13 October, 2015 13 October, 2015

Shark City

Cape Town is unique in the way that sharks and humans co-exist side by side. But it’s not always a comfortable arrangement.

(This story first appeared in Zigzag Volume 38.7. Subscribe now to always get the good stuff first in the magazine.)

Cape Town was forged eons ago when tectonic forces pushed the South American and African continental plates together, crumpling the earth’s crust upwards to build tall mountain ridges and sculpt deep bays. Sanded down by millennia of erosion, the famed Cape Peninsula hangs off the bottom of the African continent and curls into the southern ocean like a crooked index finger. The result today is a virtual island of waves flanked by ocean on either side. Swells from the Roaring Forties slam into the southwest facing reefs with unimpeded force, spilling over big wave ledges like Dungeons and the Outer Kom. The same swells have to wrap sharply to make it round into the protected corners of False Bay. Separating these two coastlines and their myriad waves is Cape Point. It’s a popular myth that here, right at the fingertip of Africa, you can see a line where the two oceans butt up against one another.

Cape Point from above.

I’m perched on Boyes Drive with Monwabisi Sikweyiya but there is no line dividing the ocean. All we can see are rows and rows of whitewash rolling in at Muizenberg. False Bay stretches out below us like a blue teardrop buffeted by the onshore wind. It’s been a slow day for Sikweyiya, or Monwa, as everyone calls him.

“This past week we’ve probably had eight to ten sharks, but only twice the beach was cleared,” he says, pulling away his binoculars as he scribbles in his notebook. “Right now it’s a very slow day because the weather’s horrible, there’s few people in the water and there are no sharks. A good day for us is a sharky day,” he says. “I know it sounds a little bit weird, but that’s the time we show off the effectiveness of the programme.”

Sikweyiya is the Field Officer for the Shark Spotters, the non-profit organisation that was adopted by the City of Cape Town after a spate of fatal shark attacks in the early 2000s. Before that, attacks were virtually unheard of for Cape surfers. They happened somewhere far off, like East London, or the Wild Coast, literally a thousand miles away. Then in 2003, 19-year-old David Boorman was killed by a large great white while bodyboarding punchy barrels at Dunes on the Atlantic coast. He was bitten in front of fellow surfers and tossed into the air like a ragdoll. The following year another young surfer, JP Andrew, lost his right leg at Muizenberg. This was soon followed by two fatalities on swimmers including 73-year-old grandmother, Tyla Webb, at Fish Hoek. Shortly afterwards in 2005, freediver Henry Murray was taken at Millers Point near Simonstown. A triangulation of these incidents would put them in less than a 30-kilometre radius of each other. The attacks were all attributed to Carcharodon carcharias. The great white shark. Something had changed in Cape Town’s waters.

Shark Spotter, Sibusiso Myeki keeps an eye on the lineup above the Hoek.

Faced with an escalating public crisis, the City convened a panel of experts to look at their options, which essentially boiled down to one question: to cull or not to cull? Gregg Oelofse, head of environmental policy and strategy for the City of Cape Town, had another idea.

A surfer himself, Oelofse knew about a grassroots project that Greg Bertish had started in the wake of JP Andrew’s attack. Employing a local car guard, Rasta Davids, Bertish set up a simple system: Rasta would keep watch from a lookout point on Boyes Drive above Muizenberg with binoculars. If he saw a shark moving in towards the pack at Surfers Corner, he would phone a contact on the ground who would raise an alarm. The programme quickly evolved. Soon Bertish had a crew of dedicated shark spotters, a siren, and a system of flags to indicate what the shark status was. The City realised it was their best shot at a safety measure that still respected the white shark’s protected status, and got behind the programme.

Sikweyiya barks into the static of his two-way radio, speaking to another spotter at Koel Bay. Halfway between them lies Seal Island, the second largest seal colony in southern Africa with an estimated 70 000 residents and home to the famous breaching spectacle, where great whites leap out the water to catch evasive prey. Koel Bay’s punchy A-frame is a relatively new site. Boland locals implored the City to extend the programme here after bodyboarder David Lillienfeld was fatally attacked while surfing with his brother in 2012.

“We operate on an open channel, so if something happens across the bay in Kogel Bay, everyone can hear,” explains Sikweyiya. “We’re equipped with binoculars, these two-way radios, and there’s an alarm up here that activates a siren on the beach. 70 percent of the time when we see a shark, we don’t even set off the alarm. You can see they’re not interested. But if we see a shark that’s getting too close, we set off the siren. It gets the message across to whoever is sitting at backline: it’s time to get out the water.”

Muizenberg beach as seen from Boyes Drive.

