Cape Town’s clean, temperate waters support seals, rays, dolphins, penguins, whales—and more than 250 great white sharks that prey on them. This is Cape Town as seen from Robben Island. (Photo: Terry FitzPatrick)
Great white sharks are found throughout the world, prompting many beach communities to set up special nets to protect swimmers and surfers. But Cape Town, South Africa is taking a different approach- they’ve set up a system of shark spotters who are on the lookout and sound an alarm when danger lurks in the water. Terry FitzPatrick explains how it works.
GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman.
[MUSIC FROM “JAWS” THE MOVIE]
GELLERMAN: They’re out there, lurking in the deep, hungry, waiting.
[MUSIC FROM “JAWS” THE MOVIE]
GELLERMAN: Actually, sharks aren’t all that dangerous. According to the International Shark attack file, there were just 62 confirmed, unprovoked shark attacks on people in all of 2006. That very same year, 150 people were killed by falling coconuts.
Still, you don’t want to have a close encounter with a great white in the deep blue, so some beaches where sharks share the water with swimmers are trying out new ways to protect people. In Cape Town, South Africa they’ve created a network of ‘spotters’ who sound an alarm when danger lurks below.
Terry Fitzpatrick lived to tell our tale.
FITZPATRICK: If you’re swimming along Cape Town’s ocean beach, this is a sound you do not want to hear.
[THREE BLASTS OF HORN]
FITZPATRICK: This is just a test. But about 50 times a year this horn--and an even louder siren-- signal an actual alarm. It means a great white shark is swimming toward shore.
FITZPATRICK: Yvonne Kamp of the Cape Town shark spotter patrol says the warnings work.
KAMP: It really just takes a few minutes. That siren goes and everybody knows the drill. The shark spotters also walk up and down and blow whistle and wave hands, you know whatever it takes to get the last people out of the water.
[BEACH SOUND FADES DOWN MOUNTAIN ROAD SOUND FADES UP WITH WALKIE-TALKIE SOUND]
FITZPATRICK: The shark spotters are a team of 20 specially-trained lookouts, funded by the city of Cape Town, the World Wildlife Fund and local surf shops. Their work begins not on the beach, but in the mountains high above shoreline.
FITZPATRICK: Here, Tracey Provins peers at the ocean using high-power binoculars.
PROVINS: Visibility is about ten percent. I’ve got about 20 surfers and ten bathers, copy.
FITZPATRICK: Provins says a great white shark is hard to miss. They can grow up to 20 feet long.
PROVINS: It’s a dark shadow. Most of the time, they don’t come up. If they come up, we’ll just see the fin.
FITZPATRICK: Provins uses a walkie-talkie radio to warn the beaches below. She tracks everything in the water because wherever there’s prey, predators follow.
FITZPATRICK: Great white sharks are a particular problem in Cape Town. At least 250 of them come to feed at a seal colony that lives on an island close to shore.
Marine biologist Alison Kock at the University of Cape Town has been using underwater radio beacons to study the sharks.
FITZPATRICK: The beacons look like thick grey pencils with fish-hooks at the end.
KOCK: And what we have here is an acoustic monitor. And what these do is they work in conjunction with a transmitter, which we tag the sharks with. So when we get up close and personal with the sharks, we try to attach these transmitters to them. And this transmitter sends out a unique code.
KOCK: White sharks are particularly confident, curious animals. They’re really interested in people. And for the most part they don’t do anything. They swim by, they have a look, they swim by, and they carry on swimming.
FITZPATRICK: But with more than 100 teeth, even a curious nibble from a great white can maim or kill a person. Cape Town’s shark spotter program began three years ago after a series of attacks. There were calls to cull the shark population. But great whites are an endangered species, and Kock says killing them would upset the region’s balance of marine wildlife.
KOCK: Great white sharks are the top predator in our waters here in Cape Town. So this means that they have a lot of influence on all the species below them. They not only prey on seals, they prey on different shark species, fish populations, rays — all kinds of things.
[MARINA COMPRESSOR SOUND FADES OUT, BEACH AMBIENCE FADES UP]
FITZPATRICK: Shark spotter Yvonne Kamp says safety nets were ruled out for Cape Town because sharks, dolphins, turtles, penguins and whales get tangled in them and die. She says her network of warning stations is a healthy compromise.
FITZPATRICK: Many surfers and swimmers support this approach.
WOMAN: People should leave the water first before taking out any sharks. You know, it’s their world and they should be left alone.
MAN: I think the sharks have just as much right to be in the water as we have, and they are entitled to be there.
WOMAN: I think if they wanted to attack people there would be more attacks, because there are a lot out there. So basically, you take your chances. (laughs)
[WALKIE-TALKIE CHATTER “Copy lookout? Copy. Copy Noordhoek? Copy. Okay guys, stand by.”]
FITZPATRICK: The shark spotting program does more than safeguard the beach. Yvonne Kamp says it increases awareness about the role sharks play in the marine ecosystem. And it provides jobs.
KAMP: The shark spotting program is primarily a safety program, but it's also creating opportunities for people, like the shark spotters. A lot of them of them were unemployed. So there’s a lot of other spin-offs from the program besides the safety of the people in the water.
[WALKIE-TALKIE CHATTER “I just need a situation, please give me your situation, please.”]
FITZPATRICK: The spotting team seems to be beating the odds. According to Shark Attack File, a group that tracks incidents worldwide, roughly 90 shark bites are reported each year. On average, six people are killed. But since the spotters began protecting ten popular beaches, they haven’t had a single shark attack.
[WALKIE-TALKIE CHATTER “Okay, can I get the situation please.”]
FITZPATRICK: For Living on Earth, I’m Terry Fitzpatrick in Cape Town.
[BEACH SOUND FADES OUT]
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