Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Tracking a Giant: Meet Nyami Nyami, the 4 meter Bull Shark



(The beautiful Nyami Nyami - photo by Alison Towner)

Three weeks ago, Meaghen McCord from the South African Shark Conservancy (SASC) and her team found the 4 meter giant in the Breede River over 15 km from the ocean. She was an over-achieving shark, setting many records – and proving many theories wrong – including the fact she was living far outside of her known range - in an area she wasn't supposed to inhabit. The discovery was a true triumph for Meag who had been self funding the efforts to find these "ghost" sharks who have long been rumored amongst the locals to exist, regardless of the scientific skeptics that surrounded her.

And, it is an amazing discovery for the Zambezis, who you will recall from a previous blog entry are extremely threatened due to a lack of healthy estuaries in Southern Africa which they use as breeding grounds. It appears the Zambezis do indeed have a healthy place to strengthen their dwindling numbers. It is just hundreds of kilometers South, but I guess no one told Nyami Nyami, our massive and rather clever lady who is most likely soon to become a mom.

Meag and her team tagged the beautiful shark and tracked her for 43 consecutive hours as she swam from fishing boat to fishing boat, out into the ocean and then, far upstream. They vowed to return with more support – allowing them to track Nyami Nyami for 24 hours a day for two weeks straight. It isn't often you have the opportunity to get into the head of a shark by studying her every movement for two weeks, so of course I jumped at the opportunity to participate.

(Tagging Nyami Nyami so we can track her - photo by Alison Towner)

It has been an incredible experience to track Nyami Nyami – and gain a deeper understanding of this misunderstood animal. And what a complex creature she is. She loves swimming in water less than a meter deep on low tides, rubbing her belly on the mud. Then, there are times she enjoys lying stationary in deeper pits probably watching her world swim by. Sometimes she missions at an incredible speed against the current to one of her favorite destinations, and others, she rides the current lazily moving the same speed as our drifting boat. We have tracked her from the river mouth upstream over 30 kilometers and back again. She certainly gets around.

(Tracking the ghost shark... With our trusty Skipper - and brave shark wrangler, Steve Smuts)

Nyami Nyami is quite curious, and often swims up to those on the water – either wading or in boats. While sometimes she will ignore fisherman, other times, she heads straight for them, sitting patiently on their lines waiting for them to catch something. When they do, she is always up for an easy meal – just adding to the adventure that is fishing in the Breede River. She is also very sensitive to vibrations and is often drawn to those making them. I have many times witnessed her swim right up to people waist deep in the water digging for prawns, to merely check them out and then move on. She even swam up on some swimmers yesterday. Never has there been a shark attack in the Breede River. Indeed, Nyami Nyami has had every opportunity to expand her diet; clearly we are not on her menu. Yes, 4 meter bull sharks and people can peacefully co-exist. Even in murky water.


(Paul writes down the data...)

(As Julie tracks her...)

And Nyami Nyami is not alone. We have plenty of evidence to prove that there are more of her kind. Fin sightings, breachings, huge 100 lb Cobbs bitten in half – all attributed to someone other than our girl, since we know exactly where she was at the time each occurred – and it wasn't near any of the other instances of evidence.

(100 lb Cob head - chowed by someone other than our girl... Fisherman fought with the fish for an hour before the line instantly went slack... This is what he reeled in. Photo by JP Botha.)

Although it seems like I am tracking a ghost since she rarely can be seen in the murky water that is less than a half meter visibility, she has breached for us, and for a few minutes each day, she shows an impressive dorsal and caudal fin. So for brief moments, I am visually connected to my new obsession. More spectacular for me, though, are the frequent moments that the tracking device, the VR100, gives us readings of 105. 70+ means she is 10 – 15 meters away… 105? Well, she is nuzzling our boat!

(A brief glimpse of Nyami Nyami rubbing her belly on the mud.)

But what I have found more powerful is the community's reaction to Nyami Nyami. As a conservationist with an undying passion for sharks, I have soaring highs and crushing lows depending on whom I am speaking to. Some want to kill her for threatening their fish supply - not realizing the important role she plays in keeping their stocks healthy. Some love the idea of sport fishing for the world's largest trophy set of bull shark jaws. Others are now terrified, even though there were always sharks in the river. But fortunately, those individuals are fewer than those that are absolutely thrilled with the discovery. Many community members are excited about the finding, with people frequently stopping us to ask about her latest escapades. They love the idea that these waters are healthy enough to support Bull Sharks, when almost nowhere else in South Africa can. Often, we pull up to fisherman who are amused at the fact a shark larger than their boat is hanging out, just waiting to see what they catch. Even the swimmers who we notified about the shark below them were shocked but quite curious.

It is fortunate, since the community's support is desperately needed, as she, like so many other sharks, requires grassroots protection. Some question the release of her existence, fearing it is her death wish. Hardly. Instead of allowing a few trophy hunters to come in and silently kill Nyami Nyami (since they witnessed her original capture), instead, due to the publicity, MCM has put an immediate moratorium on all shark fishing in the river until further information can be gathered - with a fine of R500,000 for violators. But legislation, as we all know, is only a small part of the battle. Enforcement is far more important. Thankfully, the community is now self-policing, keeping any potential hunters out. It is my hope that those passionate about the river will continue to serve as Nyami Nyami, and all of her friends', guardian angels. She, and Bull Sharks everywhere, need all the protection they can get.

*SASC has funded much of this effort and desperately needs your support to continue tracking Nyami Nyami and all of their good work.

1 comment:

Meag said...

It's been such a pleasure having you & Paul as a part of our tracking team. Your undying love of sharks, constant curiousity and general all around fun-ness has made it a trip to remember! Thanks so much to you both for all you have contributed on this amazing journey!
xx Meag