Sharp eye on sharks

Several shark attacks have been recorded along the False Bay coastline in the past.

Hi-tech eyes in the sky are set to extend the sight of Shark Spotters in Fish Hoek and Muizenberg, making the two city beaches with the most frequent shark sightings a whole lot safer for False Bay bathers.
Repair and technical support firm weFix has donated two drones − one for each lookout point − to Shark Spotters.

The company will also pay to send the non-profit organisation’s staff on a month-long course to learn how to use the new technology.

The two drones, a DJI Phantom 4 and DJI Mavic, have just been launched in South Africa, and Shark Spotters research manager Alison Kock believes they are going to be a game changer.

Ms Kock, the scientist who collates all the information gleaned from the spotters, said the drones had changed the way
sharks were observed.

“Just in the few videos we have taken – bear in mind we’ve only been able to legally fly them for a few days – we have already been able to see new behaviour.

The drones offer an utterly unique perspective.”

The drones would not simply be a surveillance tool but an educational one as well.

“We are so focused on educating people about sharks – and their environment and behaviour – so the plan is that very soon we will be able to share the videos we take so people can see first-hand what we mean when we talk about the relationship between fish and sharks,” said Ms Kock.

The drones were also picking up other marine life, including sting rays and dolphins. Even whale sharks had been spotted in the past week.

“We can now measure their speed, which direction they were coming from (and going to) and observe their interactions
in a whole new way.

“And all the time we will be learning new behaviour, as it presents,” Ms Kock said.

“There are so many things we simply could not have seen with the naked eye which are now a reality for us.

“And the best thing is that before the drones, the regular sightings would normally only be for our eyes. Now we can share what we are seeing.”

Ms Kock said the accredited drone training covered legalities around privacy, and weFix was also sponsoring licencing, insurance and maintenance premiums.

Alex Fourie, we Fix’s CEO, said the drones were a support tool that would give Shark Spotters extra muscle to keep the beaches safe for bathers.

“They do not replace any of the current processes and routines that Shark Spotters employ to safeguard these popular swimming and surfing beaches. Instead, the drones offer the extraordinary advantage of being able to remotely investigate reports of shark sightings at sea, and more accurately identify causes of alarm,” he said.

He believes the drones will also contribute to the scientific understanding of the prevalence and movements of a variety of sea creatures, not just the great white shark, in False Bay.

Eventually, the drones will be deployed to take a closer look after a mountain-based spotter or a resident calls in a shark sighting.

“This is a fantastic enhancement of our programme,” said Shark Spotters project manager Sarah Waries.

“What we expect is that the drones will ultimately improve the accuracy of our current shark flag system and, of course, enhance safety when it comes to swimming and other popular water sports.”

Currently, Muizenberg and Fish Hoek beaches each have mountain-based shark spotters who, to date, have only used binoculars and polarised sunglasses to look out for sharks close to shore. The drones will now give them additional range up and down the beach and out to sea.

Each drone can stay in flight for up to 30 minutes before needing a battery change.

“Typically, shark sightings start in spring, and peak during late summer,” said Ms Waries.

“This is exactly the same as when beach days for people also peak.

“We’re in no doubt that our organisation will benefit hugely over time by deploying and mastering latest technologies, and we couldn’t be more delighted with this partnership.”