Shark savvy 101

2012-10-09 15:55

In the wake of a shark-bitten whale carcass washing up on Capricorn beach earlier this week, the city of Cape Town has issued a warning of increased shark movement at beaches in the coming summer months. 

While this is obviously worrisome news for sea-loving holiday-makers to the Cape, being savvy about shark safety can do a lot to ease panic.

Over the past few years Cape Town's pioneering shark safety programme, Shark Spotters, has played a massive role in alerting bathers to shark activity and assisting in emergencies. 

Positioned at strategic points along the Cape Peninsula, primarily the False Bay coastline, two shark spotters per beach scan the waters for any threat throughout the day. One spotter is placed at an elevated position with polarized sunglasses and binoculars and is in constant radio contact with another spotter on the beach. If a shark is spotted by either, the beach spotter immediately sounds an alarm and raises a white flag with a black shark on.

Now, the raising of flags is central to their system and having a good understanding of what each means could do a lot for bathers' peace of mind. We take a look at the four flags they use and stipulate what each means:

First thing to note is that each of the flags does have a shark on it, which might seem a little intimidating at first, but not all of them mean an actual shark has been spotted. 

Green flag 

This signifies that spotting conditions are good. 

This flag will be raised when the spotters can see clearly in the area where the majority of water users are. 

In other words, it's pretty safe to take to the waters, as any underwater movement will be seen pretty soon. If you're still nervous, just keep an eye on the spotter for any change in flags.

Black flag


Photo: Leather foot on the move

This signifies poor spotting conditions. 

This flag will be raised if they are not able to see clearly what is happening in the area where the majority of water users are. Water visibility is affected by glare, cloud cover, water clarity, swell and wind chop. 

In other words, despite the rather grim colouring, it does not mean that a shark has been spotted at all. However, if you are a little jittery, rather stay clear of the water. 

White flag 

Photo: Cape Point Chronicle

This is the one to watch out for and will be accompanied by the sounding of the shark siren.

The white flag with a solid black shark on will be raised only when a shark has been seen in the vicinity of water users and is assessed to pose a potential threat. The shark's distance from water users, swimming speed and direction of travel will be taken into account by the spotter before raising the flag. 

In other words... uhm... STAY CLEAR OF THE WATER!!!

The flag will remain up for as long as the shark is visible to the spotter and will only be taken down once the entire area has been scanned and no further threat is posed to water users. 

The white flag will also be raised after a serious incident, such as an attack, when the beach is closed.

Red flag

Photo: Shark spotters

The red flag serves as a warning that a shark has been seen recently, that there is higher than usual shark activity or that there are known conditions for high shark activity. 

In other words, there is no immediate threat, but rather safe than sorry. 

This flag will be flown for an hour after a shark has been spotted and if no other sighting is recorded during that time it will be taken down. Either the green or the black flag will then be raised. 

If a shark is seen far from water users, which doesn't pose any threat, the red flag will be raised instead of the white one. 

No flag

This means that shark spotters are not present at the beach you're visiting. No need to panic, though, as the lifeguards on duty are sure to have a system of their own including warning flags and alarms. If you're not sure what to look out for, go chat to them to find out. No lifeguards on duty? You'll have to use your own discretion. 

Shark safety tips

It's a known fact that shark attacks have been on the increase in the Western Cape, as well as the rest of the world, over the last two decades. While the reasons are not clear, it could have a lot to do with the increasing number of people in the water at one time. 

So, while it may seem silly to some, it probably is just a good idea to be a little bit shark savvy before diving in. Here are a few tips from Shark Spotters:

1. If you are not fully aware of the risks involved in swimming in the ocean, or not prepared to take the necessary responsibility, rather stay on the beach.

2. White sharks, like all predators, are more likely to identify a solitary individual as potential prey, so remaining in a group is always a good idea. 

3. White sharks rely strongly on their sense of sight to distinguish prey from non-prey. So, avoid entering the ocean when it's dark, the water is murky or at twilight when sharks have to rely on their other senses to hunt. 

4. If you do encounter a shark, try to remain as calm as possible. Panicked movements are sure to increase the shark's curiosity and draw them closer. If you have any form of equipment with you (such as a surfboard), use it to create a barrier between you and the shark. 

5. If you are the first to spot a shark, calmly alert others around you, form a group and leave the water swiftly, but calmly. ALERT LIFEGUARDS IMMEDIATELY. 

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