From Muizenberg it’s a picturesque drive south towards the tip of the peninsula. The bohemian cafes and galleries of Kalk Bay butt up against the small working class harbour where fishermen have hauled in their catch for centuries. A few guys are out at Kalk Bay reef pulling into onshore slabs. The Shark Spotter flag hovers above the small carpark, black with the outline of a great white: visibility is poor but no shark activity has been detected. Green means it’s all clear. A white flag, however, with a solid black shark spells danger: there’s a shark in the immediate vicinity or, worse, there has been an attack and the beach is closed.

The coastal road winds around to Fish Hoek where you can carry on to Cape Point or cut across the flat belly of the peninsula to the powerful reefs and beachbreaks of the Atlantic coast. If the swell is running, you won’t even spare a second glance at the small reforms that lap up along Fish Hoek, or the signboards urging you to “Be Shark Smart” and the bright red warning that shouts “High Risk Area”.

“When I started my research we didn’t know anything about what the white sharks were doing,” says Alison Kock, project leader for the Save Our Seas foundation and manager of the Shark Spotter programme.

“We didn’t know how many there were. We didn’t know if it was a rogue shark coming in, what the sharks were doing inshore. We really didn’t have any information. Now we know that there are certain patterns to the sharks. We also know that it’s probably the largest aggregation of white sharks on the doorstep of a coastal city like this.”

A great white just off Sunrise Beach. Local and global research suggests the variability in the presence of white sharks and their movements is being shaped by changes in the environment.

Kock is reluctant to talk numbers – her ten years of Phd research is still under peer review – but she confirms her finding. As far as cities go, Cape Town is the white shark capital of the world.

“Basically it’s just a really attractive place for white sharks to be,” explains Kock. “False Bay is fed by the cold Benguela and the warm Agulhas currents and you’ve got this massive species richness, so it’s incredibly biodiverse. It’s also very productive, with upwelling that drives nutrient rich water to the surface. Then there’s Seal Island, with over 70 000 cape fur seals, and in summertime you’ve got shoals and shoals of yellowtail. It’s a very attractive place for a big predator that needs a lot of food.”

While the primary function of the spotters is to keep an eye on swimmers and surfers, it has also allowed Kock to gather invaluable data that may inform white shark research globally in the years to come.

“Most of the population are juveniles, from two metres up to five metres. The males and the females are at Seal Island for the autumn and the winter period, where they both predate heavily on the seal pups. But come spring, the males tend to disperse up the South African coast, and the females tend to move inshore. We don’t know why there’s this sexual segregation yet…but we’re starting to learn what’s driving this. We’ve seen that there is a very strong correlation with water temperature – at 18 degrees and over, there are significantly more sightings of white sharks inshore. At Muizenberg you’re eight times more likely to spot a white shark at 18 degrees than 14 degrees.”

Kock says that lunar phase plays a role too – there are notably more white shark sightings during new moon versus full moon. “We think this is all related to their prey, with the female whites coming inshore to predate on the shoals of migratory game fish and other shark species that come into the bay when the water is warm. Seals are actually only a very small part of their diet.”

Cape fur seals hanging out in the safety of Hout Bay harbour.

Kock’s goal is to use this research to create a model that can help predict shark activity and, ultimately, the risk of attack. But she’s well aware of variability within the data and points out a concern many Cape surfers have been guessing at for years: white shark behaviour in False Bay is changing.

“Inshore data from the Shark Spotters shows there has been a significant increase in sightings in 2009, 2010 and 2011 from previous years,” says Kock. “But now it seems to be on the decrease, with record lows of inshore activity in 2012 and 2013. There are these peaks and troughs, and what we need to do is try and understand what’s driving this.”

For Pierre de Villiers, the answer is obvious. “We’re interfering with them heavily by chumming and playing with them,” he says. “It’s human contact that’s changing their behaviour.”

De Villiers is not a scientist. His credentials have been earned through decades of surfing and diving the Cape reefs. Along with Peter Button, he pioneered Dungeons long before there were boats with photographers that dropped you in the lineup. Back then your only option was to lug your rhino chaser around the towering Sentinel and make the 200 metre paddle out through Shark Alley, a deep channel flanked on either side by a rocky seal colony where it’s joked that white sharks hang out like customers at a drive through. De Villiers translates his decades of knowledge into the boards he builds to match the Cape’s rugged waves.

“I also work as a commercial diver,” he says. “I’ve been on the cage diving boats. I’ve seen how they operate. They chum a lot. And it’s just a crazy thing to do.”

Unlike many of his brethren, born and bred Capie Brendon Gibbens admits he is “terrified of sharks,” but deals with it by keeping himself busy in the water.

