Seferino Gelderblom standing outside the Shark Spotters office in Muizenberg next to the shark sightings board.
Shark Spotters is a pioneering shark safety program that aims to keep humans safe from negative shark interactions, but without any detriment to the sharks themselves or the marine ecosystem.
The people of Cape Town are known for their laid back, beach-loving lifestyle, spending their days in the ocean working on their surfing techniques, snorkelling amongst the kelp forests or enjoying a leisurely swim. Although the ocean induces a sense of calm and clarity for many of them, the proximity of people and wildlife can be very problematic.
Cape Town is situated on the Western Cape Peninsular, surrounded by the False Bay coastline which is renowned for the high numbers of white sharks in the area. Although rare, white sharks are responsible for most bite injuries in recreational waters.
The earliest record of a Great White bite in South African waters was in 1922 and occurred in False Bay, where the swimmer escaped with minor injuries. Between 1922 and 2014 there have been 94 incidents caused by Great White sharksof which approximately 25 were fatal, many of these incidents resulting in the loss of limbs.
One famous story in Cape Town is that of the paralympian swimmer Achmat Hassiem whose leg was severed during a life guard exercise in Muizenberg beach, also referred to as ‘surfer’s corner’. Achmat was bitten as he was distracting the shark away from his brother Tariq, who escaped unharmed. He was hauled to safety and airlifted to hospital. Luckily he survived. Since the shark incident he has since gone on to be a medal-winning Paralympian, traveling the world representing his country. Achhmat wanted to give something back to the animal that had given him these opportunities and subsequently became a passionate marine conservationist, advocating for the protection of sharks.
Achmat was lucky, he and his brother survived, but others have not been so fortunate. During the 2000’s there were several shark incidents, and 2 fatalities. In response to these accidents, Shark Spotters was initiated.
Achmat Hassiem, image courtesy AP PHOTO/PEW ENVIRONMENT GROUP
Achmat Hassiem has been named "Global Shark Guardian" by the UN Save our Sharks Coalition, Image courtesy of GOTEL AFRICA
Shark Spotters is a Non-Profit organisation implemented by local surfers and business owners in 2004. It is a unique platform that endeavours to find a solution to the negative encounters between people and sharks. In the beginning shark spotting was carried out on a ad hoc basis. Local car guards were used as spotters on the mountains, calling down to warn the surfers if any sharks had been seen. It wasn’t long before the community had raised enough funds to install the first siren flagpole. Spotters armed with binoculars, polarised glasses and two-way radios were positioned on the surrounding mountains and on the beaches. For each beach there were two spotters, one positioned at an elevated point above the beach, the other on the beach. They were in constant radio contact, ensuring that no time was lost once sharks were spotted. The program has been a huge success, locally and internationally. Shark Spotters has not only increased safety for avid surfers and other water lovers, it also contributes to research on shark ecology and behaviour, raises awareness and provides work opportunities and skills development for people from disadvantaged backgrounds. I interviewed one of the Spotters, Seferino Gelderblom to find out what it’s like to be a Shark Spotter:
How did you become involved in Shark Spotters?
I started when I was at school, just working part time as a way of making money. When I left school, I came down the beach and the old supervisor asked me if I would come and work full time, so now I have been here 9 years. I had no particular interest in sharks at the time, it was just a job but now it’s more of a passion, now it is part of my life.
How long has the program been running?
The program has been running for 12 years and the team has grown a lot. We now have a net in Fish Hoek that needs deploying every morning and every evening so we need an extra team of Spotters to do that.
Tell me about the net, is the net dangerous to sharks and other marine life?
The net was put up on a trial basis the year before last. It’s called an exclusive net, so its not there to kill any marine life, it is there to separate sharks from human beings. Whenever we have a shark sighting in Fish Hoek, the beaches start being cleared, and people still have to get out of the water, whether they are in the net or outside of the net. So its not there to harm any marine life, its just there as a small barrier for beaches. The net is mostly for swimmers, as the area that is cut off is quite small. Whenever there are whales and dolphins around the bay, the boats go out and try to lure them away. There was once a shark seen swimming against the net but was not caught in the net, so that shows that it is successful.
How many Spotters are in the team and what are there backgrounds?
