March 30th, 2012
Sharks, along with religion and politics, have become a topic best avoided at dinner parties and family gatherings... unless of course you're aiming to shake things up a bit. And, no, I'm not talking about the rugby team.
Being both endangered and dangerous, undeniably vulnerable as the recent violent death of a female Great White at Fish Hoek suggests, yet not particularly cute-and-fluffy, sharks seem to be the epitome of yin yang power that is said to rule over the natural world. Of course this uneasy balance between good and bad, fierce and defenseless makes them rather uncomprehendable, controversial and a hot topic for debate.
So, in order to shed a bit of light on their current standing in South Africa, and especially the Western Cape that has seen an increase of attacks over the past few years, we chat to Debbie Hargreaves, spokesperson for the Natal Sharks Board.
1. Sharks have become quite a hot topic among travellers to and frequenters of Western Cape beaches, as there seems to have been a marked increase in attacks over the past few years.
a) Is it true that attacks have been on the increase? Or is it just a misconception?
b) If it is true, what are the causes behind the increase?
a) There has certainly been an increase in the number of incidents over the last two decades.
b) One of the factors is the increasing number of people in the water at any one time; despite the cold water the use of wet and dry suits has provided divers and surfers good insulation from the chilly water, enabling them to remain in the water far longer than swimmers; the great white has been protected for 20 years, so growth in their numbers is to be expected.
2. Great White sharks are often the culprits in these attacks. While people are inclined to think of them as mindless killing machines, this is obviously not the case. What would drive a Great White to attack a bather?
The great white is usually the culprit in a serious shark attack in the Western Cape, because it is far more tolerant of cold water than other dangerous species such as tiger and Zambezi. None of these species are mindless killing machines; if they were there would far more attacks. There are a number of reasons why a great white may attack a human, these being curiosity, hunger, defending its territory to invaders, aggression during mating season.
3. The Great White Shark is an endangered species.a) What is the biggest threat to its survival at the moment? b) What is being done to protect it in South Africa? c) In your opinion, does something like shark cage diving do more good or harm in conservation efforts? d) Do you think there is any other endangered species that has a track record of fear on par with the Great White?
a) The biggest threat to great whites is human intervention. Fortunately South Africa was the first country in the world to protect this species in 1991. This has outlawed any form of targeted fishing for great whites. Incidental capture in a variety of fishing gear, including the recent capture in an experimental fishing net off Fish Hoek, will still continue, but it is likely to be at a sustainable rate.
b) Cage diving can raise the awareness for the need for conservation of the species and the environment. Care needs to be taken that this activity does not happen too close to known bathing beaches and that the permit conditions, such as no feeding of the sharks, are adhered to, to prevent the sharks developing an association between boats and food.
d) There are a number of land animals who are endangered, and can do serious harm to humans, but the situation is different as they are usually observed from the safety of a motor vehicle.
4. The City of Cape Town recently announced that they are hoping to erect exclusion nets at Fish Hoek beach, a) what do you think of this prospect? b) Are exclusion nets a viable option to protect bathers, while not endangering the lives of sharks and other sea life? c) How do exclusion nets differ from shark nets used in KZN?
a) Exclusion nets provide total protection in a small area and provided the sea conditions don't destroy the net, it is an excellent way of keeping humans safe from shark attack.
b) Yes, this would be a viable option as the mesh size is very small and therefore sharks or other marine animals are unlikely to become entangled.
c) The exclusion nets differ from the shark nets used in KZN in that they are very much smaller in mesh size and unlike the KZN shark nets, they are not designed to ensnare sharks..
5. Are there any alternative safety measures that could be considered in the Western Cape, in addition to "shark spotters" that have been posted in the most vulnerable areas?
I think exclusion nets could be used in other areas as well as Fish Hoek. The shark spotters has proved very successful. Aircraft patrols have been tried in Australia but are very expensive and not that successful.
6. What tips would you give bathers/surfers/divers to protect themselves from a shark attack?
Be alert and aware of your surroundings all the time you are in the water. Don't swim out of your depth. Never swim alone or at night. Don't wear jewellery as it glitters in the water, much like scales of a fish. Don't swim if you are bleeding from a cut or wound. If you are diving and encounter a shark, keep as still in the water as possible, sink to the bottom and hug a rock! Your body outline near the surface of the water makes a clear silhouette for a shark. Visitors should always seek local advice.
7. How can people get involved with shark conservation?
There are a number of websites that cater for people showing interest in shark conservation.
- Shark Spotters
- South African White Shark Research Institute
- Two Oceans Aquarium - Shark Conservation
- Save our seas - White Sharks South Africa
Front page pics, and top two from Shutterstock.