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The Challenges of Coexisting with Sharks

Shark Warning Flag in Muizenberg, Cape Town

The Shark Spotters of False Bay protect sharks and humans alike

Sharks usually aren´t on peoples´ list when it comes to favourite animals. Quite the contrary: Many see them simply as killing machines roaming our oceans and waiting to attack whatever dares to come too close. But coexistence with sharks is possible for humans, despite their spatial overlap in multiple areas worldwide. Besides, they play a crucial role in our ecosystem. An organisation from Muizenberg, the Shark Spotters, helps to protect both species, humans and sharks, trying to change how people look at the marine predators.

After an unusually high number of shark attacks in the Cape Town area in the early 2000s, the Shark Spotters started as an ad hoc community based project in 2004. With help from the City of Cape Town the organisation grew to become a unique program and shark safety solution worldwide. Their unprecedented way of reducing interactions between sharks and recreational water users attracted a lot of attention. Right now, they employ 31 spotters. From their lookout points high up in the mountains on six beaches in False Bay, they provide a service of visual surveillance trying to detect nearby sharks at the beaches that might pose a threat to humans.

On the look-out

The shifts for the spotters are five hours long, usually from 8am to 1 pm. After that another spotter takes over and stays till 6 pm. It isn´t easy for them to stay focussed for such a long time. They can´t simply use their smartphone as they might miss signs of an approaching shark. Being a shark spotter is a responsibility. They have the public´s safety in their hands. Their main tools are polarised sunglasses and a binocular. With their walkie talkies they can contact a crew member on the beach and provide information on shark sightings and how to react.

Evaluating whether a certain shark is a threat needs experience. Monwabisi Sikweyiya, born and raised in Khayelitsha, has been a regular spotter since day one of the company. Now he coordinates the spotters and is only on the look-out when there is a need. "You learn the spotting by doing it. I didn´t know anything about sharks when I started and I was very nervous during my first shifts. The important thing is the information that you give your colleague at the beach" There is of course no need to clear the beach every time a shark is sighted. It all depends on its distance to the people and its swimming direction. Different flags inform people about the situation, whether the spotting conditions are good or bad (normally they are poor because of glare and winds) and whether there has been a sighting close to the beach. In that case, a siren sounds. Swimmers and surfers must leave the water immediately then.

"You learn the spotting by doing it. I didn´t know anything about sharks when I started and I was very nervous during my first shifts." Monwabisi
New technologies

Currently, Shark Spotters conducts research on new technologies that might improve the spotting precision and the service they provide. They already use drones to identify the exact species of a sighted shark. Hence, every spotter gets a drone license during his training. An app gives people an overview of which beaches the spotters are occupying currently and what the weather conditions are like. Of course it sends a notification once a shark has been sighted. An entirely new approach to support the spotters could be automatic cameras. They are fixed and overlook the sea. With an algorithm that the company is currently working on, the cameras can detect shark movements in the water that a spotter might have missed or helped him when the spotting conditions are exceptionally poor. Additionally, it is an option for beaches with no naturally elevated points for a look-out.

Another method to keep the people in the water safe are exclusion nets. Since 2013 one is in use in Fish Hoek - the only place where the topography of the beach area is suitable. These nets form a barrier from the sea surface to the seafloor that completely encloses an area and prevents sharks and other marine animals from entering it. To keep the environmental impact as low as possible, a group of ten people deploy and retrieve it daily. It usually takes them no longer than three minutes. Unlike conventional shark nets, which are fishing devices and normally kill the animals once they are caught in them, the net in Fish Hoek has a very fine mesh and thus prevents any animal from getting entangled.

The sharks´ role in our ecosystem

Both the spotting and the exclusion nets have proved to be effective methods to avoid shark incidents and the following overreaction of the public. The last shark attack in False Bay happened in 2014 with the last fatality in 2012. In the years between 2000 and 2005, there were eight attacks, compared to only five in the 14 years since. Tamlyn Engelbrecht, who is responsible for marine research at Shark Spotters, explains: "A shark attack always causes irrational fear. And when there are immediate responses from the government, they overreact. That is the main reason shark populations are as troubled as they are today." The media regularly add to this fear through sensationalist headlines. Culling programs and lethal control campaigns follow. At Shark Spotters, it is all about finding the balance between protecting the sharks and protecting the people. Tamlyn recognized a slight change in public attitude:

"I think we have finally come to a point where some people begin to understand that sharks do more good than harm." Tamlyn

As sharks are top predators, their role in maintaining a healthy marine environment is crucial. Through their feeding activities they control the number of prey in a certain area and they influence the prey activity. "When you remove them, you have a lot of cascading things happening. Which exactly is still unknown. But it will have a massive impact on the dynamics of our ecosystem and its sustainability. These systems relied on sharks to keep the balance for millions of years", Tamlyn says. A rapid decline in the number of sharks and their long-term absence would mean to destabilise the entire ecosystem. Protecting the endangered great white sharks is among the main goals of Shark Spotters.

No Great White Sharks in 2019

Unsurprisingly, the Spotters are worried about the low numbers of white shark sightings in False Bay in the last five years. In fact, in 2019 there was not one single sighting. Bronze whalers and sevengill sharks, yes. But no Great Whites. It is the first time in the history of Shark Spotters. Several factors might have influenced this development like water temperature or illegal fishing activities. Recently there were even reports of Orcas feeding on white sharks. Tamlyn is confident that it isn´t a total disappearance though. "It is more of a population shift. There have been more sightings in Gansbaai and Mossel Bay." Nevertheless, the Shark Spotters need to decide whether they want to further decrease the number of beaches they occupy. At the moment they are active on six beaches. Muizenberg, Caves, Clovelly, Fish Hoek, Kalk Bay and Monwabisi. A few years ago, there were 10, but at some, the shark activity was so low it wasn´t worth keeping the look-out point.

Shark education

"We don´t want to reduce our capacities and then the white sharks return in full force. They could be back anytime. We need to stay vigilant" Tamlyn says. And a short-term decline isn´t new to the organisation. In 2009 there were already very few sightings. Then, in 2010 the number of sharks in False Bay was bigger than ever since the program started. "We need to educate the people and tell them to stay cautious", she adds.

Shark education starts at a very young age. The Shark Spotters provide lessons for children in elementary school already. Tamlyn explains: "We want to make them understand that sharks aren´t maneaters you have to be afraid of. They aren´t in the ocean to get us. We actually need them and when we step into the ocean it is their habitat, not ours." For Monwabisi, the experienced spotter, the work at Shark Spotters caused him to change his mindset. Now he is more aware of the environment and nature itself. "You must always think about: What will be the impact of what I do? With that knowledge I could grow as a person, it changed me a little. Still I feel I haven´t done enough. "

"I have a responsibility to educate others. That is how we can change the world." Monwabisi

To protect these "mind-blowing creatures", as Tamlyn calls the sharks, is a challenging task. "I found my passion in changing peoples´ perspectives", she says. "Sharks are very misunderstood animals. I have a feeling of respect for them. If more people saw them in their natural environment, maybe sharks would have a different reputation."

My name is Florian and I´ll be volunteering at the Cape Chameleon for the next four weeks. I studied Sports Journalism in Germany and worked for several German newspapers and magazines. Now I´m ready to explore Cape Town and a get a new perspective on journalism and writing. And what better moment could there be to write about sports in the Mother City than after the Springboks historic World Cup victory 2019? Stay tuned!

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