Who I am‘Growing up in Cape Town, South Africa, I’ve always enjoyed being close to the sea, but having a connection to one of its most feared and revered inhabitants – well, I never saw that coming,’ says Shark Spotters’ research manager, Alison Kock. ‘Fifteen years ago I was studying marine biology at the University of Cape Town and at the weekends I managed a car wash. One busy morning I saw something in the boot of a customer’s car that stunned me: photographs of a fully airborne great white shark just off Seal Island in False Bay. I couldn’t believe it.
‘Now a marine scientist, I’m determined to help secure the future of sharks through scientific research and community-based conservation strategies. My PhD, currently under review, is on the behavioural ecology of white sharks in False Bay. It’s critical for the conservation of sharks that everyone gets to know what researchers learn about them, which is why I try to make my work as accessible as possible. Sharks bring enormous personal, cultural, environmental and economic value to local regions, and this drives my passion to understand and conserve these magnificent predators.‘My colleague Monwabisi, or Monwa, Sikweyiya is our field manager. He was born and raised in Khayelitsha, one of the biggest townships in Cape Town, and developed a love for the beach from an early age. He joined the local surf lifesaving club at the age of 15 and as well as being a lifeguard at his local beach he took part in the Learn 2 Swim programme, teaching young kids from the townships to swim so that there would be fewer drownings over the festive period.
‘In 2004 Monwa caught the attention of Greg Bertish, a founding member of Shark Spotters. He and Patrick ‘Rasta’ Davids were appointed the first spotters in Cape Town, pioneering the programme and contributing greatly to its success. Now Monwa is responsible for overseeing our on-the-ground operations and for training new spotters. His bravery and quick thinking in response to a shark bite incident on Clovelly beach in 2011 led to an award from the mayor of Cape Town. By administering first aid directly, Monwa contributed to saving the victim’s life.‘Sarah Titley, our project manager, grew up in landlocked Nepal, so although she has always been seriously passionate about wildlife and conservation, her interest in marine life did not develop until much later. After school she spent some time in Zambia as a conservation research assistant before completing a degree in zoology at Southampton University.
‘For her honours thesis Sarah came to Cape Town to study the Chacma baboons. Having fallen in love with the area, she returned as soon as her studies were completed and took up a position with a local environmental organisation managing a range of projects. She even popped back to the UK to implement the Wimbledon tennis tournament’s first recycling system. Now she is responsible for the overall running of the Shark Spotters programme, dealing with all aspects from budgets to human resources. She enjoys the daily challenges of managing such a dynamic and innovative project, as well as her new-found passion for sharks and marine life.‘And then there are the spotters themselves. The programme employs 26, all sourced from previously disadvantaged areas within 10 kilometres of the beaches where they work. No particular qualifications are necessary, but sharp eyesight and a passion for the ocean are essential. The spotters go through extensive training when they join the programme, but are learning all the time – the ocean is different every day and you never know what you are going to see! Most of them have been with the programme for at least two years, and more than half for five years or longer. Their knowledge of sharks on our coastline is second to none and their dedication makes them a fantastic team to work with, inspiring confidence for using their beaches.’
Where I workA spate of shark bite incidents in 2004 and an increase in shark sightings close to popular beaches around the Cape Peninsula prompted a local businessman to set up an ad hoc warning system at Muizenberg. He asked individuals working as lifeguards and car guards to keep watch from the mountain overlooking the beach and raise the alarm if they saw any sharks in the area. At the same time a similar informal system, involving trek-net fishermen, operated in Fish Hoek. Soon local businesses got on board and the flag system and shark siren were installed.After 18 months the pioneering programme had proved to be hugely successful and attracted local and international attention for its novel approach to finding a solution to potential conflict between humans and sharks. In 2006 the City of Cape Town helped to formalise it so that expansion to additional beaches could begin. Three years later the Save Our Seas Foundation began co-funding the programme, enabling it to develop further and incorporate ground-breaking white shark research. Shark Spotters is now the primary shark safety programme used in Cape Town.
What I doShark Spotters improves beach safety through both shark warnings and emergency assistance in the event of a shark incident. Its primary goal is to reduce the risk of shark bites by actively removing people from the water when a shark is in the area and educating the public about shark activity. It also raises public awareness about shark-related issues, provides employment opportunities and skills development for the spotters and, importantly, contributes to research on white shark ecology and behaviour. In turn, increased scientific knowledge about the species plays a part in the conservation and management of this apex predator.We believe that if we can reduce the already small risk of a shark bite, then we can make a meaningful contribution to white shark conservation, contribute to the community’s well-being and set a precedent in how people and sharks can co-exist.Shark spotters are positioned at strategic points on Cape Peninsula mountainsides, primarily along the False Bay coastline. Each one is equipped with polarised sunglasses and binoculars and is in radio contact with another spotter on the beach below. If a shark is seen, the beach spotter sounds a siren and raises a flag showing a black shark on a white background. Water users are requested to leave the sea when they hear the siren and return only when the all-clear signal is given.Other flags used are: shark outline on a green background – visibility good, no sharks seen; shark outline on a black background – visibility poor, no sharks seen; and white shark on a red background – high alert, a shark has been seen in the past two hours or there is an increased risk of one being in the area. No flag means that no spotter is on duty.The programme operates at eight beaches in Cape Town: seven in False Bay and one on the Atlantic coastline. Five of the beaches (Muizenberg, St James/Kalk Bay, Fish Hoek, Noordhoek and Kogel Bay) are protected year-round, mostly from 8 am to 6 pm, and the other three (Clovelly, Glencairn and Monwabisi) are watched on weekends and public holidays and during school holidays in summer.A lot of time and effort is invested in the skills development and empowerment of the spotters. Fishermen and experienced spotters show new recruits how to detect sharks and what to do when they see one, and first-aid training is provided so that shark bite victims can be given immediate medical care. Workshops on sharks and associated issues are held annually and customer service seminars help spotters to communicate effectively with the public. The spotters are also given the opportunity to gain field experience by joining white shark research trips.The research element of the programme focuses on the inshore presence and behaviour of white sharks to inform public safety policy and management strategies. Its key objectives are to determine where and when sharks are active in Cape waters, and whether their movements and behaviour are affected by changes in the environment or the availability of prey; to identify population trends; and to test shark safety technology and developments.Shark Spotters also collates data on shark attacks, responding to all local incidents to collect factual and objective information. This forms the basis of communication with the public to present a dispassionate case for sharks in shark–human conflict issues.