Shark film making waves in Cape Town
Cape Town - US-based documentary maker Chris Fischer is making waves in Cape Town by filming Great White sharks, causing fears that he is attracting the creatures to populated beaches.
The environmental affairs department, which granted his team a research permit, believes though that it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gather key research on these largely elusive and mysterious creatures.
Fischer has been in the country for the last month capturing and filming sharks in their natural habitat for the National Geographic documentary Shark Men.
But Dirk Schmidt, a wildlife photographer and author of White Sharks, has called for a high shark alert to be issued immediately.
5 tons of chum used to attract sharks
"I believe it to be prudent, and as a preventative measure, that a high shark alert is issued and maintained, during, and for several days after, the filming activity.
"Unusual white shark behaviour and an increased presence and possible shark-human interaction or even attacks cannot be excluded."
Schmidt's concern was that up to five tons of chum (bait) would be used to attract sharks to the boat. He said the chum slick could be blown closer to beaches by on-shore winds.
But according to Alan Boyd of the department's ocean and coast branch, who issued the research permit, the chumming would have little effect close to shore, especially as the large amount would be used over a 20-day period all along the southern coast.
He also disputed reports that solid fish was being used, saying the chum was primarily marine mammal oils and scents used to create a "scent path".
"You can visualise it as a big household bucket filled with sardines being thrown into the water every hour or so. It will obviously have a local effect, which we want, but definitely won't have an effect close to shore."
He said all work was being done according to agreed and approved protocols based primarily on ethical considerations, sanctioned by the department.
The boat was not allowed to stay in one area for more than a week. In False Bay and Gansbaai, sampling and tagging of sharks was not allowed in the same area for more than two consecutive days.
The boat also had to stay at least two kilometres from the False Bay shore. The bay was frequented by swimmers and surfers, mostly at the Fish Hoek and Muizenberg beaches. A City of Cape Town official would be on board as an observer.
The KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board's head of research Geremy Cliff said he believed the project would be above board.
"I'm sure the department would be all too well aware, with the shark attacks that have taken place, of how anything being done like this would affect safety.
"As for the safety of sharks, if it [tagging and bio-sampling] of sharks was so damaging and sharks died, that would have been confirmed already through previous tracking."
Using the specially designed Ocearch vessel, Fischer and a team of scientists study sharks by lifting them out of the water onto a platform for 10 to 15 minutes, to tag them and gather biological samples.
Fischer was funding the research to the tune of R15.6m.
Cliff said any short-term damage to the sharks was surpassed by the long-term gain of insight.
One of researchers on the Ocearch is Shark Spotter research manager Alison Kock, who would radio through any shark alerts if necessary.
The Shark Spotters programme, which had dedicated spotters placed mostly along False Bay, said on its website it would continue, as always, to inform water users of any potential threats to their safety.
The project has certainly produced fascinating results so far, with South African Facebook users being able to track "their" sharks for the first time on social networking site Facebook.
Fischer defended his posting of shark movements online, saying that by creating awareness, local government would be encouraged to change policies and protect shark hotspots.
Some of "his" sharks have been named -- among them are Princess Fi, Albertina, and Madiba.
Fischer had already discovered unusual habits, with a shark named Dorien swimming below the 40 degree south mark.
Fischer said Dorien and another shark, Lyla Grace, were in a circumpolar current pushing east at a rate of two knots. "Are they in Australia or feeding in an area we never expected? Time will tell," he posted.