The Return of Jaws
One moment patrolling the seas and the next frantically fighting for its life, a bronze whaler shark (Carcharhinus brachyurus) writhes and reels on a beach in Cape Town, South Africa. Local fishermen unintentionally caught this fearsome predator while combing near-shore waters with a beach seine. The fishing method involves encircling schools of fish with gaping nets and then hauling the catch up onto the beach.
The inadvertent entanglement comes as no surprise. Bronze whalers commonly cruise coastlines in search of schools of small fish, such as the sardine runs they follow around South Africa. Here, the sharks frequently encounter the nets, seines, and long lines set out by fishermen. Across many parts of their range, it’s common for these bycatch sharks to be killed for their fins. Those that escape this fate face other threats, including the destruction of critical nursery habitats by coastal development and pollution. Together, these threats have taken a heavy toll on the bronze whaler, a species that can take as many as 20 years to reach sexual maturity and that breeds only every two years. In 2003, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) listed the species as Near Threatened. Often confused for other, more common shark species, scientists still know very little about the bronze whaler’s basic biology, let alone the future outlook of the species.
Fortunately, many of the sharks snared as bycatch along this particular stretch of coastline do survive. Photographer Chris Fallows has worked alongside South African fishermen for nearly two decades and has seen them save bronze whalers and other sharks from their nets countless times. On this particular day, Fallows watched as a fisherman grabbed hold of the shark’s thrashing tail and carefully steered the sand-encrusted behemoth back into the sea.
Cape Town, South Africa
Chris Fallows has worked with sharks for some 25 years. In 1996, he and a colleague were the first to observe and document the incredible breaching behavior of great white sharks at Seal Island, near Cape Town, South Africa. Since then, along with his wife Monique, Fallows has hosted or facilitated some 50 international television documentaries showcasing this spectacular behavior. He owns and operates Apex Shark Expeditions, a wildlife company that specializes in providing guests with opportunities to observe white sharks engaged in natural hunting behavior. When not photographing marine wildlife, Fallows and his wife spend most of their time traveling and taking pictures throughout Southern Africa and other global wildlife hotspots.
Katie Jewett is a Bay Area science writer, previously at the California Academy of Sciences and now at the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions, where she loves learning something new about our planet every day. Previously, she spent winters in the Colorado Rockies and summers living and working on the water.