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The great white hype

 The Big Issue South Africa 24 October 2019

The great white hype: face-to-face encounters with Great White Sharks go some way to debunk the many myths surrounding these beautiful creatures. (1351 Words) - By Annabelle Cottee

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Photo: The Big Issue South Africa

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Allison Kock.Photo: The Big Issue South Africa


Annabelle Cottee hopped on board a research ship with the Save our Seas Foundation to come face-to-face with the ocean's apex predator. While on board, she got to the bottom of why humans fear charachadon charcharias - the great white shark

Sharks - especially the great white - have a bad reputation. Thanks in no small part to the Jaws film phenomenon and sensationalist headlines, they're known as man-eaters, called "witdoodshaaie" in Afrikaans and rogue killing machines, mafia-like in grey and white suits.

What's probably more dangerous, though, is how little we really know about these sharks. Despite our morbid fascination with great white sharks and their infrequent attacks, Alison Kock, project leader at Cape Town's Save Our Seas Foundation (SOS), points out that white sharks are still hugely understudied.

Researchers still don't know basic information about these feared creatures, such as the number of white sharks around South Africa's Western Cape's shores, where exactly they reproduce, or what influences their movement patterns. This information, says the researcher, is critical to understanding why sharks sometimes attack humans and, equally importantly, to minimise the threats facing their population.

Kock has dedicated the last eight years to understanding the great white's movement patterns around False Bay. In 2004 she began tagging sharks after identifying the area as a key feeding habitat. "There are so many misconceptions about sharks, so our research is essentially to try and provide facts to the public," she explains.

Misconceptions

The most sinister of those misconceptions is how much of a danger sharks are to humans. On average, sharks kill one person each year in South Africa, making it more dangerous to drive to the beach than to swim in the water. In fact, chairs and toasters kill more people worldwide each year than these predators.

"A lot of people ask me why sharks attack people, but my rebuttal question is, why aren't we seeing more attacks? They're here all the time, and we're easy takings - we don't swim nearly as well as a seal," Kock points out. "The fact is attacks are a miniscule part of what sharks do. Most of the time, they're socialising or resting or catching prey, or just doing what sharks do."

These reassuring stats and solid reasoning aren't, however, doing much to stem widespread fear of great whites and the ensuing hysteria when an attack does take place. But that isn't too surprising considering it's natural to fear being vulnerable and exposed to a massive predator with rows of razor-sharp teeth that could kill us. The words "unlikely", "rare" and "occasional" do little to quash that primal fear.

So what can us Homo Sapiens do to overcome our irrational fear of charachadon charcharias?

Not much, but we can arm ourselves with knowledge, says Kock, and make sure we put that fear into perspective to ensure sharks are not mistreated or hunted down. "You have to be balanced. You can't say sharks are puppy dogs - they are top predators and we have to respect them, but it is vital to try and get the facts through in a realistic way," she stresses, pointing out that most people get their information from "very inaccurate wildlife documentaries that capitalise on the sensationalism of sharks".

Making sure the new generation - those lucky enough not to have been subjected to the Jaws phenomenon - are given the correct information early on is a key part of SOS's work. The Foundation runs an education programme for school children to raise awareness of sharks based on their research, as well as ocean conservation.

"Once someone gets older and they have a mindset they have been brought up with, it's very difficult to change that," observes Adrian Hewitt, a researcher at SOS. "If you educate people properly from a young age, they grow up realising the ocean needs to be protected, and sharks can't be mistreated." And it's the mistreatment and slaughter of sharks that the SOS team is determined to end.

Risk of extinction

Despite their size and position at the top of the ocean's food chain, great white populations are extremely vulnerable. Great whites live for an average of 60 years, give birth to relatively few young and are thought to take between 15 to 20 years to reach sexual maturity. Simply put, if people start wiping out these creatures in numbers, they'll be at risk of extinction because it won't be easy - or quick - to bring their numbers back up.

Fortunately, South Africa was ahead of the trend when in 1991 it became the first country to protect the great white. Kock says the move was groundbreaking, especially as there was no definitive evidence at the time that great white numbers were declining. "They were protected on a precautionary basis because more and more people were targeting them for trophies, and we know they have a slow growth rate and low reproductive abilities," she explains.

But putting an animal on the protected list is one thing, ensuring that the animal is actually protected is quite another, which is why Kock and her fellow conservation groups are relentless in their efforts to get the conservation and protection message across. And it seems to be working, at least in Cape Town.

"Cape Town really is a model city because we have one of the largest populations of white sharks in the world on the doorstep of a major city, with many thousands of people using the ocean, yet we have so few attacks," says Kock. "In many ways, we're at the forefront in how we co-exist with these sharks, because we have a shark spotting programme that's unique, and it's in place of things like culling or nets, as they have in Durban."

Kock concedes that the battle is still far from won - too many people still fear the great white and there are persistent calls to cull the predator or net Cape Town's beaches, especially when there is a rare attack. But she's positive that with time, more research and education will come greater awareness and better understanding of the ocean's apex predator. "The mindset of Capetonians has 
already changed incredibly over a very short few years, and I think that's amazing - it means anything is possible."

[BOXOUT]

Deadly attacks over the decade

2000

No fatal attacks recorded.

2001

No fatal attacks recorded.

2002

No fatal attacks recorded.

2003

- In January, the shark-bitten body of an unidentified teenager washed ashore at the lagoon near Tableview, Cape Town.

- Bodyboarder David Bornman fatally attacked by great white off Noordhoek beach, Cape Town.

2004

- Swimmer Tyna Webb fatally attacked by great white at Fishhoek beach, Cape Town.

- Swimmer Nkosinathi Mayaba fatally attacked by great white off Gansbaai's Dyer Island, Western Cape.

2005

Spear fisherman Henri Murray killed by Caribbean reef sharks at Miller's Point, Cape Town.

2006

Swimmer Lorenzo Kroutz fatally attacked by unknown shark species at Port Alfred, Eastern Cape.

2007

Lifesaver Sibulele Masiza killed by tiger shark at Port St. John's, Eastern Cape.

2008

Four unidentified divers poaching abalone believed to be fatally attacked
by sharks at Gansbaai's Dyer Island, Western Cape.

2009

- Lifesaver Sikhanyiso Bangilizwe fatally attacked by tiger shark at Port St.  John's, Eastern Cape.

- Paddleboarder Tshintshekile Nduva killed by tiger shark at Second Beach near Port St. John's, Eastern Cape.

- Surfer Luyolo Mangele fatally attacked at Port St. John's, Eastern Cape.

- Surfer Gerhard van Zyl killed by unknown shark species at Glentana, Western Cape.

2010

Swimmer Lloyd Skinner fatally attacked by great white at Fishhoek beach, Cape Town.

2011

- Surfer Zama Ndamase fatally attacked by what is believed to be a bull shark at Second Beach near Port St John's, Eastern Cape.

- Swimmer Khanyisile Momoza fatally 
attacked by great white between Dyer Island and Pearly Beach, Western Cape.

- Surfer Tim van Heerden fatally attacked at Lookout Beach, Plettenberg Bay as this issue went to press. Shark species unconfirmed.

* Sourced from www.shark.co.za and www.sharkattackfile.info