Man Versus Sea: South Africa’s Shark Spotters

Paula Froelich
·Editor at Large
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Keeping an eye out. (Photo: Andrew Rothschild)

Monwabisi “Monwa” Sikweyiya has spent almost every day for the past eight years on the cliffs overlooking Muizenberg Beach, just outside of Cape Town in South Africa. The former surfer and his co-workers take five-hour shifts at a time looking for one thing: great white sharks.

For years, even before the movie “Jaws,” the giant predators have fascinated (and terrified) people, and for shark enthusiasts and researchers, this beach is one of the places to go cage diving and fishing for great white sharks.

“There are lots of seals and penguins here, and that is their diet,” Sikweyiya said. “So they come to these beaches to feed.”

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But the area is also perfect for surfing. And the two simply do not mix, at least not if you want to keep all of your limbs.

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They can spot sharks from these cliffs. (Photo: Andrew Rothschild)

Sikweyiya used to be a surfing lifeguard, but he started with Shark Spotters in 2006 after a particularly bad shark attack on a fellow surfer.

“The guy lost his leg. I knew something had to be done,” he said. Now, he and a rotating team of men and women keep watch from the cliffs, where they spend mind-numbing hours staring at the water, looking for shark-shaped shadows.

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They do it because it saves lives.

“If we see a shark, we radio down to the lifeguards at the beach, and they will alert everyone and put up the flags,” Sikweyiya says. Under the flag system, if a shark is spotted, a red flag will sail on the beaches. If conditions are good for sharks (murky water, waves close to shore), the flag will be black. A white flag indicates “all clear” (even though you can never be too certain in the shark capital). So far, the team has spotted more than 1,500 sharks and are credited with saving countless lives.

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Sikweyiya’s only goal is to keep these beaches safe. (Photo: Andrew Rothschild)

Sikweyiya’s co-worker, Seferimale, has been a shark spotter for six years. “I was going to be a lifeguard, but it took too long,” he laughed. “You always get bored (on the job), but you just have to focus… Last year, I saw five great whites in one day. The largest one was 4.5 meters.”

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Meanwhile, Sikweyiya, who used to surf every day barely goes in the water anymore.

“I know too much,” he said. “I’ve seen what’s in there.”

To hang out with the shark spotters, contact: Monwabisi Sikweyiya at Monwashark@gmail.com.

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