Shark Spotters in brief

The Shark Spotters centre at Muizenberg
The Shark Spotters centre at Muizenberg

I had to write a short article about Shark Spotters a while ago, for the quarterly magazine of the company I work for. It was fun to write within the constraints of quite a punitive word count, and to try and emphasise the aspects of the program that I think are poorly understood by the public. Here’s the article:

Shark Spotters developed into Cape Town’s primary shark safety strategy out of two similar, informal initiatives. At Muizenberg and Fish Hoek in 2004, surfers arranged with lifeguards, car guards and trek fishermen to warn them when sharks were sighted. Today, Shark Spotters is a NPO funded primarily by the City of Cape Town, Save Our Seas Foundation, and public donations. It operates year-round at four beaches and during summer at another four. These are beaches that have both many water users and relatively common shark sightings.

A team of 30 spotters equipped with binoculars, polarising sunglasses and all-weather gear watch from the mountainside, and when a shark is sighted they notify colleagues at the beach to sound a siren and raise the appropriate flag. The flags indicate the current or recent presence of a shark, that spotting conditions are poor, or that it is safe to swim.

The spotters, all drawn from local communities, are trained in safety, first aid and shark behaviour. A further 10 team members deploy and retrieve the shark exclusion net at Fish Hoek beach during summer. Unlike the gill nets protecting beaches in KwaZulu Natal, this net does not catch sharks. It provides a physical barrier between sharks and swimmers. It is designed to be retrieved at the end of the day, or, to prevent entanglement, when there are marine mammals nearby. The Fish Hoek shark exclusion net is unique worldwide as an environmentally friendly shark attack mitigation measure.

It is the combination of favourable topography and surface-swimming sharks that makes Shark Spotters’ work possible and effective. The land around many of Cape Town’s beaches slopes steeply towards the sea, providing raised vantage points from which to spot. The sharks which pose the primary danger to water users, because of their size and curious natures, are great white sharks. Fortunately these sharks spend much time swimming on the surface, and their distinctive swimming style is readily recognisable.

Shark Spotters also conducts research on sharks to improve safety measures and provide management and conservation recommendations. As a result, the movements of great white sharks in False Bay are well understood. Sharks visit the beaches year-round, but with a distinct seasonal pattern. During winter the sharks congregate at Seal Island to feed on juvenile seals. During summer, sharks head for the backline of Cape Town’s beaches – probably to feed on the fish species found in False Bay at this time, and to rest in the highly oxygenated water close to shore. This is when they pose the greatest risk to water users.

Why support Shark Spotters?

I love the fact that Shark Spotters combines care for people with concern for the environment. The program takes a scientific stance backed by research, and has attracted worldwide recognition. It also provides training and employment for 40 residents of some of Cape Town’s most impoverished communities. I sit on the non-executive committee as a representative of Cape Town’s scuba diving community, and it’s a privilege to work with fellow water users and ocean lovers, and hopefully to provide a benefit to the greater community through our small contribution.

For more information, visit www.sharkspotters.org.za.

(Of course, lately white shark movements in False Bay are slightly less well understood than they have been, probably thanks to a pair of orcas whose irregular visits to Seal Island and Millers Point to hunt white sharks and sevengills seem to clear out the neighbourhood a bit! Fear not, Shark Spotters’ research is aiming to understand these changes, too.)

Shark Spotters supporters program

We are proud to announce that we have signed on as official supporters of Shark Spotters. We are Silver partners, and for larger businesses there are higher levels of support on offer. (We are hoping to encourage some of the other dive centres to consider supporting Shark Spotters, too…) Individuals can also sign on to the supporters program, or donate in many different ways. Shark Spotters is part-funded by the City of Cape Town and the Save Our Seas Foundation, and the rest comes from public donations.

One of the Shark Spotters flags at Fish Hoek beachåç
One of the Shark Spotters flags at Fish Hoek beachåç

The Shark Spotters provide beach safety, a world-first environmentally friendly shark exclusion net at Fish Hoek beach, run educational programs at local schools, and conduct shark research in and around False Bay.

