Friday, March 16, 2007

Increase in shark spotters will help protect both great white sharks and swimmers

A South African shark-spotting program to warn surfers and swimmers about the approach of great whites is to be expanded, environmentalists said Thursday, though they added the sharks have more to fear than humans.

Experts, who met Thursday to discuss how to balance protecting great white sharks and beachgoers ahead of the busy 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 Northwest Atlantic.

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

The number of great whites in South Africa is believed to have stabilized at around 1,200 since 1991, said shark expert Alison Kock, although she stressed the figures were unreliable because of the vast distances the sharks swim. Kock is in the middle of a drive to tag great whites in the waters around Cape Town to monitor their movements.

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.

Patrick Davids, 33, was among the original team of spotters recruited three years ago after shark attacks that killed an elderly woman and maimed a teenager.

"I used to sleep outside and scavenge through garbage bins. Now I‘ve got this job, life is great," he said.

The east coast resort of Durban has cut the number of fatalities from shark attacks to virtually zero by using nets — but at the price of killing some 600 tiger and bull sharks each year.

Under South African law, diving companies are only allowed to use bait to attract the sharks — not feed them — so the sharks do not associate boats with food. However, there are frequent reports that the law is being flouted by operators keen to ensure that the tourist‘s encounter with the shark is as spectacular and scary as possible.

"They are very curious and might just want to give a gentle nudge. But unfortunately for humans, that can cause serious injury," Cliff said.


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