Shark spotting in Cape Town: mapping a social and conservation success story

Posted on May 8th, 2013 in Featured Conservation,General by Alta

Conservation is as much about people as it is about the environment. This is nowhere more true than in Cape Town, a city in the centre of biodiversity hotspot, where we are lucky enough to wake up to pristine beaches and panoramic views of our mountainous world wonder.

In fact, we have our own national park and marine protected area, right in the middle of our greater city. However, unlike with other national parks, where there are fences and camps and rules to stay in your car, we live in ours. We hike, run, walk and rock-climb our mountain, and we sail, kayak, swim and surf in our bays. As a consequence, sometimes, like when a spate of shark attacks occurred off the False Bay coast in 2004, we have to find new ways to live with some of the other species that call this very special place home.

The Shark Spotters programme is a now-celebrated example of what happens when a community rises to that challenge. If you had recently visited some of our False Bay beaches, you will know that there is a flag system in place to help water users know how safe it is to be in the ocean. Shark spotters, men and women from local communities that are employed full-time by the programme, are positioned with polarised sunglasses and binoculars at strategic elevated points along the coastline. When a shark is spotted, they radio this information to the beaches, where a white flag with a black shark is raised, and a siren sounded to warn bathers to get out of the water. The sightings are also live-tweeted, and immediately reported on their website.

The Shark Spotter flag warning system as explained on Muizenberg beach. Photo copyright Shark Spotters.

Shark spotting started on an ad-hoc basis in Muizenberg after the mentioned attacks of 2004, when avid surfer Greg Bertish asked car guards working in the area to keep a different kind of watch from the mountain, and warn him through the use of their cell phones of any sharks visible in the area. The programme eventually formalised, after Greg, together with (now) long-time shark spotter Rasta and Dave and Fiona Chudleigh sourced funds from the local surf community and local business, receiving enough sponsorship to install the first flagpole, signal system, siren alarm, and set up the first mountain watch.

The system was subsequently adopted by the Fish Hoek lifesaving club, followed soon after by the City of Cape Town and WWF’s involvement. Today, the project is supported by the City and the Save Our Seas Foundation as primary sponsors, and shark spotters are on duty 365 days a year at five of the sharkiest False Bay beaches, and at three more locations during peak seasons.

More than 1,300 sharks have been recorded since the programme started, most of these in summer, when there is both an increase of shark movement inshore, and water users in the Bay. To illustrate the extent of the programme and the work they do, we worked with the Shark Spotters Programme to create this map using Google Maps Engine lite,  an easy-to-use new tool for creating beautiful maps quickly. The map features the locations of Shark Spotters along the False Bay coastline, as well as all reported white shark sightings this past summer. Incidentally, you can learn how to make this map by taking this tutorial authored by Google Earth Outreach using the Shark Spotter data.



Innovation isn’t stopping anytime soon for this local success story. Whilst the spotters are still steadfastly spotting sharks from our mountain sentinels, the programme also continues to work with communities, businesses and government to raise funds for the programme, research shark behaviour off the False Bay and South African coast, educate and raise public  awareness, and find new ways to keep Cape Town bathers and the spectacular fish that swim of our shores, safe.


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