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AG_1310_shark spotters

  1. 24 A F R I C A G EO G R A P H I C • O C TO B E R 20 1 3 SHARK WATCHERS 25W W W. A F R I C AG EO G R A P H I C .CO M With the advent of summer in South Africa’s Western Cape, two things happen: people flock to Cape Town’s beaches; and the great white sharks of False Bay leave their winter hunting grounds around Seal Island and head inshore to follow the fish shoals that congregate along the shoreline. It could be (and has been) a volatile combination, but for the sterling efforts of a home-grown NGO. Photojournalist – and surfer – Cheryl-Samantha Owen meets the Shark Spotters. TEXT & PHOTOGRAPHS BY CHERYL-SAMANTHA OWEN FLYING THE FLAG ᮣ
  2. 26 A F R I C A G EO G R A P H I C • O C TO B E R 20 1 3 27W W W. A F R I C AG EO G R A P H I C .CO M SHARK WATCHERSSHARK WATCHERS W hipping the mountain at a feverish pace before tumbling over its craggy edges, the Cape’s roaring south-easterly wind casts its fury on False Bay. But the Atlantic doesn’t cower and the waves battle forward – line after line decorated with a posse of summer wave- riders. High above the duelling sea, wind and surfers, a pair of eyes notices a dark shape moving eastward into the bay, about 20 metres beyond the back line of breakers. Experience says without hesita- tion that it is a great white shark. A message is sent via hand-held radio to a counterpart on the beach below and with- in seconds a siren wails, sending a very clear warning to everyone in the water, me included, that a white shark has joined the party. The next wave is a ‘fami- ly wave’ as every surfer paddles to catch it back to the safety of the beach. Dennis Chikodze is a professional shark spotter, a member of a unique corps that patrols an arc of beaches around the southern tip of Africa. He and his simple equipment (polarised sunglasses, binocu- lars and a hand-held radio) are all that stand between a close encounter of the human and shark kind in these waters. ‘We try to minimise the risk of a shark attack, but of course we can never guaran- tee it,’ Chikodze told me later. ‘Often bad water visibility, wind like this and glare make shark spotting very difficult.’ O ur evolutionary path has kept humans off the white shark’s menu, but with more of us entering their domain and staying in the water for lon- ger we sometimes get in the way. Since 1960 there have been 29 recorded shark attacks off Cape Town’s beaches. Of these, 16 have occurred since January 2000; five have been fatal. All involved white sharks. After each incident the ocean was aban- doned; even the water seemed darker, more sullen… Surfers and swimmers kept away, and businesses along the coast suf- fered painful losses in revenue. Shark hate campaigns ensued and terrified people joined in the media hype vilifying the animals. Someone suggested tying helium balloons to the tails of great whites so that they could be tracked; someone else felt that feeding them chicken carcasses filled with broken glass would solve the prob- lem. In a more rational response, local surfer Greg Bertish, together with Fiona Chudleigh and lifesaver Clive Wakeford, started an informal shark-spotting and warning system by enlisting the help of car guards and trek-net fishermen at look- out points on the mountains above Muizenberg and Fish Hoek, two of the city’s most popular – and most affected – beaches. In 2004, after a swimmer lost her life and a 16-year-old surfer was left without a leg, the initiative, which Bertish and Wakeford had driven for two years, was formally adopted by the City of Cape Town and marine conservation organ- isations. Shark Spotters is now a regis- tered non-governmental organisation (NGO), funded by the Save Our Seas Foundation and the city. It is aligned with the National Sea Rescue Institute, lifesaving clubs, Disaster Risk Manage- ment and emergency services. W ith the clarion call of the siren, a white flag emblazoned with the black silhouette of a shark is raised at both ends of Surfers’ Corner between Muizenberg’s landmark beach huts. Replacing its green counterpart sporting an outline of a shark (representing good visibility and no sharks sighted), it indi- cates that a white shark is within sight and that the beach is closed to human ocean-goers. Considering that sharks have patrolled the oceans since long before we were around, we really are in no position to resent being called away from their home. The Shark Spotter’s flag system may not be failsafe, but when I am surfing in False Bay (and feeling a bit like a seal, the sharks’ favourite meal), the knowledge that the spotting team is watching my back does lower the volume on that nasty Jaws theme. Up to 22 spotters operate at five of Cape Town’s most popular beaches, scanning