Drones are proving to be a game-changer for conservationists around the world. Sarah Waries, of the Shark Spotters, describes how they are contributing to the mitigation of human–wildlife conflict in Cape Town, South Africa.
Exciting new technologies are emerging in all areas of conservation and none more so than in the field of sustainable shark bite mitigation. From sonar detection to electronic repellent barriers, millions of dollars are being invested in looking for new, high-tech solutions that will reduce the risk of shark bites and keep our beaches safer.
At Shark Spotters we have always prided ourselves on the low-cost, low-tech, but highly effective shark safety measures we implement at Cape Town’s most popular swimming and surfing beaches. Using trained spotters strategically positioned on the mountainside and equipped with nothing more than polarised sunglasses, binoculars and a keen knowledge of and passion for the ocean, we have recorded more than 2,100 shark sightings since the programme began operating in 2004. This simple, affordable and easily replicable system has proved very successful and over the past 13 years it has considerably increased safety at the beaches where we operate.
However, recent advances in drone technology have caught our attention, as they have the potential to add a whole new perspective to our shark safety programme. Always wanting to stay at the forefront of sustainable shark bite mitigation measures, we were delighted to be approached by local South African tech repair company WeFix, which saw potential for a collaborative partnership to enhance beach safety and test new technologies at the same time. WeFix generously donated two top-of-the-range DJI Phantom 4 drones, including all maintenance and support, to our programme and provided training and licensing for the spotters to ensure that they were properly equipped for flying the drones in public open spaces.
The drones were deployed at the two busiest beaches where we operate, Fish Hoek and Muizenberg, over the 2016–2017 summer season as a supporting mechanism for our existing safety protocols. The use of drones did not replace any of the current processes and routines Shark Spotters employ to safeguard the beaches, but instead offered the extraordinary advantage of being able to investigate shark sightings remotely and identify large sharks close to shore more accurately, as well as track them.
Continuous visual surveillance was maintained by the spotters on the mountainside and if they saw a shark, the beach spotter would launch the drone to locate the animal in question. After confirming the species and assessing whether it might pose a threat to water-users, the drone operators had the rare opportunity to get an up-close and completely new perspective on shark behaviour in the inshore region.
The drones have enabled us to easily differentiate between similarly sized shark species, such as great white and bronze whaler. Both are large sharks seen close to shore in our area, but each poses a different level of threat to water-users. The drones also enable the spotters to monitor the behaviour of the shark closely and establish whether it is patrolling or feeding in the area, or just passing through. All this information feeds into the spotters’ assessment of risk and enables them to make a more accurate decision about the action they need to take to protect water-users from a potentially dangerous shark encounter.
The Shark Spotters programme in Cape Town, South Africa, improves beach safety through both shark warnings and emergency assistance in the event of a shark incident. The programme contributes to research on shark ecology and behaviour, raises public awareness about shark-related issues, and provides employment opportunities and skills development for spotters.