Why you should care
Going to dinner is great. Being dinner? Not so great.
In this occasional series, OZY takes to streets and neighborhoods across the globe to ask a simple question: “How was your day?”
Ashley Sullivan, Shark Spotter
Cape Town, South Africa
When you’re sitting up here, you get to see everything. You’re almost like God, the man from above. You’re calling the shots. When I started here, I used to feel pressure. It took a while to build up confidence, but with time I could identify the differences — what a stingray is, what a great white shark is, what a bronze whaler is. You can’t be setting off the sirens for nothing, you know. Then you’ll create havoc. You have to make it so that the people trust you. You don’t want to be the boy who cries wolf.
The first shark I ever spotted was huge. I’m talking 16 feet. You can’t miss a shark like that. It’s impossible. That was the biggest shark I’ve ever seen. Since then I’ve seen lots of 12-foot sharks. It may not sound big, but it’s bigger than a car. One year they pulled a dead 12-footer onto the beach and I got to see it close up. You’ve got no chance. You’re gonna come second best with that.
I’ve been a shark spotter for eight years. I can’t say for certain that I’ve saved any lives, but I’m pretty sure I have. Cape Town has the second-highest concentration of white sharks in the world; the sharkiest place on the planet is about a hundred miles further up the South African coast. We don’t get any of those record-breaking 20-foot sharks here, but we don’t get any small ones either. All our great whites can do some damage.
One year they pulled a dead 12-footer onto the beach and I got to see it close up. You’ve got no chance. You’re gonna come second best with that.
The shark-spotters program started in 2004, and there’s still no other place in the world that’s doing it. I guess the conditions in Cape Town are perfect. Most of our beaches are near mountains, and our water’s generally pretty clear, so you can get a good view. And of course we have lots of sharks and lots of swimmers. We use a flag system to warn beach users about possible shark activity. If a shark is spotted in a dangerous position, we make the call to sound the siren and evacuate the beach.
I work seven five-hour shifts every week, and I move between the beaches on this side of the peninsula. Some shifts, I’m up on the mountain; others, I’m down on the beach. I prefer being up here, but both parts of the job are important. It’s peaceful up here. People assume I get bored, but I don’t. I sit, think, watch. You’d be surprised how quick the time goes.
Down on the beach, people see my shirt and they want to know stuff all the time. They come to you for all sorts of things, not just about sharks. And when we have to evacuate the beach, it can be a real pain. There’s always someone who knows better, who doesn’t want to get out of the water. We’ve even had one guy get bitten by a shark because of it. Legally we can’t force anyone to get out, but we try our best.
Some of the other spotters prefer working on the beach, in the thick of things, but I’m much happier on the mountain. Before this I was a freelance fisherman. A bit here, a bit there. There aren’t fish to catch anymore. Here I’m getting paid every day. I’m not from a rich family, and I have a baby on the way. I have to look out for my child. Fishing is the best. Catching fish is almost like sitting here. It’s just peaceful.
Everybody thinks we need binoculars to spot sharks, but if I’m wearing my polarized glasses, I can spot a shark in my zone. Binoculars are for when you see something way out there and you want to check what it is. We don’t just look for sharks; we record any marine activity and it’s updated to the shark spotters app in real time. I look out for seals, dolphins, sunfish. Even vessels in distress. And then there are the bronze whaler sharks. The bronzies are a pain in the arse. They go really shallow, right next to the swimmers. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you can get a huge fright, but they’re totally harmless.
This is one of the quietest seasons I’ve ever had, but you must never get too comfortable. One year we never saw a shark; for a good couple of months, nobody saw anything. Then after six months a shark came out of nowhere, and there was an incident.