I’ll let you in on a secret. When I started scuba diving I was convinced that I’d see sharks everywhere. Huge terrifying sharks glimpsed as quicksilver shadows out of the corner of my eye. Every time I saw Ben point out something behind me I’d turn slowly, heart pounding, imagining an oncoming shiver of sharks bearing down on us with raggedty mouths gaping open, desperate to tear us limb from limb. Thanks Hollywood!
Instead I found the little cat sharks and shy sharks and even our encounter with the cow sharks at Millers Point was so calm and peaceful I started to look at sharks from a slightly different point of view. Look, I’ll be honest, I still don’t want to go on a shark dive but if we happened to come across some spotted gulley sharks on a local shore dive I would be beyond thrilled.
They are an iconic False Bay marine species. Also commonly known as sharptooth houndsharks, they are stereotypically “shark-shaped” sharks with prominent triangular fins and dark grey skin covered in dark spots. They inhabit shallow coastal waters from Angola to the Eastern Cape, preferring sandy-bottomed areas, particularly near rocky reefs where they can easily find prey.
They are small sharks and when fully grown, they can reach up to two metres in length and weigh about 50kg. Its long fins make it both a very stable and very agile swimmer, and it is able to perform quick manoeuvres within centimetres of the seafloor, even in the surf zone. This agility gives this houndshark an evolutionary edge over many of its referred prey – usually animals such as small fish, octopuses and lobsters that rely on jets of speed to escape predators. This agility also helps the gully shark escape its main predator – the broadnose sevengill shark.
Their three-cusped teeth allow the spotted gully shark to grip slippery prey, without being so fragile that they can also be used to crush shellfish and molluscs if needed. This allows the gully shark to resort to scavenging and grazing if needed – a common “backup” tactic of reef-dwelling predators.
Houndsharks, not to be confused with dogfish – and definitely not with catsharks, are a family of 40 small sharks that each have two large dorsal fines, relatively large anal fins and nictitating membranes (third eyelids). By comparison, catsharks have only small dorsal fins that are far back on their bodies. And dogfish…well their fins have spines, unlike hound and catsharks, and they lack anal fins. Together, these 3 families make up about half of all known sharks.
Spotted gully sharks are slow-growing and long-lived, surviving up to 21 years. They also only reach maturity at around 14 years of age. Mothers give birth to 6 to 12 live pups, but have an exceptionally long gestation period of nearly two years.
Due to their slow growth, spotted gully sharks are particularly susceptible to fishing pressures. This risk is particularly high in False Bay, where large numbers of these sharks aggregate to mate.
The fact that South Africa has a large-scale (and very controversial) shark fishery is likely a surprise to many people, as is the fact that these sharks are not being caught for “shark fin soup in China” but are served up in countries like Australia and the UK as fish and chips – often with names like “flake” or “gummy” so we need to keep this industry accountable for the sake of our marine biodiversity and heritage.