All of this work keeps both people and sharks safe, and this is at the heart of what Shark Spotters does.

The shark exclusion net has been around for about five years, and (unlike the gill nets in KZN) is specially designed not to pose a hazard to any marine life. It gets taken in every evening, to eliminate the risk of an animal becoming entangled at night when the spotters are not on duty. It is an extremely successful and popular feature of Fish Hoek beach, and is invariably packed with happy, safe swimmers during the summer months. If you’re curious about it, watch the video above to see what it looks like from underwater, and read more about it here, here and here.

The Shark Spotters info centre at Muizenberg
The Shark Spotters info centre at Muizenberg

Their research continues to illuminate the activities of white sharks in the bay, but is also in the process of shedding light on the interactions between white sharks, sevengill cowsharks and bronze whalers as they share the ecosystem. They have even published a recent paper (open access) on the predation of sevengill cowsharks by orcas in False Bay, which is well worth a read.

The Shark Spotters outpost at Caves (Kogel Bay)
The Shark Spotters outpost at Caves (Kogel Bay)

Currently, they’re partnering with a Swiss firm in a cutting-edge research project to determine how automated shark spotting, making use of cameras and machine learning algorithms, can augment the already impressive skills of the spotting team. By first training a sophisticated algorithm to distinguish between a shark, pieces of kelp, dolphins, wind chop, and all the other visual phenomena that a spotter comes across during the course of a day, it is hoped that a fixed camera system, with some software, could assist the spotters in their work. It is not intended to replace human spotters, but to augment and facilitate their work.

The Shark Spotters hut at Fish Hoek beach
The Shark Spotters hut at Fish Hoek beach

We’re happy to be contributing to the important work of Shark Spotters – if you’d like to as well, visit their website to find out how to lend your support, or drop me an email and I’ll connect you with the right people.

Newsletter: Batten down the hatches

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

No diving

The weather forecast predicts that we are soon to be lashed with 50 km/h winds, a 7 metre swell, and no small amount of rain. It seldom is as bad as the forecasts claim, however the swell size and direction will hammer False Bay. Despite Sunday’s weather looking peachy, I don’t think the ocean will be, so we will plan for a dry weekend… It is winter after all.

Shark Spotting at Fish Hoek beach
Shark Spotting at Fish Hoek beach

Shark Spotters supporters program

We are proud to announce that we have signed on as official supporters of Shark Spotters. We are Silver partners, and for larger businesses there are higher levels of support on offer. (We are hoping to encourage some of the other dive centres to consider supporting Shark Spotters, too…) Individuals can also sign on to the supporters program, or donate in many different ways.

Shark Spotters is part-funded by the City of Cape Town and the Save Our Seas Foundation, and the rest comes from public donations. The Shark Spotters provide beach safety, a world-first environmentally friendly shark exclusion net at Fish Hoek beach, conduct educational programs at local schools, and conduct shark research in and around False Bay.

We’ll write a blog post with more information soon – but in the mean time, we’re very happy to be contributing to the important work of Shark Spotters. If you’d like to as well, visit their website to find out how to lend your support, or drop me an email and I’ll connect you with the right people.

regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog/

Diving is addictive!

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Hello, Smith’s swimming crab!

One of the things I love about False Bay, and about Long Beach in particular, is the tendency for creatures from all over South Africa’s coastline to end up here, often tropical marine life that got caught in the warm Agulhas current, and then within the circulation of False Bay, ending up just behind the Simons Town harbour wall.

Smith's swimming crab (Charybdis smithii) Smith’s swimming crab (Charybdis smithii)

Thus it was, early in March, that we discovered several adult specimens of Smith’s swimming crab (Charybdis smithii) at Long Beach when we went for a dive. One or two were already dead, and the rest were struggling either on the sand, or in the shallows, looking unhealthy. The water temperature at the time was about 17 degrees.

