Angel Sharks in Gran Canaria
We often get asked by visitors if there are any sharks in Gran Canaria. This is a question that everybody wants a positive reply to … although some visitors are looking for a reassurance of safety while others are looking for the chance to swim or dive with these oft feared predators.
As you have probably already guessed from the pictures, yes we do have sharks in Gran Canaria. However the good news for the 'JAWS' generation is that the sharks you are most likely to encounter in Gran Canaria are among the most placid, docile and non-aggressive sharks anywhere in the world. Their common name gives it away .. Angel Sharks ..mainly named because of the shape of the body when seen from above.
So just how 'shark infested' is the water around Gran Canaria? Is it safe to paddle in the sea in Gran Canaria? Is it safe to swim in Gran Canaria? Is it safe to go in the water with a cut or open wound on your leg?
On Christmas Day, 2015, a Spanish lady was bitten by what was judged to be a deep water shark while swimming, just 75m from where I live, in one of the most popular dive sites for beginners in Gran Canaria. The UK press, starved of good stories at Christmas, over-reacted and did their best to blow the incident into a major issue. The lady, while shaken, did not suffer any life-changing or life-threatening injury, and all the local experts believe that it was a 'once in 50 years' incident as nobody has ever seen a Silky shark in normal diving areas, and apart from the physical evidence of the bites most local divers, marine biologists and safety experts could not believe that the incident took place.
Unfortunately, over the years, films and documentaries have built up a black reputation for sharks in general, and so any incident like this is more likely to get a headline than the scores of holidaymakers who either slip and fall at their poolside, get injured while drunk or have a heart attack on the beach. None of these stop holidaymakers from coming to the Canaries, or using theirs pools, bars and beaches, yet statistically you are less safe in all these places than in the sea. This 'highly dangerous' reputation is very different from the real profile of the common shark in the Canaries, the Angel Sharks (squalus squalus), for the following reasons:
- Angel Sharks are bottom dwellers, who therefore rarely swim near to the surface, and so are rarely seen or encountered by swimmers or snorklers.
- Angel Sharks are bottom feeders and they only have a small mouth which is designed to scoop small fish or crustaceans up from on or close to the sea bed.
- Angel Sharks are selective ambush predators and their strategy is to wait for meals to come to them rather than to actively seek out smells in the way that open ocean pelagic sharks hunt. They also prefer just one type of fish - sardines, so they have no interest in us as a dietary supplement.
- Angel Sharks are small and scared of us. The average size is about 1.2 meters long (which looks quite big underwater), but when compared to divers or swimmers, we pose more of a threat to them and so they adopt one of two strategies - hide or flee.
- Angel Sharks are critically endangered and listed on the IUCN 'Red List' of endangered species. They can be found if you know where to look, and probably number only 3-4 per square kilometer.
Our diving centre in Arinaga has been diving with Angel Sharks for ten years now, and for the last couple of years our experts have been pooling our observations with the University of Las Palmas. During that time we have had hundreds, if not thousands, of sightings of Angel Sharks. Our Instructors dive with them when they are swimming; we find them stationary; and we dive with them at night! In all these years we have never had a contact where anyone has had an unprovoked attack by angel shark. On a couple of occasions they have been annoyed by our presence, and made themselves look aggressive, but apart from a few warning 'feints', and two or three bumps, we have only had one actual 'bite' by an angel shark! This was when our instructor was pointing out the location of shark in the sand, it mistook his finger for food and sampled it. The wound was similar to that imposed by a dog bite, but he still has all his fingers!. So come and dive with us without fear, as none of our guests has had a problem with these beautiful creatures, and we will happily use our hands and fingers to point them out to you.
There are also rare contacts with two other sharks, hammerheads and blue sharks. These are however deep water species and rarely stray into shallow water. If you go deep sea fishing, or boating several miles off shore you may if you are lucky encounter these over the deep water trenches that surround Gran Canaria.
Sharks are certainly misunderstood and create apprehension and fear in a great many people. To make those of you who are afraid feel a little bit better, here is a world-wide list of things are much more likely to kill you than sharks!
- Heart Disease – Kills 7.25 million people annually
- Mosquitoes – Kill 1.4 million people annually
- Cars – Kill 1.21 million people annually
- Lightning – Kills 24,000 people annually
- Boats – Kill 5900 people annually
- Texting – Kills 5870 people annually
- Drowning – Kills 2000 people annually
- Bees, Wasps and Hornets – Kill 1280 people annually
- Ants – Kill 980 people annually
- Dogs – Kill 455 people annually
- Snakes – Kill 160 people annually
- Spiders – Kill 120 people annually
- Vending Machines – Kill 65 people annually
- Hippos – Kill 50 people annually
- Jellyfish – Kill at least 40 people annually
- Crocodiles and Alligators – Kill 14 people annually
- Scorpions – Kill 10 people annually
So yes, it is safe to bathe on the beautiful Canarian beaches without any fears of being dragged under by any ferocious carnivore. And you can jump into the sea from your pirate cruise or snorkeling trip, safe in the knowledge that any angel sharks or even silky and hammerhead sharks in the area are probably moving away from you, or hiding absolutely still ten or more meters underneath the boat, waiting for you to leave. And you can ignore the video of 'Shark Diving in Fuertaventura' which shows some Guitar Sharks .. these are not native and I think that the footage was taken in a controlled environment not the open sea. As for the attack in Arinaga, most experts believe the shark was moving between two open water fish farms a few km away, areas which have been known to attract deep water sharks, but very definately off the tourist areas. We will continue to swim and dive in Risco Verde, and even do some night dives there.
Angel Sharks and Diving in Gran Canaria
Being a critically endangered species on the 'Red List' means that any encounter with an angel shark (squalus squalus) is a privilege. We don't know how long they live but estimates of 20-30 years will give them a similar lifeline to other sharks. This means that adults will have almost certainly encountered humans before .. and they are wary of us.
Despite their size, angel sharks are experts at concealment - they come to a stop and then wriggle themselves down into the sand, and with a final flap of their fins, cover themselves in sand. They are now very difficult to spot, and may remain in this one place resting, and waiting for food to come to them, for many hours. We have had several examples where we see an angel shark one day, and if it is not disturbed, find it in the same place the next day. The next group of photos show how they disguise themselves in the sand.
We tend to see more individuals either above the sand, or on rocks, or actually swimming, in the winter months when the water is colder. They will sometimes approach divers, but when they get to within about 5 meters they invariably change course and swim away from us. They have a 'normal speed' which divers can just about keep up with, but if they feel threatened they will move up a gear and with a few flicks of their tail accelerate away from you.
So please respect our angel sharks! If you find one covered in the sand - please leave it there as it may be digesting a meal or waiting for the next meal to come along. Every dive with an angel shark is a privilege granted by them, so respect their privacy, don't chase them excessively, and always give them an exit or plenty of space.Plan your dive with angel sharks!