Out at the Muizenberg backline we call them the ‘men in grey suits’. Here in the waters of Cape Town’s False Bay, to mention the Great White Sharks by name would – for the superstitious – be inviting an unwelcome visit.
So instead we play mum. As we wait for the next wave to roll in from the deep we talk of swell and wind and that right-hander we caught last time. But as I sit on my long board waiting for the unpredictable Muizies swell, the image of a Carcharodon Carcharias cruising silently beneath my toes is never far from my mind.
Like many fears, it’s also largely irrational. According to the Global Shark Attack File, barely a single shark attack per year is recorded in Cape Town waters, and fatal attacks are rarer still: just four deaths in the past decade, compared with thousands on our roads. But perhaps because it’s so primal – because today we’re so unlikely to become part of the food chain – the thought of a Great White Shark appearing from the depths with open maw strikes a particular chord in most of us.
So perhaps the best way to battle an irrational fear is with information, to use the stick of logic to beat some sense into us. And that’s where the Shark Spotters come in.
This groundbreaking shark research and beach safety program, the first of its kind in the world, has revolutionised the way Capetonians – and holidaymakers – use the waters that are home to both Speedo-clad swimmers and toothy sharks.
Turn back the clock to 2004 and local surfer Greg Bertish, founder of adventure travel company True Blue, was in the water at Muizenberg during a shark scare.
“It was about six months after a surfer had lost a leg at the river mouth nearby,” recalls Greg. “Back then it took about 10 minutes to clear the beach and get everyone out the water, and I thought that there must be some way of doing this better.”
That ‘way’ was the seed for today’s much-lauded Shark Spotters program, which sees binocular-clad spotters on the nearby mountainside watching for sharks, and a system of flags on the beachfront to inform surfers and swimmers if the waters are clear, or if sharks are in the area. When a shark has been spotted, a siren sounds to tell people to clear the water.
This basic set-up is little-changed seven years on, although funding from the City of Cape Town and the Save our Seas Foundation has allowed for an expanded program of spotters across the southern peninsula.
“We operate on four beaches year-round, and two additional beaches during summer,” explains Sarah Titley, project manager for the Shark Spotters. “At the moment we have 17 spotters working in shifts every single day of the year.”
Monwabisi Sikweyiya was one of the first spotters to join the program, and says that there’s more to spotting than admiring the view for a six-hour shift: “You have to know what you’re looking for. Often when you see a shark it could easily be mistaken for a shadow.”
“If the shark is swimming close to the surface the best thing to look for is the movement of the tail. Dolphins and whales swim by moving their tail up and down, while a shark moves its tail side to side,” explains Monwabisi. “Ideal conditions are when we have calm waters with clear skies. We don’t want too much wind on the water, and lots of sun helps with visibility too. It also depends on how far out the surfers are in the water. If the backline is one kilometer from the beach we need perfect conditions to spot.”
“We’re lucky with the False Bay coast in that we have the mountain right there. You need the height advantage to see the sharks clearly,” adds Greg.
However, even if spotters see a shark in the water, there’s not much they can do to keep beachgoers out of the water.
“There’s no legislation in Cape Town to keep people out of the water, like there is in Durban,” explains Sarah. “At the end of the day it’s about people’s own choice, and that’s really what Shark Spotters is about. Yes, we’re trying to prevent shark attacks, but we can only do it by informing people. So we give people information about the shark spotting conditions, so that they can make informed decisions about whether to enter the water.”
And it pays to listen to the Spotters, as Michael Cohen discovered in September last year. Entering the water at Fish Hoek’s Clovelly Corner despite flags warning of a shark in the bay, Cohen was bitten in the shallows and lost a leg, but was lucky to escape with his life.
“The swimmer knew what the situation was, with a shark in the water, so unfortunately the only person to blame is the victim,” says Monwabisi, who was one of the first on the scene and performed initial first aid. “We did everything we could to keep him safe, but if someone chooses to enter the water when there are sharks around there really isn’t much more we can do.”
But the Shark Spotters program is about more than keeping swimmers safe, with daily records on beach conditions, shark numbers and shark behaviour used by the Save Our Seas Foundation and the University of Cape Town to further shark research and conservation.
“We’re here to protect people, but we’re also here to protect sharks. If it wasn’t for a program like Shark Spotters there could be nets in these waters like they have in Durban,” says Sarah. “But even those nets aren’t completely effective: shark nets aren’t solid barriers so sharks can swim through them. Apparently in Australia over 60 percent of shark attacks happen on netted beaches.”
Beautiful, yet deadly, the Great White Shark is – largely – the victim of bad PR. Although involved in just a handful of deadly attacks, it’s been cast as the big bad bully of the oceans, ever on the prowl for unlucky swimmers and unwary surfers. Yet the occasional headline certainly doesn’t mean we need to panic, or stay out of the water this summer.
“We expect a spike in sightings at this time of year. During winter the sharks are generally out at Seal Island, while in summer they come closer inshore,” explains Sarah. “But this is exactly the same type of shark activity we’ve seen for the last six or seven years. It’s very typical.”
In the end, it comes down to using a little common sense. Sharks eat fish and seals, not humans, so if you see dolphins, birds and seals hunting fish in the breakers, there’s a good chance there are sharks around too.
“People don’t need to panic, they just need to be sensible,” says Sarah. “The risk of being bitten by a shark is so small, but you do have to be aware of what’s going on. We can help you make an informed choice about using the ocean, but in the end the individual has to make the decision and accept any risks.”
“There’s certainly no need for people to stay out of the water and, honestly, if you look at the cold hard facts you’re far more likely to drown at the beach or get hit by a car on your way here!”
Find out more about the Shark Spotters at www.sharkspotters.org.za
Shark Spotters on Duty
Permanent beaches (365 days a year)
St. James/Kalk Bay: 8am-6pm
Fish Hoek: 7am-6.45pm
The Hoek, Noordhoek: 9am-5pm
Temporary beaches (Oct-April; weekends, public holidays and school holidays)
Clovelly: 10.30am – 5pm