The first hint that this unusual and rarely-seen visitor had arrived on our shores was a series of social media posts, from January, in one or two of the fishing groups I follow on facebook. (These are excellent places to keep tabs on what’s happening in parts of the ocean I might not routinely visit, and there’s a wealth of knowledge and experience among the members.) Here’s a conversation between local fishermen about seeing large numbers of adult Smith’s swimming crabs just off Cape Point (also facebook). You can also see some photos of one of the crabs from Sea-Change here (facebook), taken on 22 January in False Bay.

Smith's swimming crab (Charybdis smithii) Smith’s swimming crab (Charybdis smithii)

At the same time as these social media posts, there was an influx of small, red crabs on the other side of the Cape Peninsula, at Long Beach in Kommetjie. (But more on that in another post.) Two Oceans says that Smith’s swimming crabs were first described in False Bay in 1838, and then again in 1978, 1983, and 1993. This facebook thread suggests that they may have been last seen off Muizenberg around 2005-2006.

Smith's swimming crab (Charybdis smithii) Smith’s swimming crab (Charybdis smithii)

I read more about Smith’s swimming crab in two papers: this one (Romanov et al), from 2009, and this one (Van Couwelaar et al) from 1997. The more recent paper updates many of the findings of the earlier one. Both teams of scientists behind these papers used trawl data from pelagic cruises to learn about the distribution and life history of these crabs.

Smith’s swimming crab is a pelagic crab that spends the vast majority of its one year, monsoon-driven life cycle in the water column. They are endemic to the western Indian ocean, and are usually found in the area bounded by the Arabian sea (which is west of India) and the latitude of Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania (about 7 degrees south of the equator), and from the east African coast, across east to the Maldives. They may congregate in huge patches, larger than tens of square kilometres, and may reach a biomass of more than 130 kilograms per square kilometre. These swarms are densest between June and September. During July, their concentration can peak at more than 15,000 individuals per square kilometre.

Smith's swimming crab (Charybdis smithii) Smith’s swimming crab (Charybdis smithii)

The crabs congregate on the seafloor of the continental shelf during the months of September to December, mating late in the year. No adult crabs are usually seen between April and June (Van Couwelaar et al speculate that the adults die after breeding), at which time, after metamorphosis, the swarms again become apparent in the western Indian ocean. The crabs grow to about 7.5 centimetres carapace width.

The crabs seem to perform a diel migration, moving deeper in the water column during the day (down to 350 metres’ depth), and returning to the surface at night. They swim continuously and are voracious predators in order to support the high metabolic demand created by this constant activity. They are able to regenerate all their limbs except for their swimming legs (Van Couwelaar et al deduced this in much the same way as Abraham Wald decided which parts of World War II bombers to reinforce – no crabs with partially grown swimming legs were caught in their trawls).

These crabs are important prey for yellowtail, as for other pelagic fish species such as blue sharks, yellowfin tuna and bigeye tuna. The fishermen of False Bay observed that they made excellent bait.

Smith's swimming crab (Charybdis smithii) Smith’s swimming crab (Charybdis smithii)

So what brings Smith’s swimming crab this far south? False Bay is way out of their range. This paper (Chapman, 1988) suggests that prior arrivals of these crabs on our shores have co-incided with weaker than usual summer south easterly winds (which has definitely been a feature of late 2018 and the start of 2019 – we had a gloriously wind-still summer for the most part) and the westward movement of warm water containing the crabs. We did have a spell of unusual westerly wind just prior to these crabs’ arrival.

A fascinating 1984 paper by George Branch describes a temperature anomaly during the summer of 1982-83. This particular Cape summer was characterised by very little of the typical south easterly winds, leading to reduced upwelling, and relatively high sea temperatures (Duffy et al, Effects of the 1982-3 Warm Water Event on the Breeding of South African Seabirds, 1984). The exceptionally warm water on the south and west coasts of South Africa caused mass strandings of some tropical animals (such as portuguese man ‘o war), mortalities of others (such as black mussels), changes in abundance of some species, and extensions of some species’ geographic range. For example, an exceptional number of juvenile turtles washed up on the beaches of False Bay, several months before the usual start of the usual turtle stranding season (which is, very loosely speaking, March-July). Prof Branch records that large numbers of healthy, adult Smith’s swimming crab washed up at Cape Hangklip, and smaller numbers at Boulders Beach, Strand, Milnerton and Blouberg. About 62% of the crabs were female, and many of them survived in aquaria for some time after stranding.

