Spotting for sharks

In response to this series of incidents, the City of Cape Town convened a meeting of specialists to decide how to deal with the situation. Among the suggestions was the option to kill the area’s sharks, a tactic used in other parts of the country. One of the participants at the meeting was Alison Kock. Although now recognised as among the foremost marine biologists and shark experts in the country, then she was just starting out as a scientist – and so was any sort of research on False Bay’s white sharks.

At about the same time, the local community launched its own initiative in response to the incidents to try to resuscitate beachfront business.

‘After the shark bites people were very scared. They didn’t want to come and use the beach’, says Sarah Waries.

Waries is the programme manager for the Shark Spotters. The idea for the initiative began with the realisation that the mountains overlooking False Bay’s beaches were the ideal place to watch for sharks. ‘So Greg Bertish, who was a well-known surfer, and Dave and Fiona Chudleigh, who own one of the surf shops, got together, and they got Patrick Rasta Davids and Monwabisi [Sikweyiya], our field manager now, and they put Monwa on the mountain and Patrick on the beach … and it literally just grew from there.’

A similar system started up in parallel at Fish Hoek, harnessing the keen eyes of fish spotters, who usually detect and communicate the locations of shoals of fish to fishermen. In a progressive move on the City’s part, it rejected the idea of a cull and decided to get behind the spotters and formalise the programme. What has resulted is a pioneering venture that is socially and ecologically responsible, and the only one of its kind.

Equipped with polarised glasses, binoculars and two-way radios, the Shark Spotters operate an early warning system by watching for sharks at beaches and surf spots around False Bay 365 days a year. They also deploy and monitor an award-winning shark exclusion net at Fish Hoek – one that’s designed not to catch anything, but to act as a barrier. In the 10 years since it began the programme has grown from strength to strength, expanding from one site to eight, a single shark sighting to 1,700 and one spotter to 42 employees. Led by Kock and Waries, it now employs 40 people from previously disadvantaged backgrounds to keep their eyes trained on the waters of False Bay.