Homeless to keep watch for great white sharks

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A South African shark-spotting programme to warn surfers and swimmers about the approach of great whites will be the first project to train homeless people on the coastline to warn that the creatures are near.

Environmentalists announced that homeless and other disadvantaged people will be taught to scour the ocean and sound an alert if they see one of the mighty predators.

Experts, who convened on Thursday to discuss how to balance protecting both white sharks and surfers and swimmers ahead of the tourist season, stressed that people posed a far greater risk to sharks than the other way around. The great white was classified as a protected species in 2004 because of a rapid drop in numbers in waters around Australia and the north-west Atlantic.

Sharks "don't make a living on preying on people. If they did we would have serial man-eaters out there," said Len Compagno, a leading shark expert who provided scientific advice to the 1975 movie Jaws - and who has ever since regretted the impact it had on the public.

On average, there is just one shark attack on a human each year in Cape Town, and six in total in South Africa. But great whites repeatedly hit the headlines because of close shaves, partly due to the increasing number of surfers and kayakers in the waters.

A great white, the only shark species that survives in Cape Town's cold Atlantic waters, recently bit off the foot of a lifesaver, and this week one repeatedly circled a surfer before swimming away.

The number of great whites off the coast of South Africa is believed to have been stable at about 1,200 since 1991, the shark expert Alison Kock said, although she stressed that the figures were unreliable because of the vast distances the sharks swim. She is in the middle of a project to tag great whites in the waters around Cape Town.

Greg Oelofse, Cape Town's environmental policy co-ordinator, said that spotters sighted great whites 165 times on two beaches on the False Bay stretch of coastline last year. This year they have seen the sharks 69 times - but this will increase rapidly during the summer season.

Trained spotters with binoculars and special glasses stand on hills above popular beaches. Each time a great white is seen entering the bay, a siren is sounded and the order given to clear the water. The plan is to double the number of beaches under surveillance to six, and set up a website and central phone number so that surfers can check on shark activity.

Mr Oelofse said that the warning system was a better option than shark nets, which are affected by rough waters around Cape Town and which ensnare dolphins, turtles and other shark species. The east coast resort of Durban has cut shark attack fatalities to virtually zero by using nets - but they kill some 600 tiger and bull sharks each year.

The growing popularity of cage diving, whereby boat operators use bait to lure sharks towards tourists, was not deemed to have made a big difference to the number of attacks. Under South African law, diving companies are allowed to use bait only to attract the sharks - rather than feed them - so that the sharks do not associate boats with food. However, there are reports that the law is being flouted.

Geremy Cliff, a member of the Natal Sharks Board, said hunger was rarely the reason for shark attacks. He said the great white's natural aggression and curiosity were more likely motives. "They are very curious and might just want to give a gentle nudge. But, unfortunately, that can cause serious injury," he said.