Tragedy & Praise After a Shark Attack
The following is a blog posting I have done for the Save Our Seas Foundation:
Tragedy & Praise After a Shark Attack: Cape Town as a Global Leader in Shark Bite Prevention
By Christopher Neff
There are no simple explanations when sharks bite people. These random acts of nature are traumatic and terrifying. This week the Cape Town community showed resolve and strength in responding to a dreadful incident on Wednesday (28 September) when Michael Cohen was bitten and severely injured.
It is normal for an official review to take place regarding the beach safety methods being used. As a doctoral researcher I have studied responses by 40 beach communities in 23 countries, including the US and Australia following shark attacks. Making sure everything possible was done is essential and by all accounts it was. Yet there is even more to this complicated story. While it is not obvious to start with, the facts are that the attack on Wednesday showed a shark bite prevention system that worked. With a three-pronged approach to limiting human-shark encounters, the City of Cape Town is a global leader in beach safety.
On 30 August, Cape Town issued a public statement stating that sharks were near the “in-shore” areas of local beaches. This caution was part of an annual seasonal awareness campaign and more than a broadly worded warning, this was a specialized caution based on scientific data that revealed a three-method strategy for limiting human-shark encounters.
First, the statement revealed the role of local researchers as “shark monitors at sea.” During the previous weeks and months, scientists in the field had tracked the movements of sharks into and away from Seal Island in False Bay. This was communicated to the public through websites, television, newspaper stories and social media. Each noted that sharks’ normal route would take them past in-shore areas of Cape Town beaches, including Fish Hoek.
The early warning system was active. Shark tracking at sea had identified the seasonal change in white shark movements and this tracking would now continue with the second element of this program, daily shark spotting at the beaches.
Started in 2004 and funded by the City in 2006, the Shark Spotters program is a landmark program that has earned international acclaim. [Authors note: This program is a public-private partnership that includes funding from the Save Our Seas Foundation]. This beach safety system includes trained spotters with binoculars on the hillsides, surrounding beaches, as well as staff on-site. Flags are displayed and sirens are sounded to alert the public to the presence of sharks in the area.
Sharks had been spotted everyday in Fish Hoek since the Saturday prior to the incident. The beach was closed and many of the ocean users sat alongside the Shark Spotters watching the sharks swimming in the bay. On Wednesday morning, the Spotters saw sharks at 9:15 in Fish Hoek Bay and raised the flag, sounded the alarm and got everyone out of the water to close the beach. At 10:50, sharks were spotted again and the flag was raised, siren sounded and the beach remained closed. Unfortunately, with the beach still closed and no one else in the water, Michael Cohen went in around 12:25 and the shark bite incident occurred.
It is important to note here that a city-wide electricity blackout during this time had cut power to the area. Once the Spotters observed Mr. Cohen entering the water, on the opposite side of the beach, there was no siren to sound. They ran – sounding air horns – to try and get him out; however, the distance to cover was a kilometer away and it was too late. The most veteran member of the Shark Spotter team and its Operations Manager, Monwabisi Sikweyiya, got in his car and drove to that side of the beach. He assisted two brave bystanders who went into the water and brought him out. Monwabisi took off his belt and fashioned a tourniquet. The three men saved Michael Cohen’s life.
The third element in this beach safety system is transparent and available public education. With the best science possible, posted in more locations than most beach communities in the world, Cape Town residents and tourists are equipped to make informed decisions. Public safety rests on good information and feeling empowered to use it. One day after the incident with Michael Cohen, a full review by the City, scientists, first-responders and surf lifesavers had taken place and been released to the public. This is not a story of failure. In this tragic case, the system still worked.
The City of Cape Town and local residents should be proud to have the earliest-early warning system in the world, with scientists tracking sharks at sea. Cape Town also has the best-trained beach spotters in the world, who also provide emergency first-aid, and who in this case saved Mr. Cohen’s life. And Fish Hoek should be proud of its brave community members, who risked their lives to save a stranger. This is a story of success done courageously.
While no system is perfect in an always-active beach ecosystem, this three-pronged approach serves as a global model for other beach locations. In all, telling this total story is important because shark bite incidents are a tragedy for individuals and for communities. It is common for these events to stoke fears spread through myth and media, which reinforce old stereotypes about sharks. To be clear, the safety of bathers and surfers is paramount, but this status is not a blank check and in fact comes with greater responsibilities to the environment around us.
Christopher Neff is a doctoral research student at the University of Sydney, Department of Government and International Relations. Neff is a 2011 Save Our Seas Foundation grantee for his project “Shark Bites and Public Policies in South Africa, Australia and the United States.”