Africa and is supported by shark experts Dr Leonard Compagno and Dr Malcolm Smale. It involves attaching satellite and ultrasonic tags to Maxine before her release, which is timed to coincide with the presence of large numbers of ragged-tooth sharks in Struisbaai and will allow her to join the annual eastward migration. Over the next two to three years Maxine will be followed by the other four raggies from the predator exhibit and they too, as well as other wild sharks, will be tagged. Maxine’s release will thus lay the foundation for long-term scientific research into shark behaviour, particularly how captured sharks fare back in the wild, and into the migration patterns of ragged-tooth sharks along the South African coast.

A second component of the M-Sea Programme is the Education and Awareness Campaign, which aims to change the public perception that sharks are dangerous to man and at the same time promote ocean conservation. With its creative focus on Maxine, portraying her as an unthreatening, friendly and emotionally responsive sea creature, the campaign seeks to elicit public sympathy and understanding for her and her kind. Its key elements include the AOCA multi-functional website with its project update link, which will report on Maxine’s progress and that of the documentary film crew travelling along her migratory path to record her life history; educational packs for coastal schools; a permanent display of shark information at the Two Oceans Aquarium; information boards at key sites along the coast; and a competition to determine where Maxine’s satellite tag will end up.

Sharks The programme’s third component, Documentary Film Productions, comprises a one-hour television documentary about Maxine’s life story for national and international release; a four-part insert about her return to the ocean and the allied M-Sea Programme itself; and a 20-minute educational video.

Rarely in their millions of years’ existence have sharks been viewed in a positive light. Maxine could change that. Charismatic and not aggressive, the raggie makes an excellent flagship species to promote awareness and understanding of the marine environment, and the importance of conserving the oceans’ resources. And, as an icon of the ocean, Maxine can draw public attention to the problems of expanding human populations, environmental degradation, the crisis of overfishing, and the challenges of learning to use the oceans’ living resources sustainably. In turn, people can use what they learn to influence decision-makers so that sound research, conservation and management may be implemented in the marine environment.

The M-Sea Programme brings an extraordinary shark, Maxine, into the lives of people in an attempt to protect the ocean environment for future generations. As renowned oceanographer and marine scientist Dr Sylvia Earle has observed, ‘There is no guarantee that people will care if they know, but it is certain they cannot care if they do not know.’

Remarkable raggies
Alternative names: grey nurse shark (Australia); sand tiger shark (USA)
Carcharias taurus

Docile, despite a ferocious appearance created by its permanent toothy grin that reveals narrow, dagger-like, double-edged teeth. No human remains have ever been found in a raggie, and there is no scientific evidence to suggest that it will attack a human unless provoked.

Feeds on a wide range of fish, smaller sharks, squids, rays and lobsters.
Has been observed feeding cooperatively. Schools of up to 80 have been recorded off the South African coast, and marine scientists report having watched them ‘herd’ fish and then feed on them collectively.

Actively pumps water over the gills and is thus capable of remaining stationary – unlike most other large sharks, which are committed to a life of perpetual motion. This helps the raggie to survive an encounter with a shark net, although it will drown if left too long. Energy spent on swimming is reduced, but the absence of a swim bladder makes it difficult to maintain position. To solve this problem the raggie swims to the surface and swallows air that is retained in the stomach and thus has the effect of a swim bladder.

Follows a migratory breeding cycle off the southern African coast. In spring mature raggies head north from Eastern Cape waters to KwaZulu-Natal to mate. The females then continue northward to the coast of Maputaland and southern Mozambique, where the warmer waters appear to aid embryonic development. They return to the Eastern Cape to give birth in midwinter.

Practises intra-uterine cannibalism. Of thousands of eggs produced by each female, only a few are fertilised and become embryos. The first embryo that develops in each of the two uteri feeds on the unfertilised eggs and smaller embryos in the uterus. At the end of the nine- to 12-month gestation period the female gives birth to two one-metre-long pups.