The multi-million Rand cage diving industry that operates from False Bay to Mossel Bay has sparked fierce criticism from many ocean users, who believe chumming is making sharks associate humans with food at worst, and affecting their behavioral patterns at best. Pro-chummers say the amount of chum is so miniscule in comparison to the natural chum slicks created by seal colonies that it makes no difference at all. They also claim there is no scientific evidence to prove chumming has changed shark behaviour around Cape Town. But neither is there enough scientific evidence to disprove it. The water is made considerably murkier because there is money involved, lots of it, and little regulation of the industry.

“I used to like to dive in False Bay”, says de Villiers, who is also a veteran spearfisherman. “There are incredible fish there. But now I’m completely rattled, I can’t go there anymore, I just don’t have the bottom time. I’m always looking around to see where a shark’s coming from. I dived for years in those areas and I never saw sharks, and then the next thing they just started showing up. I’ve had them right up in my face quite a few times. It’s not only great whites. I see a lot of other sharks. It’s just shark city most of the year.”

“That’s another thing,” says Pierre, pointing out to sea from the balcony of his Scarborough home that borders on Cape Point. “Those boats that are out there now. Those are seine netters, and they’re smashing the sardines. That’s also changed, the food supply. And I think that’s influencing the way these creatures behave.”

De Villiers recalls how, in the 80s and 90s, the peninsula was teeming with houndsharks. “They’re harmless sharks but they get quite big, eight, nine feet, but they’ve got rounded teeth. They’re quite slow moving and they used to come around Cape Point and into the bay in numbers that were mindboggling. You’d swim over and you’d see a mass of grey things underneath you. They look hell of a scary until you realise they can’t bite you. But there were millions of them. Guys used to get more money for them than yellowtail at the time. So they fished those sharks until they disappeared. Those houndsharks used to make up a big part of the great white diet.”

It’s not just great whites – the Cape Peninsula is home to a rich diversity of shark species, like this school of gully sharks near Cape Point.

De Villiers’ evidence may be anecdotal, but it checks all the boxes on Kock’s description of the preferred white shark diet – other shark species, and prey that are slow moving and abundant. He muses that perhaps, as the houndshark population diminished, great whites started following other sources of food bringing them into closer contact with humans.

“I suppose it’s a combination of things. It’s never one thing,” says de Villers. “But it’s a people problem, it’s not even a shark problem. We’re creating this problem.”

The road northwards from Scarborough bypasses a well-known concentration of waves along the Atlantic Coast – reefs that unload across kelp and granite, deepwater points and long stretches of thundering beachbreak. Eventually the road curves steeply over Chapman’s Peak towards Dungeons in the distance. A few surfers are out at the Hoek, picking off the occasional wedge that bounces off the bottom of the cliffs. An empty plastic chair alongside the road is the only evidence of the sole Shark Spotter site along this stretch of coastline.

Gregg Oeloffse is upfront about the limitations of the programme: the need for elevation and poor visibility only make it possible at select locations. That, and the fact that the system is not infallible.

“But the programme goes beyond just shark spotting,” explains Oelofse. “It’s also around how we communicate through the media. We’ve put up signage; we’ve been proactive around making people aware that sharks are in our waters, they’re there all the time, and we give them as much information as possible to assess the risk and make informed choices.”

The Shark Spotters viewing hut above Koel Baai.

Binoculars and a Twitter feed may seem unlikely tools for dealing with the ocean’s apex predator, but Oelofse believes it’s far more effective than culling. “We know white sharks move around a lot, so we would really have to smash the population to adequately bring the risk down,” he says. “Even if we did that, in real statistical terms, we would not have reduced the risk that much and the ecological cost, the negative impact on the ecosystem, would be huge.”

Oelofse has been circled on two occasions by a large white shark, an experience he “really didn’t enjoy”, so he knows that statistics about falling coconuts and faulty toasters do little to reassure you about your mortality when you are sitting out in a briny lineup that reeks of white shark. And he is blunt about the reality involved when a large concentration of humans and a healthy great white population share the same environment.

“There will be more shark attacks in Cape Town,” says Oelofse. “It’s not a question of if, but when… But if you work out the number of hours surfing that happens per day in Cape Town, versus the number of shark attacks over the past decade, the risk is tiny.”

Oelofse remains unconvinced that chumming is conditioning sharks to equate humans with food.

“If that were the case, I would be dealing with a shark attack once a day in Cape Town, and that’s not happening,” he says. “Having said that, from the City’s perspective, there are things around the shark industry that we don’t like.”

Berg local Kwezi Qika, staying on his toes.

False Bay has three licensed operators but during the peak season there are up to ten boats every day vying for the attention of white sharks around Seal Island, with unlicensed cowboys getting in the way of the legitimate operators. Oelofse claims the situation around the corner at Gansbaai, with eight licensed operators, is far worse.