In short, it seems that we had our own little temperature anomlay, however brief, in early 2019, and the pulse of warm water brought with it these rarely seen (in Cape Town) crabs. What luck to spot this unusual visitor!

There are some lovely pictures of Smith’s swimming crab, healthy and in mid water, taken off Tanzania, here.

You need this: the Shark Spotters smartphone app

The Shark Spotters app
The Shark Spotters app

After a successful Back a Buddy campaign, Shark Spotters launched their free shark safety smartphone app in the summer of 2016. The app has had excellent uptake by water users of all stripes, but I’d like to draw it to your attention in case you aren’t familiar with the ways in which it can make your beach life better and safer! Whether you’re a surfer, a diver, an ocean swimmer, a beach comber, or someone who looks forward to long summer days under an umbrella on the sand, the Shark Spotters app can make a difference to you.

The list of Shark Spotters beaches
The list of Shark Spotters beaches

Shark Spotters operate at eight beaches around the Cape Peninsula: four (Muizenberg, St James/Kalk Bay, Fish Hoek & Caves, Kogel Bay) year-round, and another four (Glencairn, Clovelly, Monwabisi and the Hoek, Noordhoek) from October to April, during the warmer months.

The app allows one to set a home beach – you can see from the image above that mine is Fish Hoek – and when you start the app, you’ll get information for your home beach immediately. Tapping on the home beach block at the top of the screen (where it says “Tap for more”) brings one to a series of screens that you can navigate through by swiping the bottom block on the screen.

The information provided is extensive. You can see information on the last three shark sightings at your home beach, the weather and sea conditions (temperature, wind direction, tides, moon phase, swell), and information on what marine life is in the area. This latter information is not a nice to have so you can look out for dolphins from shore, but an important indicator of the likelihood of a shark being in the area. Dolphins, rays and schools of fish can draw white sharks, while sunfish (and even seals) may be mistaken for a shark when viewed from a distance by an untrained observer.

There’s also information on what facilities are available at the beach, and a short video for each beach, usually taken each morning, showing the prevailing conditions.

All this information is available for all the Shark Spotters beaches, not just your home beach, and you can view a different beach by selecting it from the list that appears under your home beach on the home screen.

Digging into the app, you can find a detailed list of all the recorded shark sightings, and in the settings you can turn notifications of sightings on or off according to your preference. I have them switched on, because I like to be reminded of a world outside the office.

Shark Spotters app menu options
Shark Spotters app menu options

The further menu options, shown above, give you access to a large amount of data about the Shark Spotters program, the exclusion net at Fish Hoek beach, how the flag system works, great white sharks, and more. Most of the menu options also provide links to more detailed information online, if you want to know more.

You can download the app for iOS here, for Android here, or use the download links from the Shark Spotters website. The app is completely free of charge, but Shark Spotters is funded by the City of Cape Town, Save Our Seas Foundation, and other generous sponsors, including individuals. Shark Spotters welcomes donations. Click here to donate.

Newsletter: Better than nothing

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Saturday and/or Sunday: Boat dives in False Bay

The forecast today is a little better for the weekend than it was earlier this week. There is some wind and some odd swell and swell direction changes but I believe it should be worth diving both Saturday and Sunday. Sunday will most likely be a little better. I have students on the boat on both days so there is not much space, however, if you are quick you can reserve a spot!

Zandvlei Nature Reserve
Zandvlei Nature Reserve

Things to do

It’s not as if one needs to actively seek out extra commitments at this time of year, but in case you’re at a loose end check out Wavescape’s Slide Night happening on Monday (you need to book in advance for this). You can get some adult education at UCT’s annual Summer School in January, and there’s something for you whether your interest is sharks or shipwrecks.

regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog/

Diving is addictive!

