24 May 2014 by Andrea Weiss (words and pictures)

A boat ride with the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board

Get up early and join the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board on a dawn patrol to learn more about its work.

Debbie Hargreaves of the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board is often a guide on the trips out of Durban harbour

Surfers have a nickname for sharks. They call them the 'men in grey suits' and, like the unscrupulous businessmen this expression alludes to, are preferably avoided when you're in the water.

Keeping sharks and recreational water users apart is something that the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board (formerly the Natal Sharks Board) has been doing for the past 50 years.

To gain some insight into the work this provincial agency does, tourists can go on a boat trip to see first-hand how the teams go out each morning to check the 5km of netting off Durban’s Golden Mile.

The Sharks Board early-morning crew 'mesh' nets off Durban's Golden Mile

They call this daily task ‘meshing’ and it involves sending out teams to pull along the net line to see if anything has been caught overnight. Only once this task has been done will beaches be declared open for bathing.

Another important part of the job is for any dirty nets to be replaced. Nets that begin to accumulate a build-up of sea life act like ‘mini reefs’ that attract fish (and the predators that follow them), so these have to be removed and cleaned regularly. This is done by beating off the encrusted barnacles and laying them out in the sun to dry for a week.

If you’re up for one of these trips, you’ll have to be at Wilson’s Wharf at the Durban Harbour at the crack of dawn, which is an ideal opportunity to get some beautiful dawn photographs in and around Africa’s largest harbour.

See the video below for more:


After a safety briefing, the launch will cruise out of the harbour just as the sun is beginning to rise over the Bluff (the promontory that lies to the south of the city of Durban).

The launch that takes tourists out to see the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board teams at work
Durban's skyline at sunrise

Contrary to what you might expect, the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board is not in the business of catching sharks, but seeks rather to try to limit harm to both bathers and sharks.

Along the whole KwaZulu-Natal coastline, there are now only 23km of nets, 5km of which protect the highly popular beaches of Durban. These nets are also not contiguous but have gaps in between to allow movement of other sea life like the dolphins that can often be seen at play in these waters. The dolphins quickly learn how to avoid the nets.

You'll be interested to learn that most sharks are caught going back out to sea as these animals come inshore to feed at night (proof of why it’s not a good idea to swim at night).

Although there are 14 species of sharks that come inshore, only three are dangerous to swimmers – Zambezi (or bull) sharks, tiger sharks and great white sharks. Consequently, the nets are designed only to catch sharks over 1.5m long.

Moses Mabhida Stadium on the Durban skyline

Along the whole coastline, around 500 sharks are caught a year and so your chances of seeing an actual catch during one of these tourist trips is highly unlikely. Instead, you’ll see the team at work, catch the city of Durban coming to life from an unusual angle and get a great view of the Moses Mabhida Stadium.

You’ll also get an interesting and informative talk, and learn that since Durban first put out its shark nets in 1952 there have been no shark attacks. In the nine years prior to that there had been 21 attacks, seven of them fatal.

Any shark caught alive is tagged and released as soon as possible, and the others taken to the Sharks Board headquarters in Umhlanga for dissection and scientific study. As a result, the Sharks Board is regarded as a world leader when it comes to knowledge about shark biology and behaviour.

The Sharks Board publishes statistics on all the sharks it catches, and, for ethical reasons, does not sell any fins or teeth.

Part of your R300 ticket price includes an invitation to attend a shark dissection in Umhlanga where you can learn more about the fascinating biology of sharks. This ‘little’ dusky shark was in fact still an embryo, one of 16 found inside their mother. Although not yet born, it was fully formed.

Debbie Hargreaves explains the biology of sharks during the dissection

It’s a sad fact that harmless sharks (like this little dusky's mother) do still get ensnared in these nets, but the Sharks Board is constantly on the look out for more environmentally friendly ways of doing its business. They will advise local authorities when it is inadvisable to net, such as at river mouths, which are habitats favoured by sharks, and during the sardine run, when large numbers of predators follow the shoals. That’s when the nets get lifted altogether so that the ‘men in grey suits’ can go about their business unhindered.

A cityscape from the sea

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