the sea during daylight hours on every day of the year (three additional beaches are manned on a seasonal basis). Their radio activity is monitored by a proj- ect manager who, upon hearing that a shark has been sighted, broadcasts the message via Twitter, Facebook and the Shark Spotters’ website. Since its inception, the NGO has record- ed more than 1 400 shark sightings. It is the only programme of its kind in the world, and its success is a salute to the city’s rejection of tradition- al methods of reducing shark populations such as shark nets, drumlines (a system of baited hooks attached to anchored drums) and culls. Human–wildlife conflicts, both terres- trial and marine, tend to be solved to the detriment of the animal and the environ- ment. Think of Africa’s crop-raiding ele- phants and monkeys – shot, snared or poisoned; the harmless grass snake bask- ing in the flowerbed – decapitated; sharks biting humans off the coast of KwaZulu- Natal – shark nets, which reduce shark (and other marine animal) populations through entanglement, installed. The shark-spotting programme replaces exter- mination with balance, attempting to keep those of us who use the ocean in one piece while conserving the lives of sharks. It’s a shift that comes at a critical time. Sharks are under severe pressure. Populations around the world are facing unsustainable exploitation rates and the survivors are being driven into a few well- protected pockets dotted around our oceans. Their evolutionary adaptations, which have seen them through millions of years, have left them powerless against today’s heavily armed fishing fleets, which either target them or kill them as bycatch. We have a greater chance of dying from a bee sting or being struck by lightning (or, for that matter, dat- ing Brad Pitt), than being bitten by a shark. Yet, BITTEN BY A SHARK1 in 11.5 millionDEATH BY A BEE STING1 in 6 millionSTRUCK BY LIGHTNING1 in 3 million AGAINST THEOD DS Reducing the risks If you plan to hit the Cape’s beaches this summer, keep the following tips in mind: Stay out of murky water, especially near river mouths. Don’t splash around too much. Don’t swim near sharks’ potential prey – schools of fish, seals, birds and/or dolphins. Don’t wear contrasting colours. Limit your time behind the breakers (more than 70 per cent of sightings are behind the surf zone). There is safety in numbers – swim, surf or kayak in groups. Take note of recent sightings and use a beach where spotters are on duty. The shark-spotting programme replaces extermination with balance, attempting to keep those of us who use the ocean in one piece while conserving the lives of sharks ABOVE Xeribus, exces eseque as ut eum fuga. Udis voluptat eaquiam usant, officab orerspelit, qui dolore net porecto optati ut aliandi cipitatiumet veratibus e pta velis eos erum rem ipsumetume cuptaquo to cum vel etur, si quidenim am reptis nescia numquatis rae venis dunt. Ficium, am, optatempore non consernat. Ed unt quo to dia a perrore pe estis erro con estiam, occupti onsento ius delessi mentotatur, sequia duscipis dolenis serkhdg vdkfjxg dfhjxg kuezrdxhf uvgzdxf cgjvbdfx ,cughez dxurgf vudgxf cg,jvdz f,cjgv dzrjxfgv jdygfxf jygzds fjycg sgxf jvgd ᮣ
  3. 28 A F R I C A G EO G R A P H I C • O C TO B E R 20 1 3 SHARK WATCHERS despite what environmental writer Juliet Eilperin calls, ‘the modest threat they pose to us, and the grave threat we pose to them’, human beings are resolutely irratio- nal about sharks. We love to love, and therefore protect, the creatures we relate to – the unthreatening cute and charismatic ones, those that stand on two legs or live in caring family groups. Sharks’ failure to behave in a human-like way could be part of the reason we’re so scared of them. (Fear of being eaten is another, so could the fact that they’ve been around, in a remarkably unaltered form, since the time of the dinosaurs). ‘And,’ as Alison Kock, research manager at Shark Spotters points out, ‘people who are afraid are less likely to support research and conservation.’ Yet, slowly we are becoming enlight- ened. South Africa was the first country to formally protect the white shark in 1991. Within the succeeding decade Namibia, Malta, Australia and the US followed suit. Marine biologists and conservationists have also started to encourage the use of more accurate terms to describe shark– human interactions – ‘encounters’ or ‘bites’ as opposed to ‘attacks’. (Seventy per cent of white shark bites are of an investi- gatory nature or a case of mistaken identi- ty, rather than specifically for feeding.) Kock says that she’s already noticed a change in attitudes. When Shark Spotters first started tweeting sightings, she was worried about adding to the nega- tive hype. ‘On some days, it’s really busy out there, with three to four sharks being seen and, initially, each sighting got a lot of attention,’ she says. ‘But, that’s fallen away to a degree. Now we’re starting to understand that that’s just what white sharks do. And with that understanding, hopefully will come respect and apprecia- tion.’ Her words echo those of Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum, who said, ‘In the end we will conserve only what we love. We will love only what we under- stand.’ Until recently, we understood sur- prisingly little about sharks. Even today, we’re somewhat in the dark about basic information such as where they mate or give birth, how long they live and where they go. When it comes to white sharks in False Bay, however, we have learned a thing or two. We know where they are each sea- son. During autumn and winter the sharks stay close to Seal Island’s wealth of easy-to-catch juvenile seals, then as spring and summer roll around they head to the s u r f , c h a s i n g migratory fish along the beach. Their unwavering pursuit of prey should ease our minds to some degree – if we were on their menu, popular surf spots would be munching zones of note. Data recorded by spotters on duty, including the number of sharks sighted, their behaviour, sea conditions and the number of water users, are helping scien- tists to gain a better understanding of the ‘On some days, it’s really busy out there, with three to four sharks being seen and, initially, each sighting got a lot of at- tention … Now we’re starting to understand that that’s just what white sharks do’ No-go zone for sharks White sharks seem to have taken a liking to Fish Hoek and, as a result, tourism has turned its back on this once popular sea- side town. For the sake of the local com- munity, the bathers, swimmers and the young lifeguards in training, the City of CapeTown decided to try the installation of shark exclusion nets for this beach. The nets are not permanent structures, but manually rolled out diagonally across an area less than the size of two rugby fields, running from Jaggers Walk on the south to the law enforcement offices in the beach. They are small mesh nets designed to act as a barrier to sharks, while preventing the capture or entangle- ment of marine animals. conditions that create higher risks of encounters with white sharks and how we can avoid them. A new study by the NGO reveals that sea surface temperature and the phase of the moon significantly affect the movements of these apex predators in False Bay. You’re eight times more likely to bump into a white shark off Muizenberg (five times off Fish Hoek) when the sea surface temperature reach- es 18 degrees Celsius than at 14 degrees or less. Because white sharks are able to regulate their body temperature, this partiality to warmer waters is more likely a result of following their dinner than a longing for the tropics. As for the lunar cycle, the new moon seems to herald sharks inshore more often than the full moon, night or day. Again, scientists think this is linked to their prey and the increased activity inshore during spring tides. One more point worth considering is that at Fish Hoek shark sightings are 1.6 times high- er during the afternoon shift compared to the morning, but at Muizenberg the time of day makes no difference. T he question is, will all this data gather- ing make a differ- ence? Will ocean users pander to the calling of a summer’s afternoon when the waters are warm and the new moon is a sliver in the sky, or will they synchronise with the lunar calendar and chilly seas for scientif- ically predicted safer surfs? We already know that the population of white sharks near the shore is greatest in summer, yet the number of people in the water also peaks in this sea- son. I believe the call of good surf or sim- ply the urge to dive in will win, provided that time has calmed the panic after any encounters – and as long as the Shark Spotters are there. To find out more about Shark Spotters (includ- ing donation information), go to www. sharkspotters.co.za or follow them on N Fish Hoek Muizenberg Muizenberg beach Cape Point Seal Island 5 km ATLANTIC OCEAN False Bay ABOVE Xeribus, exces eseque as ut eum fuga. Udis voluptat eaquiam usant, officab orerspelit, qui dolore net porecto optati ut aliandi cipitatiumet veratibus e pta velis eos erum rem ipsumetume cuptaquo to cum vel etur, si quidenim am reptis nescia numquatis rae venis dunt. Ficium, am, optatempore non consernat. Ed unt quo to dia a perrore pe estis erro con estiam, occupti onsento ius delessi mentotatur, sequia duscipis dolenis serkhdg vdkfjxg dfhjxg kuezrdxhf uvgzdxf cgjvbdfx ,cughez dxurgf vudgxf cg,jvdz f,cjgv dzrjxfgv jdygfxf jygzdszsc xcv FLAG WARNING SYSTEM text to come...
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