Shark Spotters: Guardians of the Backline

Thomas Morris

Have you ever felt afraid to swim in the ocean, not knowing what is lurking below? Well fear no more as Shark Spotters have your back, keeping you safe when swimming in the deep blue! How is it possible to keep tabs on all the sharks in the sea? Keep reading to find out!

Muizenberg beach, Cape Town on New Year’s Day. Photo: @sharkspotters #BeSharkSmart

Muizenberg beach, Cape Town on New Year’s Day. Photo: @sharkspotters #BeSharkSmart

Whenever I’m in the water and I can’t see the bottom, there is always a slight tingle of fear down my spine as I think of what might be lurking below. Media has us believe that sharks are “ruthless killers” - the Jaws poster and its infamous soundtrack springs to mind particularly when the bottom is far below. But what if we didn’t have to worry? What if we knew there was someone out there watching our backs? A guardian, perhaps?

These people do exist. The City of Cape Town, South Africa supports an organization called Shark Spotters (, and their purpose is to proactively prevent shark-human interactions. These guardians perform an often thankless job of watching over ocean goers around the Cape peninsula. Outfitted with polarized sunglasses, binoculars and radios, their job is to warn people when a shark enters a swimming area. Using an established flag system and sirens, they communicate to people in the water directly, preventing an interaction before it even happens.

Flags used to communicate with water users. Photo: @sharkspotters #BeSharkSmart

Flags used to communicate with water users. Photo: @sharkspotters #BeSharkSmart

The organization was established in 2004 after a spate of shark incidents and interactions. It has been shown that after a shark bite incident, the economy of the surrounding community suffers for up to 3 months, with drops in tourism and recreational water use as one of the main drivers. This sparked an outcry from local businesses as this was a direct threat to their income. Since the introduction of this system, there has been a marked trust in the purpose of the organization, even after subsequent incidents.

Shark Spotter’s slogan – Safety, Conservation, Education, Research - shows how dynamic the goals of this not for profit are in trying to break the negative and harmful image the public has about these apex predators.

Apart from the direct service they provide to water users, they have a well-established research component that has contributed significantly to our understanding of Great White Sharks. These large animals are not easily researched, so any and all information is necessary for our greater understanding of their role within our marine ecosystems.

The organization takes their research and distils it into bite size chunks which are distributed across many communication channels to the general public. One of these tools, their education program, has the daunting task of impacting the broad swathe of water users within the Cape Town community – from the poverty-stricken schools in under resourced, disadvantaged communities to the tourists from across the globe. In combination with social media (@SharkSpotters, #BeSharkSmart), a “Shark Spotters” app, and significant community buy in from schools and clubs, they are able to achieve their mandate.

The view over Fish Hoek beach. Photo: @sharkspotters #BeSharkSmart

The view over Fish Hoek beach. Photo: @sharkspotters #BeSharkSmart

Conservation is one part protecting our environment and two parts educating and empowering society to make a change. Shark Spotters not only achieves this through their education programme and social media output, but also contributes directly to a community that has struggled with inequality, poverty and a lack of education. Their employees or “Spotters” are hired from this community and are educated through an intensive 8-week training programme to become true ocean ambassadors.

This innovative, sustainable, non-lethal management of an incredibly complex problem is a shining example of how innovative conservation initiatives can impact our society and environment in a positive way. By creating strong community buy-in, from those less fortunate than us, to the die hard surfers, even the students at the surrounding surf schools – Shark Spotters has shown just how impactful a multi-disciplinary approach can be in mitigating our impact on the environment.

After spending many years in the water around the Cape Peninsula, I know I can sit on that backline, depth uncertain, waiting for the perfect wave, and know that someone has my back.

Blue Missions showcases the work of marine organisations dedicated to protecting our oceans


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