Sharks in deep trouble
It is ironic that the mere thought of a black fin slicing through the water is enough to instil panic into many of us. In truth, man is the major predator of sharks; it is we who feed on them.

For all their evolutionary success (modern versions have been around for about 140 million years) sharks are incredibly vulnerable, unable to withstand the increasing pressure wrought by a greedy global fishing industry. They grow slowly, mature late and have a low reproduction rate. The IUCN states that up to 100 million sharks are being caught worldwide each year, with some species having declined by as much as 80 per cent, victims of the trade in shark meat, cartilage, skin, oil, teeth, jaws – and fins.

An explosion in the demand for shark fins has resulted in the cruel practice of ‘finning’, in which the shark’s fins are hacked off and the hapless creature is tossed back into the ocean to drown or bleed to death. Not only is this practice wasteful – the fins constitute only between one and five per cent of the entire body weight – but it is brutally inhumane. According to Marcel Kroese of South Africa’s Marine and Coastal Management, ‘[Sharks] suffer pain, they close their eyes, they flinch, they gape, they push their tongues out – they suffer.’

Some countries have banned the practice of shark finning, but on the high seas it is a ban that is difficult to enforce. Subsistence fishermen in developing countries are paid up to US$40 per kilogram of shark fin. In Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong, the largest centres in the shark fin trade, a kilogram of dried fin can fetch up to US$300. And in a restaurant in Asia a bowl of shark fin soup – which, some believe, endows the diner with strength and virility – costs US$120, even though it has no nutritional value and its taste derives solely from the stock used.

Shark jaws are considered to be valuable too, particularly those of the great white, as is shark cartilage, touted as being a cure for cancer though such claims are largely unproven. A single processing plant in Costa Rica reputedly turns more than 2.8 million sharks per year into cartilage pills.

Sharks Industries based on shark products may appear to be lucrative, but recent studies have shown that a live shark is worth much more than a dead one. In the Maldives it has been estimated that a dead shark generates less than a quarter of the revenue paid by tourists to see a live shark, and South Africa has a booming ecotourism industry centred on great whites and raggies.

The demand for shark products continues nonetheless, and trade involving many different species is carried out by more than 125 countries. This trade is unregulated, and there is no international shark management. Developed nations that have depleted their own shark resources are now exploiting those of developing countries which either do not have the power, or sometimes the will, to combat piracy or are dazzled by short-term economic gains. Africa, where the marine environment has long been neglected and the needs of a rapidly growing human population are paramount, is a prime target.

As shark populations continue to decline, predator/prey relationships in the planet’s oceans are inevitably shifting, and marine genetic and species diversity too is altering and diminishing.

Sharks Raggies around the world

The raggie is under threat in many parts of the world and in 1984 became the first shark species to be protected, following targeted hunting by fishers and spearfishers in Australia. Despite the implementation of a comprehensive recovery plan, it is listed as Critically Endangered in that region and could go extinct there within six years if drastic measures are not taken to protect it.

Ragged-tooth sharks are rare off the coast of the United States, where the population has experienced an 80-90 per cent decline. It is currently under protection and the decline has stopped, but recovery is not apparent. Raggies no longer occur in the Eastern Pacific, and in the Mediterranean and East Asia they are rare. In South Africa they are commercially protected, but little research has been done on their biology and their population status is largely unknown.

The author wishes to thank: Allan Soule for showing her it was possible and for assisting in the development of the M-Sea Programme and AOCA; the Two Oceans Aquarium, the SOS Foundation and Divetek for their support; the AOCA board of directors, Dr L.J.V. Compagno, Dr M.J. Smale, Professor C.L. Griffiths and D.W. Japp; and members of the advisory board, Dr P.A. Garratt and Professor R. van der Elst.

To learn more about the M-Sea Programme or to support it, visit www.aoca.org.za