“During winter in False Bay, and every single day in Gansbaai, these sharks are being interfered with non-stop at these hotspots,” says Oelofse, who has been pushing for stricter regulation but to no avail. “The resources to properly police our ocean environment, be it fishing, shark cage diving, anything – are zero. There’s just no enforcement out there whatsoever, so it’s a free for all. It gets crazy out there.”

The chumming debate will rage on, but if Cape Town surfers are overly fearful about sharing the waters with the ocean’s apex predator, it doesn’t show. Walking down to Dunes, with its deep channels and exposed lineup, the water is bustling with hooded soldiers sharing the frigid peaks.

“Growing up in Cape Town, sharks are always there, so I’ve never really thought about it. It’s never been a concern really,” says Frank Solomon as he checks the waves. “If they were out to get us, there would be a lot more attacks. Yeah, there’s definitely been more activity it seems. But killing an apex predator is not going to help anything. It’s just going to make things worse.”

Big Wave World Tour champ, Twiggy, has a similar view and jokes about “always having his toes sniffed” when surfing waves like Dungeons and Bayview, which lies on the doorstep of Gansbaai. “The real issue is the encroachment of humans into their territory,” says Twiggy. “Humans, not sharks, are to blame for the increase in encounters and attacks.”

Twiggy drops in at Dungeons.

Other surfers, like Jordy Smith, just avoid certain spots. Smith relocated to the Cape from Durban five years ago and candidly admits, “I’m still shit scared of sharks”. But most of the time he just focusses on what he’s doing in the water and doesn’t give much thought to Carcharodon carcharias. There are some rare spots, however, that he won’t risk it. “You can almost feel an aura about a place as soon as you set foot on the beach,” he says. “But the funny thing is, you go there with a local, and it’s like the thought has never even crossed their mind!”

Shark attack survivor JP Andrew still bodyboards and puts it bluntly into perspective: “It’s a risk you take when you go into the water. It’s a bit of a selfish attitude to want to sacrifice the balance of nature to feel safe. If the risk isn’t worth the enjoyment you derive, then maybe you should think about picking up croquet, or some other more appropriate past time.”

Later, as this article is being wrapped up, Oelofse’s words ring prophetically true. On 1 August, 20-year-old Matthew Smithers is attacked by an estimated four metre great white at Muizenberg. The Shark Spotters are on duty but visibility is poor and they are unaware of the shark until it is too late. Smithers is knocked into the air as the shark bites into his board and both thighs. He is heroically helped to shore by his friend, Matthew Kabot, who swaps boards with Smithers and paddles him to the beach. Another surfer, Brendhan ‘Jock’ Kanneymer, uses a leash as a tourniquet to stem the bleeding and Smithers is airlifted to hospital where he is, thankfully, expected to make a full recovery.

The attack is the first at Muizenberg in 10 years, after thousands of sightings since the Shark Spotters have been in operation. But it is also a sobering reminder that the programme is not infallible.

The lineup remains sparse for a day or two but inevitably the crowd returns. Weeks later, on a Saturday morning with a clean three foot swell running, the Berg is bustling once more. One of the spotters walks towards the flagpole, talking into his two-way radio. He passes a young girl who is clutching a large surfboard that dwarfs her. She looks up at the shark flag, then at her father, and asks “Is it safe to go out again?”

Business as usual for Muizenberg local, Brandon Benjamin.


  1. grim
    13 October, 2015 at 6:01 am · Reply

    great read. thanks

  2. Tyler Dirden
    13 October, 2015 at 8:14 pm · Reply

    great story guys! Very well done ?
    some added advice from surfing the pacific northwest for over a decade… Great Whites hunt seals by their urine trails… Don’t pee in your wetsuit ? we also have more copper in our blood than most marine life so we smell/taste behave differently than their usual prey, but taste tests do occur and are sometimes fatal…the attacks you have are aimed at seals shown by the sharks aggressive behavior… Condolences… The risk you take entering into the food chain.

  3. Andrew Wilsnagh
    14 October, 2015 at 6:02 am · Reply

    “Eco’s” ( environmental conservation officer) on every cage driveing boat, on every trip. Same as film industry where money is made in public space. The operators ( or production companies) pay the wages of Eco’s. Who will then also be able to provide a lot more relavent information for further research. These channels already exist, the law just has to state that in order to obtain a cage diveing permit, u have to use the Eco’s. Who can then also police the unlicensed “cowboys “.
    Oh, obviously provideing more jobs for varsity graduates in the appropriate fields..

    In an article about cage diving in Australia, they’ve found that chumming creates a false illusion of food for the whites, who then remain in that area, longer than normal. And also keeping the diet of the sharks the same for longer periods than intended.
    They have limited the industry due to the danger of the sharks long term health, cause they usually move around a lot more and need a more diverse diet…?

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