Friday, May 12, 2006

Shark spotters observe closely a great white shark

John Yeld

"Sjoe, but it's like a Boeing!"

That was the reaction of shark-spotter Patrick "Rasta" Davids to his first close-up sight of a Great White shark - much, much closer than his normal view from his vantage point high on Boyes Drive.
And fellow spotter Monwabisi Sikweyiya was equally impressed, if not quite as vocal.

"It's beautiful, and it's so fat!" Sikweyiya remarked after the shark, estimated at about 3.7 metres and not particularly big for this species, had slid gracefully through the water around the boat they were in just off Seal Island in False Bay.

Davids and Sikweyiya are two of the shark-spotters employed in Cape Town's innovative programme designed to enhance bather safety at popular recreational beaches and prevent, or at least significantly reduce, the chances of another shark attack.

The programme acquired particular urgency following the fatal shark attack on Tyna Webb in Fish Hoek bay in November 2004. Spotters were first employed by two community-driven programmes: at Fish Hoek, set up through the Fish Hoek Lifesaving Club, and at Muizenberg, organised by surfer-businessman Greg Bertish and his friends and volunteers.

But it has since been formalised through the multi-membership Shark Working Group, and a shark spotting co-ordinator, Yvonne Kamp, has been employed through sponsorship by WWF-SA's Sanlam Marine Programme and the Table Mountain Fund.

Now the programme is being expanded to cover five more bathing sites along the False Bay coastline - Monwabisi, Sunrise, Mnandi, Strandfontein and Blue Waters - where spotters will be operational over the Christmas-New Year period.

From their vantage points high on the mountain, the shark spotters watch for Great Whites and notify officials on the beaches when they are seen in the vicinity of bathers and surfers.

Last year, Sikweyiya and Davids recorded 135 sightings of these massive sharks from their Boyes Drive vantage point.

But, until now, their views of these top marine predators have been restricted to what are no more than small dark shadows in the sea off Bailey's Cottage.

Partly to say "thank you" for their efforts to date and partly to improve their knowledge of the sharks that they spend long days watching, the Shark Working Group arranged a trip to Seal Island for Davids and Sikweyiya this week with Alison Kock, a PhD student at the University of Cape Town who has been researching the Great Whites of False Bay for the past couple of years.

Kock tagged 17 of these sharks in 2005, another 23 last year and five so far this year.

When these sharks are within range (about a kilometre) of any of the 33 monitors deployed around False Bay, from Cape Point to Pringle Bay, a range of data about the sharks is transferred and can later be recovered and downloaded.

Kock is due to reveal some of her research findings at a symposium at the end of this month.
Although Davids has been out in boats before and Sikweyiya has been in a rubber duck off Muizenberg, neither had been out in False Bay before their trip on Monday.

When the first of the seven sharks that investigated the tuna-head bait and chum slick eventually cruised up to Kock's boat, Davids was especially entranced.

Later, Kock told Kamp: "You've lost a shark-spotter and I've gained an assistant." On the quay back at Simon's Town, Davids agreed: "I don't want to spot, I want to research - that was the experience of a lifetime."

Sikweyiya said the trip had been "perfect, wonderful".

"They've come away with a new appreciation for sharks, definitely," said Kamp.


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