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Bookshelf: Shark

Shark – Brian Skerry

Brian Skerry is a National Geographic photojournalist, with whose TED Talk you may be familiar. This book is a collection of articles – about sharks – that appeared in National Geographic magazine, accompanied by one magnificent shark photograph after another. Each chapter’s text is reasonably short. Here, the photos are the primary focus.

Shark
Shark

The chapters focus on four species of shark: great white, white tip, tiger sharks, and mako sharks. Additional text is contributed by several National Geographic writers, and experiencing the familiar editorial quality and stylistic approach of the magazine is like settling down for a chat with an old friend.

The final chapter of the book, written by Skerry, is an appeal for increased understanding of sharks and their vital place in ecosystems, and increased protection for them – in the form of marine reserves, and less fishing, for example. The photographs selected for this chapter makes it clear that in Skerry’s view, science (especially tagging studies) is vital to the endeavour of better understanding sharks, and protecting them.

Get a copy of the book here (South Africa), here or here.

Newsletter: Awesome Autumn

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Saturday: Shore dives at Long Beach

Sunday: Boat dives from False Bay Yacht Club

Autumn is a good time for False Bay diving! False Bay is currently pleasant, not too cold and the weekend does look decent after the latest weather updates. My plan is shore dives on Saturday, when it will be a little more windy, and boat diving on Sunday. Let me know if you’d like to get in the water.

Spring low tide at Muizenberg
Spring low tide at Muizenberg

Shark Spotters binocular fundraiser

Don’t forget to donate to the Shark Spotters crowd funding campaign to raise funds for new high powered binoculars for the spotters. Shark Spotters does fantastic work – read more about it here and here. You should also make sure you download their very cool shark safety and beach information app – available for both Android and iOS.

regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog/

Diving is addictive!

To subscribe to receive this newsletter by email, use the form on this page!

Newsletter: Seasonal changes

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Staying dry

Both days this weekend have swell, and wind blowing from the wrong direction, and the current dark colour of False Bay means we are definitely staying dry. The weather does look better on Monday and Tuesday for those that have a flexible work schedule – if you’re one such, get in touch.

The Shark Spotters centre at Muizenberg
The Shark Spotters centre at Muizenberg

Binoculars for Shark Spotters

The Shark Spotters team are running a crowd funding campaign to raise money for new, high powered binoculars for the spotters. I can tell you that the right pair of binoculars makes all the difference. Cape Town’s Shark Spotters program is an international model for a beach safety solution that protects both sharks and people. They are very deserving of your support – please consider contributing to the campaign at this link.

Citizen Science Day

I promised to remind you again about the SANBI Citizen Science day, and it’s rolling around this weekend. There’s a full program of short lectures from representatives of various projects on Saturday, free of charge, in the conference venue at Kirstenbosch Gardens. There’s more detail at this facebook event link, and a list of the talks here.

regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog/

Diving is addictive!

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Newsletter: Traditions

Hi divers

Weekend dive plans

Boat dives on Sunday or Monday / Shore dives on Monday (conditions dependent)

Traditionally Easter is a difficult time for diving. Many people are away and the weather does not always play ball. Add to this the traffic congestion from the Two Oceans marathon on Saturday… This weekend we may dive from Hout Bay on Sunday or Monday, or perhaps shore dives from Long Beach, wind dependent.

We are out tomorrow on a full day private charter but I do think Long Beach will be a good option if you feel like shore diving.

We send well wishes to everyone celebrating a religious observance this weekend. For those of you who celebrate Easter, here’s an egg for you:

Catshark egg on a sea fan
Catshark egg on a sea fan

Plastic and Water

On the marathon topic, watch this video and see how the Two Oceans Aquarium and Old Mutual are teaming up to reduce the use and impact of single use plastic, and learn about the aquarium’s turtle rehabilitation program.

This article on how to responsibly stockpile (or just purchase) bottled water, is very helpful if you’re working on water security at home, but don’t want to contribute to an environmental apocalypse.

regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog/

Diving is addictive!

To subscribe to receive this newsletter by email, use the form on this page!