Would you love your beach more if it had Blue Flag status? Nancy Richards visits the newly blue’d Fish Hoek…
Last time I went to Fish Hoek Beach was to meet up with some very small relations. It was a full-on bucket and spade affair – ice creams, sun cream, delight screams. But when I recently heard it had achieved Blue Flag status, it was time to revisit.
So I made a morning of it, took the train. Around St James you start to see the sea – well if you open the graffiti’d carriage windows you do – and suddenly there she is, past the river mouth, caravan park, sailing club – a sandy swathe hugging the deep blue sea. Little old Fish Hoek bay.
I’ve been to prettier train stations, but hey. It’s a very short walk to the crossing over the railway track and into the beach car park.
I take my time – a visit to the seaside should be savoured – stopping for a moment to reflect on the sculpture of two young people, curiously called Frolic. In her book, Home Remedies, which is set in this town, local writer Diane Awerbuck acerbically describes the sculpture as depicting ‘a boy dragging an unwilling girl into the water.’ Possibly not what the artist intended.
I did some research and discovered that this beach has its own Facebook page. “Well over 12 000 likes,” so page administrator and devotee Maria Wagener tells me, “from all over the world!” Got to be a reason, so I ask. “It’s natural, very blue,” says Sisi Han, Chinese tour leader, whose clients, just after lunch at the Bayside bistro, are out shooting selfies, seagulls, surf and each other.
“I always bring groups here. They love it.” There are going to be many albums full of Fish Hoek back home in Beijing.
Just about to settle in for a cup of tea myself, I’m distracted by a large yellow front-loader, like a giant toy truck, trundling the length of the strip picking up surplus kelp. “I shift it down to the far end where the nature reserve people collect it,” says James Nonyana from Solid Waste. “I come often in the summer.”
Although you wouldn’t want to upset nature’s delicate balance, the result is certainly a clean and kelp-free beach. Doing his bit to keep it that way, I spot an elderly gentleman bend down to pick up a large piece of offending plastic. He deposits it in a bin, with a flourish.
It was too late in the day for the legendary ‘polar bears’ to be out – mature swimmers who come down each morning to brave the waves. But Robyn Gwilt, photographer and swimmer out with a clutch of cycling buddies, describes the dawn surf breakers as falling into two groups – the “wusses” who only do summer, and “those of us who are here at sunrise every morning, come hell or high water.”
Diana Brown, here with a daughter and selection of grand- and great-grandchildren, says, “There’s always something going on. We’re waiting for the whales now, there’s the Catwalk [aka Jagger’s Walk around
the coast to Sunny Cove] where you can shelter from the southeaster, the runners, the trek fishermen and the sharks. But we’ve got shark nets now, which is a good thing. Visitors didn’t want to come before.”
By chance, Tamara Harris, there building sandcastles with her daughter Tatum, introduces me to Donovan Felix, one of the four official Shark Spotters dedicated to Fish Hoek. “They keep watch from the green hut up on Elsie’s Peak,” explains Sarah Wares, project manager for the Spotters, which is funded by the City of Cape Town and the Save our Seas Foundation.
“Each day in season, Donovan and his colleagues swim the exclusion nets out in the morning and back in the evening. This way we preserve the nets and prevent the entanglement of marine animals. Last shark attack here was 2011 in Clovelly,” she adds, “and it was a Shark Spotter who helped save the victim’s life.”
However, a tangible reminder of the presence of great whites is the fluttering black shark flag, meaning spotting is poor. Green means spotting is good, red is a shark alert, and white means shark spotted.
Watching for sharks and learning how to ‘read the sea’ are some of the lessons the Fish Hoek Nippers learn. It’s a programme of the Fish Hoek Surf Lifesaving Club, and ‘shoals’ of eight to 14-year-olds come here every Sunday.
“Junior lifeguards in training,” says Penny Brouckaert, one of the trainers. And right next to the kiddies play park, is the lifeguard’s lookout on stilts, making everyone feel just a little bit safer.
Sharks don’t worry filmmaker Marius van Rensburg, here with his daughter testing out a paddle ski, nor Zizo Futshane and her son Sasha, who way prefer this to the much bigger beach in nearby Muizenberg where they live. There’s obviously a strong pull to Fish Hoek Beach. “Our entire social life happens here,” says Beryl McGregor.
“Everyone is welcome, unlike Clifton where you have to dress up.” Beryl – born, bred and schooled in Fish Hoek, and recently retired as the local high school’s secretary – is a ‘very regular’ on the beach.
But it’s not everyone who gets to come back day after day. Sitting on the wall at the Bayside, Tamara and daughter Tatum are leaving the following week to live in England. “That’s why I’m here soaking up the vibe, some vitamin D and a glass of wine. While I can,” she says. “I’m going to miss it. Terribly.”
- To achieve this status, a beach has to comply annually with more than 30 criteria related to water quality, environmental education and information, environmental management, safety and services. Standards are set by the international coordinators of the Blue Flag campaign in Europe, where it started. Here it’s managed by the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa (WESSA). Blue Flag season starts 1 November.
- A Blue Flag site is required to carry out several environmental education activities throughout the year and to practise effective, efficient conservation management. A beach that has unsuccessfully applied for Blue Flag status is awarded Pilot status for an ‘incubation’ development period, when managers and WESSA work together to meet the criteria.
- Fish Hoek Beach last had Blue Flag status in the 2007/8 season. It was subsequently a Pilot beach, but has attained Blue Flag status once again. Boats and marinas can also receive Blue Flag status.
- This season, 2016/17, there are about 45 Blue Flag and 22 Pilot beaches in South Africa. Worldwide there are
around 4 250 Blue Flag beaches, boats and marinas.
In partnership with the National Department of Tourism and its Working for Tourism initiative, WESSA has launched a project to give 200 unemployed youth accredited training in environmental education, environmental management and safety. They will also get practical work experience at Blue Flag beaches hosted by local municipalities, making them true-blue beach ambassadors.