(alternate titles)

Epic Shark Voyages

Life on the Run

The Itinerant Raggie

 Story by Wolfgang E. Grulke

Photos by Wolfgang E. Grulke and Marc Montocchio


What do you fear most in the sea? What gives novice divers the biggest adrenaline rush? 

If a South African diver has encountered a shark it will almost invariably have been a 'raggie'!


The spotted raggedtooth shark Carcharias taurus is known by many names around the world - the 'raggie' or ' spotted raggedtooth shark ' in South Africa, the 'sand tiger shark' in the USA and New Zealand and the 'grey nurse shark' in Australia. The Latin names appear equally confused! In just three current in-print tomes on 'The Shark' you can find these three varieties: Eugomphodus taurus, Carcharias taurus and Odontaspis taurus!!! Carcharias taurus seems to be the current 'most correct' version to use! However, this is one shark that is feared much more for its looks than for its actions.

The picture above was the result of a somewhat unnerving experience with a raggedtooth shark. It had been rough weather that day and visibility on the reefs had been poor with persistent surges churning up the sandy bottom. However, we heard that several sharks had been sighted on a reef close to shore and we could not resist the temptation to take a look.

We quickly dropped down onto the shallow reef from our boat and immediately saw a number of large sharks drifting in and out of our limited field of vision. We had dived with raggedtooth sharks before and knew them to be shy and timid if not provoked. I ventured out onto a flat sandy patch across which the sharks appeared to be circling consistently. I was kneeling on the sand and took a few photos of sharks swimming above me. Suddenly a particularly large shark swam directly at me. Rather than veering off about a metre ahead of me (which would have been the expected behaviour) this shark just kept coming - straight at me, ever so slowly!  

Eventually, there I was, bent over backwards, still roughly in a kneeling position but with my back arched back onto the sand, with the shark swimming directly over me. My mask was no more than 10 centimetres from its belly and I had to pull my camera and its wide-angle lens right against my chest to prevent the shark from bumping into it! Then I remembered that I should perhaps release the shutter! The picture above is the result. Despite the scatter from the flash in the sandy water it will eternally capture the 'raggie' experience perfectly for me!  

The raggedtooth shark has a truly fearsome visage - a wide mouth simply bristling with sharp protruding dog-like teeth! The edges of the jaws contain at least five concentric rows of teeth, embedded in connective tissue stretched over a cartilage jaw. Each of the inner teeth ever moving forward within the connective tissue to replace those older teeth lost at the front - more than 1000 in a lifetime of around 15 years. 

The raggedtooth shark mostly appears sluggish in the water but can display amazing agility and speed when hunting. It feeds almost entirely on fish, small sharks and squid which are impaled on its prominent teeth before being swallowed whole.  

In South Africa the raggedtooth shark is one of the most common sharks. It's life cycle is an epic story of continuous voyages up and down Southern Africa's rugged east coast. A rough coast washed by huge swells that come from deep in the Indian Ocean. A coast unsheltered by fringing reefs and exposed to everything the sea can throw at it. For the raggedtooth shark it is a life lived in almost constant travel, up and down the coast from the eastern Cape to the southern reefs of Mozambique, around Inhaca island..

Each spring the mature females migrate from the colder eastern Cape waters around Plettenberg Bay and St Francis Bay into the warmer waters of KwaZulu Natal to mate. Mating appears to be a passionate and somewhat violent affair as the females emerge with significant scars, apparently inflicted by the males during courtship and mating. You will not be surprised to learn that while many male sharks, easily identified by a large pair of claspers, have evolved longer teeth, the females have evolved a thicker, tougher skin to protect them during mating! 

The exact whereabouts of the population of male raggedtooth sharks before, during and after mating still remains much of a mystery. Many are believed to spend much of their time in the eastern Cape but there is little hard information to go on. The shark nets around the popular bathing beaches are amongst the best indicators of their movements. 

After mating the female sharks continue their migration north. By midsummer (December/January) the large pregnant females are found on the close inshore reefs of Maputaland (where the accompanying photographs are taken) and southern Mozambique. The warm waters of these shallow reefs are believed to stimulate the development of the embryos. 

During this 9-month period of gestation, the female sharks hardly feed at all, seriously depleting their energy reserves. Sometimes, as a result of this inactivity, hydroids can be seen growing from their mouths, in between the razor sharp teeth, while they are 'parked off' at Sodwana Bay. 

Each mother produces masses of eggs (more than 20 000 were found in one shark), each one packaged in tiny parcels with about ten others, making hundreds of small egg bags, in each of her two uteri. Many of these eggs are fertilised embryos. The embryos that develop first have an unfair advantage over the others and use the egg parcels as a food supply, consuming both the unfertilised eggs and the fertilised embryos. It literally consumes its own siblings - until only one shark is born from each uterus. This process of intra-uterine cannibalism is called oophagy and represents  natural selection with a vengeance - and even before birth! 

They must make the long journey back to the Eastern Cape waters, riding the warm Agulhas current to conserve energy, before they drop their young in mid-winter (July/August). At birth the raggedtooth sharks are each about a metre long and weigh around six kilograms and fend for themselves almost immediately. At first limp and unable to swim, they take about two hours to tone up their swimming muscles and stiffen the fins, and then face whatever the marine world will through at them. The mothers show no parental care, as is the case in most other lower vertebrates. 

The mothers, starved from months of abstinence, leave the area immediately after pupping to avoid feeding on their own offspring. It is believe that they take a break of at least a year to replenish their energy reserves before another maternity cycle begins. 

The juvenile sharks make their journey up the coast and are often seen at Aliwal Shoal, south of Durban on the eastern Kwa-Zulu Natal coast, during July and August each year. 

Thankfully, the raggedtooth shark displays an almost nonchalant indifference to divers. As long as they are responsibly observed they appear to share even close proximity readily with divers. This tolerance of divers has contributed a great deal to our understanding of shark biology and behaviour. When with them, I always find the temptation to touch and stroke enormous, but have resisted my entire life. I know that a simple flick of the tail from a surprised shark could easily result in death of a nearby diver. 

To experience these sharks in their own environment is always a majestic experience - whether itís the raggie juveniles at Aliwal Shoal or the serene mothers-to-be at Sodwana Bay's Quarter-Mile Reef. You can sense the power of those bodies and jaws just an arm's length away. At any point they could choose the act less accommodatingly to the diver. Thankfully, this is not part of their majesties' behaviour! A majestic experience - yet humbling! Wherever you find the raggedtooth shark, the sandy gullies in the area are always likely to yield a few dropped teeth! A wonderful opportunity to take back to earth a souvenir - just to make sure you weren't dreaming some kind of crazy dream! 


Thanks to Geremy Cliff of the Natal Sharks Board in Umhlanga Rocks, Kwa Zulu-Natal,