Trekking up the mountain to the lookout point, flying flags and constantly scanning the bay for any sign of one of the most powerful creatures in the world – sharks – this is the scary but spectacular life of a shark spotter.
LIVE tagged along with Monwabisi Sikhweyiya to get a peek of what goes on in the day of a spotter.
Gone are the times when police officers, teachers, nurses and fire fighters were the only heroes out there; shark spotters are making their way to hero-ville. In 2004, businesses along Muizenberg Beach’s Surfers’ Corner started losing clients due to an increase in the number of people being attacked by sharks. As a result they decided to form what we know today as the shark spotters programme, which works to safeguard six beaches around Cape Town: Muizenberg, Fish Hoek, Clovelly, Glencairn, Noodhoek and St. James. Shark spotters are responsible for safeguarding swimmers and surfers by constantly checking for any signs of great white sharks.
Field manager of the shark spotters, Monwabisi Sikhweyiya is a humble man who is passionate about saving lives. He joined the lifesaving initiative at the age of 16, and was one of the founders of the spotting programme in 2004. Driving around in a shark spotters vehicle, he makes sure that his colleagues are stationed at their designated lookout points, the right flags are flown, and that the spotters receive their lunch goodie-bags sponsored by Barra Udas restaurant.
“If my son woke up one day and said he wants to be a shark spotter, I would definitely give him a go-ahead. It’s not about making money, it’s about making a difference by saving someone else’s life,” Monwabisi told LIVE.
The challenging and demanding job of a spotter begins at 7am and ends at 7pm every day. They are responsible for spotting sharks in the water and warning beach lovers if this opportunistic killer has been identified. The main duties of a shark spotter include going up to the mountain to their lookout points to check for sharks by scanning the sea using binoculars, and checking for other marine mammals e.g. dolphins and seals (the presence of these mammals often means the enormous white shark may not be far behind). Flying different coloured flags that carry specific messages from “all safe” to “a shark has been spotted and you should get out of the water immediately”: this is the life of a shark spotter.
The shark spotters take turns working shifts on the mountain side and on the beach. Sharp eyes, polarised sunglasses (which reduce the glare on the water), binoculars and walkie-talkie radios assist the watchers in constantly scanning the bay for any signs of sharks. As rewarding as it may be to save lives, this job comes with challenges. The most difficult challenge, according to Monwabisi, is having to spot a shark after heavy rains, because the ocean water may not be clear, making it very difficult to see.
An increase in shark activity can be associated with a growth in biological activity often identified by schools of fish, the presence of marine mammals and high marine bird activity. As such the spotters work with the yellowtail fishermen, because if yellowtail are swimming around, it’s likely that hungry sharks may follow. The spotters naturally also partner with lifesavers, together keeping the beach safe by deciding how soon the public can return to the water after a shark has been spotted.
According to Monwabisi since the shark spotters programme started, Cape Town beaches have suffered only two attacks, and there have been 857 sightings. Since conditions at Cape Town beaches make barrier nets difficult (nets in the sea that keep sharks out of swimming areas) it is very important for everyone to understand the spotters’ flags, as their message could save your life.
“It is now much safer to surf at Muizenberg beach,” surfer Bapi Makanya said.
And to all the girls out there with good eyesight, this scary but spectacular career is not only for guys: we can also join this amazing programme and save lives. So the next time you feel like going to the beach, don’t hesitate to holler at a shark spotter, because they are there to save your life.
We live in an area of rich natural heritage, where these animals have always existed. Conflicts occur because people have become more numerous and are entering what was once animal territory. The animals aren’t there to get us, but are just doing what comes naturally to them. As we now are in their territories, the possibility for conflict increases. So pay attention to the flags and avoid conflict!
- Green: spotting conditions good and no sharks have been seen
- Black: spotting conditions poor or invisible
- Red: high shark alert
- White: a shark has been spotted – leave the water immediately.
SAFETY ADVICE WHILE IN THE WATER
- Do not swim while bleeding from a wound, sharks can scent blood within 500 metres.
- Do not swim deeper than you can stand.
- Stay in the breakers.
- Look out for seals, fish and sea birds, which could all indicate the likelihood of sharks in the area.