Even though South Africa has been identified as a centre of abundance and white sharks have been protected here since 1991, white shark populations are threatened globally. The White Shark Research Programme, a Save Our Seas Shark Centre, Marine and Coastal Management and University of Cape Town collaboration, seeks to provide a thorough understanding of their ecological needs to ensure that protection and management measures are up-to-date and effective. This knowledge can be used to make a significant contribution to the global conservation of this threatened species.
Direct observation, photo-identification, acoustic tracking and animal-borne cameras are used to study the population and spatial dynamics, feeding and social behaviour and identification of critical habitats. 78 sharks have been acoustically tagged and their movements recorded on 35 Vemco VR2 monitors. Days at liberty ranged from 1 – 975 days with a mean of 228 days providing valuable information over consecutive seasons. White sharks are present year-round in False Bay, highlighting the importance of the bay for South Africa’s white shark population. However, distinct seasonal trends in habitat utilization within the bay were identified. White shark presence is highest at the seal colony from May – September where sharks prey on young of the year Cape fur seals. We have also determined that white sharks are present year-round close to shore in Cape Town with a peak from October – December. We have tagged 13 sharks within 2 km from shore ranging in size from 1.6 – 5 meters. Over 50 % of tagged animals from Seal Island were recorded within 1 km from shore. Despite this high shark presence, there was a single negative interaction between sharks and people recorded in 2007 in the area. On the other hand, this behaviour increases their vulnerability to being caught accidentally by shore-anglers or as by-catch in demersal shark long lining activities in the area. In collaboration with National Geographic Society, crittercams were once again attached to white sharks. This footage and data will be used to determine the fine-scale habitat use and feeding and social nature of white sharks.
In Cape Town white sharks are responsible for the majority of bites on water users. Although relatively rare, shark bites that result in human injury or death potentially threaten protective measures through the reluctance of the public to support shark conservation, the possible implementation of culling programmes and illegal hunting. Furthermore, shark bites can negatively impact on local business and tourism. A unique programme was adopted by Cape Town in 2004 to find a middle ground between white shark conservation and the concerns of the public. During 2005 – 2007, 483 shark sightings were recorded at popular beaches demonstrating the programme is an effective warning system. Recently Alison was appointed the Director of Research for the Shark Spotting Programme and together with the Save Our Seas Shark Centre will integrate research findings and shark sightings to get a clear understanding of white shark coastal presence and try and build a better relationship between coastal communities and sharks.
The project has received considerable international attention again in 2008 featuring on CNN Anderson Cooper 360º for their Planet in Peril Series, ABC Nightline (US), RTL Television (Germany), The Underwater Channel and local prime time news programmes eTV and SABC. It was the cover feature of the Smithsonian Magazine in June 2008 and featured in National Geographic Kids Magazine, Envirokids Magazine and numerous news articles. Alison was also the recipient of a VR100 special grant from Vemco Ltd. Research findings were published in the Journal Animal Behaviour in October 2008 and presented at the Southern Africa Marine Science Symposium held in Cape Town and presentations given at the Save Our Seas Shark Centre, Iziko Museum and UCT.
All photographs copyright Alison Kock and Morne Hardenberg