‘The Butterfly Effect – Ripple effects of the Great White Shark’

1 November 2011

By Alan van Gysen / Zigzag

When I was 16 years old I won the annual Fish Hoek Mile swim. I was a Fish Hoek junior lifesaver at the time, and the 1.5 km swim across the bay from Clovelly to Sunnycove was a regular item on the training schedule for competitive swimmers in the team. Another was swimming out and around The Tudor House buoy some 200 metres out in the bay. Not forgetting the many surf sessions I lived for on weekends at Clovelly Wedge and out in front of the Silvermine River. It’s where I caught my first foamy, where I learnt to be ocean savvy as a grom, learnt the fine art of bodysurfing, and where I learnt to save lives. I literally grew up in the water and on the beach of Fish Hoek. Today you wouldn’t dream of swimming out into the bay, let alone swim across it with just your speedo on.

With all the speculation and sensationalism surrounding the great white sharks these days, it is easy to get caught up in the negative and frightening elements surrounding these imposing creatures. Sure they are dangerous, and as an apex predator that has survived millennia they should be respected and revered, but let’s not hate, despise and want to kill them. What we need is a plan, one that protects both humanity and nature, and brings about an innate balance we can both flourish in.

How many of you have stopped to consider how rich False Bay has become over the past 15 years? And I’m not talking about the millionaire houses that pepper Boyes Drive. It wasn’t until I spoke to freediver and Adventurer, Hanli Prinsloo the other night, that I began to appreciate and accept a simpler and more natural reason for the increase in recent shark activity. “We have one of the richest and most dynamic marine reserves in the world” Hanli points out. “Life in the bay has flourished since it became a reserve in 1998. 15-20 years ago, the Great White shark was on the brink of extinction, but since it became a protected species, it has flourished in the safety of False Bay.”

And it is not just the shark population that has thrived. “I’ve never seen bait balls like I did this year” points out Brandon Kilbride; surfer, paddler and lifeguard at Fish Hoek Lifesaving club. “It was like having the East Coast sardine run, but permanently in the bay between March and September!” Paddlers often report seeing pods of dolphin 50-1000 strong, and even watched on in awe as a pod of killer whales made their way past the St. James tidal pool recently. False Bay is alive and abundant with marine life, so it only makes sense that there are more great whites than normal, and that these sharks and others will on occasion find themselves closer to our shores in search of food. Unfortunately it is during these shallow-water visits that the unthinkable can and sometimes does happen.

Like a pebble being dropped into the ocean, dramatic events like these have a profound ripple effect on more than just the people immediately involved.

Most disturbing is the drop in participation in aspirational watersports like surfing, lifesaving and paddling, and the subsequent loss of income for all those businesses connected. Owner of The Surf Shack in Muizenberg, David Chudleigh, reports a 50% decrease in surf school attendance and correlating income, comparing figures to that of 2006. World-renowned paddler, Dawid Mocke, has seen a 60% loss in numbers for his surf ski school at Fish Hoek, and has had to relocate to Simons Town. Dawid uses False Bay more than any one person I can think of, bar perhaps Kalk Bay Reef diehard Andrew Wilsnagh, spending on average four hours every day in or on the water. “It has become increasing difficult to train, and has definitely been on my mind more lately” reflects Dawid. For a man who relies so heavily on the safe use of Fish Hoek and False Bay, the ripples effects of the great white sharks have definitely hit him hard. But amazingly, or perhaps just because he is Dawid Mocke, he remains positive and optimistic. “Naturally the “real” risk factor has increased which is of concern, but it is the “perceived” risk that is exponentially higher due to media hype that is most worrying for us,” he explains. “But on the positive side, when has Fish Hoek ever received so much attention? With over a million You Tube hits, Fish Hoek is on the map more than ever. Hopefully we can use this to our advantage through tourism, but in a responsible and environmentally conscious way. More importantly, we as South Africans are leading the field in global environmental protection and awareness of the great white shark,” explains Dawid. He ends off on a chilling note though, stating: “It is almost impossible to surf at Fish Hoek these days.”

Fish Hoek lifesaving club has been equally hard hit, recording a 25% drop in lifesaving attendance, and finds itself unable to train or host competitions due to the high number of shark sightings. These in turn dramatically affect its earning potential, and effectiveness as a lifesaving club. Fish Hoek Lifesaving club is one of the leading lifesaving clubs in South Africa and the world, with scores of national and international accolades gracing engraved trophies and bronzed plaques throughout the clubhouse. What does the future hold for this respected and much needed lifesaving club? How much will the City of Cape Town lose from the decrease in tourism this summer at Fish Hoek Beach? How much will small businesses lose across the board? Where do we go from here?

It was questions like these that recently had affected parties meeting at Fish Hoek Lifesaving. Heads of Fish Hoek Lifesaving, NSRI, Shark Spotters, SPCA, Cape Town City Council, Fish Hoek Ratepayers, representatives from ‘Surfers for Responsible Shark Cage Diving’, members of the surfing and paddling community, and ocean entrepreneurs met to discuss viable, sustainable and eco-friendly options moving forward. The mood of the meeting was positive, with some very constructive suggestions being put forward. Ideas like a tidal pool on Fish Hoek beach for bathers and pressurising operators of the controversial shark cage diving industry to fund research.

Paul Botha, who has been involved with public relations in surfing for decades, was among the group. He had the following the say: “This (shark problem) does not affect the hardcore surfer so much as the general public and weekend surfer. Hardcore surfers have the option of surfing more advanced spots with less sharks. But the basic premise is that we do have a big problem on our hands. The Shark Spotter program is a good start, but Council needs to properly fund them, and invest some real money into research and prevention. I just feel that Council have not been proactive enough in tackling this.”

Paul proposes having a rapid response team available on standby for shark sightings close to our beaches. The team would deploy their 4×4 and jetski upon notification by the shark spotters, and proceed to identify the shark, before “buzzing” him out of the area. Accordingly to experts, great whites sharks are easily identifiable, and resent studies have indicated 250-280 individual great white sharks operating in the False Bay area. “If we can gather more information on which sharks are in the area consistently, perhaps we can even learn if certain individual sharks are actively after humans. We could then decide what to do from there. If there is even one, there is a case to be made (for more direct action).”

Paul ended off with reiterating the fact that we need council to properly fund a shark program in Cape Town. “Durban has an entire infrastructure in place for shark activity and monitoring. With all due respect, what do we have? A few whistles and some coloured flags.”

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