CAPE TOWN, South Africa — A South African shark-spotting program to warn surfers and swimmers about the approach of great whites is to be expanded, environmentalists have said, though they added the sharks have more to fear than humans.
In the only program of its kind in the world, South Africans are being trained as "spotters" who scour the ocean near popular beaches to sound the alert if they see one of the mighty predators. Many of those recruited are disadvantaged or homeless.
Experts, who met Thursday to discuss how to balance protecting great white sharks and beachgoers ahead of the busy tourist season, stressed that people posed a far greater risk to sharks than the other way around. The great white was classified as a protected species in 2004 because of a rapid drop in numbers in waters around Australia and the Northwest Atlantic.
Sharks "don't make a living preying on people. If they did we would have serial man-eaters out there," said Len Compagno, a shark expert who provided scientific advice to the 1975 movie "Jaws" — and has ever since regretted the impact it had on public opinion.
On average, there is just one shark attack on a human per year in Cape Town — and six in total in South Africa. But the great whites repeatedly hit the headlines because of close shaves, partly due to the increasing number of surfers and kayakers.
A great white, the only shark species that survives in Cape Town's frigid Atlantic waters, recently bit off the foot of a lifeguard and earlier this week one repeatedly circled a surfer before swimming away.
The number of great whites in South Africa is believed to have stabilized at around 1,200 since 1991, said shark expert Alison Kock, although she stressed the figures were unreliable because of the vast distances the sharks swim. Kock is in the middle of a drive to tag great whites in the waters around Cape Town to monitor their movements.
Greg Oelofse, Cape Town's environmental policy coordinator, said spotters sighted great whites 165 times on two beaches on the False Bay stretch of coastline last year. So far this year they have sighted the predators 69 times — but this will increase rapidly with the onset of the summer season.
Trained spotters with binoculars and special glasses stand on hills above popular beaches. Each time a great white is seen entering the bay, a siren is sounded and the order given to clear the water.
The plan now is to double the number of beaches under surveillance to six and set up a Web site and phone number so that surfers can check on shark activity before they leave home. The number of spotters, currently about a dozen, will also be doubled.
Patrick Davids, 33, was among the original team of spotters recruited three years ago after shark attacks that killed an elderly woman and maimed a teenager.
"Friends couldn't believe it when I told them I was a shark spotter. They asked how did you get such a job?" said Davids, who credits shark-spotting with helping him rise from homelessness.
"I used to sleep outside and scavenge through garbage bins. Now I've got this job, life is great," he said.
Oelofse said the warning system was a better option than shark nets. Rough waters around Cape Town and the fact that the nets ensnare not only sharks but also dolphins and turtles, weigh against the nets.
The east coast resort of Durban has cut the number of fatalities from shark attacks to virtually zero by using nets — but at the price of killing some 600 tiger and bull sharks each year.
The growing popularity of cage diving, whereby boat operators use bait to lure sharks toward tourist divers protected inside cages, was not deemed to have made a big difference to the number of attacks.
Under South African law, diving companies are only allowed to use bait to attract the sharks — not feed them — so the sharks do not associate boats with food. However, there are frequent reports that the law is being flouted by operators keen to ensure that the tourist's encounter with the shark is as spectacular and scary as possible.
Geremy Cliff, a 25-year-veteran of the Natal Sharks Board, said that hunger rarely was the reason for shark attacks. The great white's natural aggression, self-defense and curiosity were more likely motives, he said.
"They are very curious and might just want to give a gentle nudge. But unfortunately for humans, that can cause serious injury," Cliff said.