A siren sounds mournfully across Muizenberg Beach and a white flag with a black shark is hoisted. Sharks have been spotted nearby and, thanks to a dedicated team, the surf is evacuated
Less than 10 years ago, no one would have detected the sharks. Now, thanks to an organisation called Shark Spotters, the shark claims his territory for a while, the bathers back off and no-one is hurt. It’s a win-win situation, allowing man and shark to share the water. Shark Spotters is now attracting international attention.
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Finding a solution
I chat to Greg Bertish, charismatic big-wave surfer, owner of a tourism agency and the man who started it all. In the background, surfers slice down the waves of Muizenberg. “It began in 2004 when a young surfer was attacked by a shark. He lost his leg and almost his life. The subsequent discussion was more about why sharks were increasing in numbers than about preventing attacks.”
Later that year, Greg was surfing at Muizenberg with a tourist when someone saw a shark. The only warning system – hopelessly ineffective – was a car guard, Rasta Davids, who took it upon himself to blow a whistle with each sighting.
Greg continues, “After that incident I decided to take the initiative. I know the trek-net fishermen in False Bay have men on the mountainside spotting fish shoals. They signal those in the fishing boat, who surround the shoal with their trek net. I thought, if they can spot the shoals from the mountainside, surely we can spot the sharks. That’s how Shark Spotters was born.”
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Initially there was little support from the authorities or the public, but Greg was tenacious. With donations of polarised binoculars (to remove the reflection off the water), radios, flags, flagpoles and, finally, an old war siren, Greg was ready to start. Rasta Davids and Monwabisi Sikweyiya, a professional lifesaver, were recruited and stationed on the mountain with the trek fishermen.
More than just a warning system
In contrast to the struggle of the first few years, Shark Spotters has now aroused international interest. Not only does it provide a solution that protects both bather and shark on nine beaches around Cape Town, it’s providing valuable research on shark behaviour, further enhancing the safety of those on our beaches.
A spotter sits on the mountainside and another on the beach. They are in radio communication. A flag system tells the bathers the state of safety: if a shark is sighted the appropriate flag goes up, a siren sounds and the sea is evacuated.
The spotters on the beach are trained in first aid but, because they are a constant presence and know who to contact, they deal with nearly every emergency you can think of. These have included lost children, lost keys, car accidents, sewage leaks, stranded seals and beached whales. They even bust a pickpocket ring at St James beach.
From the start, the areas covered by Shark Spotters were divided into quadrants, with records kept of shark sightings in them. As a result, for the first time there is data for 10 years on the movement of the Great White – invaluable for research into their habits and the risk of their presence.
Alison Kock is a renowned marine biologist and member of Shark Spotters. She had just returned from a boat trip to Seal Island, hunting ground of the Great White, when I speak to her. “The great thing about our research is that it is applied. What the public learns about the shark affects their mental approach to them and their behaviour when there is a risk. We have seen a change for the better in the way the public interacts. We have tagged sharks with acoustic tags so that, as well as the general information from sightings, we can trace the movements of those we’ve tagged.
“They feed on seals in winter, but move further inshore in the summer to feed on fish. So the risk to bathers and surfers is higher in summer. Sharks feed during the first few hours of daylight when the light is dull and they are less visible. We’re looking at the high-risk periods related to weather, water temperature and even moon phases.”
I ask about the effect of cage diving. “Interestingly, the sharks we’ve tagged visit the cage once or twice and then lose interest. They get a fraction of the food they need from there. It’s easier for them to get a more hearty meal by catching a seal.”
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The acoustic sensors can be implanted at the base of the dorsal fin without catching the shark. In 2012, however, an international team implanted 40 sharks with satellite tags. These sharks can now be traced by anyone with the app Global Shark Tracker. Also, every shark sighted by a spotter is tweeted, so the public can be aware of the frequency and places of sightings. Follow @SharkSpotters on Twitter to stay up to date.
With increased funding, Shark Spotters is planning an information centre on Muizenberg beach that will provide information on everything marine and beyond. They are also responsible for a shark net now on trial at Fish Hoek Beach. The net is unique in the world in that it is set up in the sea every day and removed in the evening. The condition of the sea, as well as the desire not to fatally trap marine life, dictates this.
In September 2011, the spotter on the mountain saw a young man enter the water at Clovelly Beach, Fish Hoek, in spite of Shark Spotters sighting two Great Whites in that area, and warned the man. He radioed the spotter on the ground, and Monwabisi, who is now the project manager. The shark attacked, bit off the man’s leg and severed his other foot. Two passers-by ran into the water and rescued him, while Monwabisi rushed to the scene, calling for an NSRI helicopter as he ran.
The man was bleeding profusely. Monwabisi applied a tourniquet and direct pressure, stemming the flow. The helicopter arrived within minutes and the patient survived. Without the co-ordinated action of the mountain spotter, his beach colleague and Monwabisi, who knew who to call and how to treat the victim, it is unlikely the man would have survived. Such is the contribution of Shark Spotters to the beach-going public.
If you’d like to support the organisation’s efforts, you can visit the Shark Spotters website for more information.
Words Dave Walker
Photography Dave Walker and Greg Bertish