'We're not prey' to sharks - proactive Shark Spotters initiative going swimmingly

Naveron Lesch stares out over Surfer's Corner in Muizenberg, dark sunglasses shielding his eyes from the sun as he keeps watch while bathers screech and splash in the waves.

He is on the lookout for the ocean's most dominant predator and is one fully-trained member of a team of 30 "Shark Spotters", a proactive early warning shark safety service operating on eight of Cape Town's beaches.

A seasoned spotter, Lesch has been helping to keep beach users safe for the past six years.

His eyes have become accustomed to spotting the fast-moving shadow as it approaches the shore.

Unlike what is seen in movies, a fin can rarely be seen cutting through the water and the Jaws theme music certainly doesn't warn of the pending danger. The former treknet fisherman from Ocean View laughs.

The pioneering shark safety and research organisation started in 2004, after a spate of shark-related incidents.

Muizenberg businessman and surfer Greg Bertish, along with other locals, employed a lifesaver and a car guard to keep watch over the ocean in a community initiative that grew into a service, which today employs 42 people.

Aerial view of beach

(Image via Shark Spotters website)

It also has a research programme which tags great white sharks so that their movements can be monitored for safety and conservation.

Since being employed as a watcher of the False Bay coast, Lesch has never seen a shark-related injury – and hopes he doesn't ever have to. He mostly deals with injured swimmers who have dislocated limbs, bluebottle stings or surfers who suffer gashes and abrasions after being hit by their surfboards.

The last recorded shark-related incident took place in 2014, when a four-metre shark left a deep gash in a surfer's thigh and destroyed his surfboard about 3km beyond the spotting area.

'My good eyes have never let me down'

"My good eyes have never let me down. A few years ago, we had a bit of a close call when a shark was seen about 20 metres away from some people on a day when conditions were bad for spotting. But we moved quickly and cleared the beach without any incident," he recalled.

Spotters work in teams of two – one keeps watch from the mountain, while another patrols the beach and clears the water should a shark be spotted.

"You have people's safety – their lives – in your hands. In the beginning, I was a bit panicky, but now I know I am capable. We have a system and team that works."

If a mountain spotter detects a shark, he radios the beach patroller and a siren is sounded. The water is cleared and a white flag bearing a black shark is raised.

Shark Spotter keeping watch over beach

(Image via Shark Spotters website)

Since the project's inception, there have been about 2 300 shark sightings, Shark Spotters CEO Sarah Waries told News24.

"Spotters make judgement calls on public safety. Whether the beach is cleared depends on a number of factors – its distance from water users, whether it's moving fast or slow, how far the bathers are from shore, as well as the spotting conditions. Our team will, however, always err on the side of caution," she explains.

"The idea is to reduce the spatial overlap between people and sharks where they are not sharing the same space so that an incident doesn't happen."

The R4.5m project receives 70% of its funding from the City of Cape Town and 15% from the Save our Seas Foundation. The other 15% is collected through donations and fundraisers.

Thirty shark spotters are currently on duty from sunrise to sunset at Muizenberg, Fish Hoek, St James, Koggel Bay, Glencairn, Clovelly, Noordhoek and Monwabisi beaches.

The whole northern shore experiences relatively high shark activity, but not all have natural elevation for spotters to see over the beach. However, these areas generally see beachgoers use tidal pools.

'Sharks are not out here to eat people'

Muizenberg and Fish Hoek have the most shark activity, although they are present in False Bay throughout the year.

In winter, they feed on seal pups at Seal Island and in summer, they change their diet and swim inshore in search of yellowtail and other big schools of fish.

"Sharks are not out there to eat people; we're not a prey item to them. Incidents occur when we are in the same area at the same time, although in lots of areas in the world, sharks swim past and don't attack," Waries says.

Among the many misconceptions are that every shark in the water will bite you. Waries disputes this, citing that the predators are designed to eat fish, seals and marine mammals.

Great white shark on the hunt

(Image via Shark Spotters website)

There are no rogue sharks with a taste for human flesh, Waries insists.

Most of the sharks in the False Bay area are sub-adults wanting to feed. They are between two and five metres long, while the biggest one measured 6.1m.

Lesch says he has learnt invaluable lessons about nature and the ocean since he was first handed his binoculars in 2012.

He considers himself somewhat of an expert when it comes to changing water conditions, animal behaviour and the different causes of increased shark activity.

"My biggest irritation is shark-centred movies. I don't watch them – not even Jaws. It causes fear and spreads misinformation. Panicked people come to us with all these crazy questions and I always have the same answer for them: don't believe everything you see on TV."

Shark Spotters safety tip

(Image via Shark Spotters website)

Shark spotting is his dream job, Lesch maintains. He considers it a privilege to be up close to animals such as dolphins, whales and beautiful fish he would otherwise probably never have been able to see.

Not everyone is lucky enough to be able to work barefoot, he jokes.

To donate or download the Shark Spotting app, click here.

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