There are 46 spotters, all different ages. Most of them are from Cape Town, Muizenberg, Steenberg. The program aims at giving jobs to people with disadvantaged backgrounds so we all have a different background.
What is the daily routine?
So If I am working on the beach, I will take a video for the Shark Spotters App we have now, upload it on the surf-cam so the surfers can check what the waves are like. Also if there is a shark, I will be the one to change the flags, update the app, change the flag on the app and let people know there is a shark around. I will fly the drone as well to see what species of shark it is.
Can you tell what species of shark it is?
When you’re up in the mountain you can definitely tell what type of shark it is because Bronze Whalers and Great Whites have different movements, we check their movements, their pectoral fins and their tail movements and also the tip of the nose, its slightly different. We usually get white sharks and bronze whalers here but I have seen a great hammerhead on the drone before-just a small one, around 1.5 meters.
Are you given training on species identification?
Not really, as a Shark Spotter, you come to learn the different type of sharks you are dealing with, so it all becomes general knowledge. We have a shark scientist who educate us on the sharks’ behaviour as they all behave differently.
Statistically, how often are sharks seen?
Around 80 a year which is about 4 a month-spread out all over the sites we spot.
We cover 8 areas, 4 are seasonal and the other are all year round. We see the most sharks in Muizenberg and Fish Hoek.
Muizenberg is hub for beginner surfers, they don’t look too worried about the sharks here. There are people in the water even when the black flag is up and you can not spot well. Do you think people are worried about the sharks?
No, it looks like they trust the Shark Spotters. Most of the sharks we spot is under the black flag. If we fly black flag it doesn’t mean we can’t see at all, it means we can still see but there may be a certain area that has a lot of glare, or some brown water so it makes it a little bit hard to see in that spot. The best time to spot is after 10 and 11am and before 3 pm
Have people’s perceptions changed about the sharks over the years? Are they more positive because they feel safer?
Because Shark Spotters are here, they feel safer, there are some people that will always be negative towards sharks. Most people fear them but respect them at the same time.
How do you feel about sharks?
I love sharks! If I can do cage diving every day I would. I don’t surf because I have a family and no time, not because I am scared.
What scientific data do you collect?
Most of the data is collected from Alison Kock, the shark scientist, but from our side we have a data set that we use. We have a map where we can record shark movements, the time of arrival and time of departure also we will record if there were dolphins or fish and that will give us a more specific idea of why the sharks were here, and the water. From this data we have found that if the water is 18 -19 degrees then there is likely to be sharks around. That data has been collected from 2004 to now. Usually there will be sharks when there are Yellowtail around too, they are attracted to these baitfish.
Do you have any advice do you have for surfers to stay safe?
Always surf between flags, this is the area that we can look at. Paddle in groups, don’t paddle alone, when you’re bleeding, don’t go out as it can attract the sharks. Don’t go too far, it is difficult to spot sharks that are far out, don’t go by yourself. Sharks come in close, even waist deep water. Every year, sharks act differently, this year some of the sharks are coming very close to the reef at Baileys Cottage, which I have never seen before. There was a shark not so long ago that was 70m offshore, so they do come close.
Have you been around to witness any shark bites?
No I haven’t and I wouldn’t want to. I have good experiences so far. We are expected to give First Aid, we are First Aid level 3 trained so when there is a shark bite, we can respond.
The last attack here was 2014 and, luckily he survived as the surfboard took the impact. It was quite a big shark. There are lots of Bronze Whaler sharks here, they have been seen on the gyrocopter. We have the same protocol for bronze whalers, whenever they are seen by the spotters, the beach will be cleared and flags will go up. They are also huge animaLs about 3-4 meters. We treat them as white sharks. We don’t want anything to happen to anybody, we don’t take the risk.
Signage outside the office explaining protocol and the Flag system:
The key to the success of this program is communication. There are signs and posters on the beaches explaining the protocol of the program to the public. They have a website and a Shark Spotters app that can be downloaded to ensure up-to-date information on shark sightings. Regular press coverage, education and outreach and positive shark related articles all play an integral part in keeping the people of Cape Town safe. Nonetheless, wherever sharks and humans interconnect, there will always be negative discernments, the Shark Spotters program is also helping to change people’s perceptions from one of fear to one of acceptance.