As a beach lover, you’ll find what you want in South Africa.
Whether you’re a dedicated surfer, vacation-hungry sunbather or a new parent introducing your kids to nature, these shores tick all the right boxes. Except for the one labelled “sharks”. You may be wary, if not terrified of sharks.
But, while you should be aware of the threat sharks potentially pose, your fears are mostly based on fiction. A fact is that, out of over 500 species, only South Africa’s great white, bull and tiger sharks present a significant threat to humans. Another fact is that yearly figures for fatal shark attacks are staggeringly low worldwide – often in single digits.
Still, you should respect that the ocean is a wild space that won’t be tamed. By adapting to its rules, you can encourage harmony between the sea’s population and us.
These tips for staying shark smart (and safe) on South Africa’s beaches will help.
Pick Safe Beaches
If you can, choose beaches that use shark safety strategies, like life guards or shark spotters. Good ocean surveillance is an invaluable tool for keeping sharks and people out of each other’s way, so rely on it.
Don’t Swim Solo
Sharks are less likely to approach groups of people, so don’t go into the ocean alone. You’re also more vulnerable when you’re by yourself. Having people around you means there’s more chance of someone spotting sharks early, or helping out if there’s an emergency.
Stay Close To Shore
While sharks can swim shallow waters, attacks tend to happen more than 30 meters away from shore. That means for the most part, staying close means staying safe.
Avoid Murky Water
Don’t swim or dive in murky water. It’ll be harder to spot sharks in these sorts of conditions.
Don’t Panic If You Encounter Sharks
If you find yourself having to swim or paddle away from sharks, make your strokes as smooth as you can. Panicking will draw them to you.
Don’t Go In If You’re Bleeding
Don’t go swimming if you’re bleeding because sharks can detect blood diluted millions of times in water. Also, while it’s unlikely that menstrual blood will draw sharks from far away, it may cause sharks to single you out if they’re close.
Rely On Common Sense
Sharks are wild animals. Respect this fact by leaving the water if someone spots one. Also, avoid harassing sharks under all circumstances.
Check What You’re Wearing
Don’t wear contrasting colors or jewelry when you’re in the ocean. Sharks are great at seeing contrasting colors and associate the shimmer given off by jewelry with the shine of fish scales (this is especially true of bull sharks in murky water).
Tips For Divers
If you’re going diving, it’s important to appreciate that certain factors raise the level of risk. These include diving at night or in turbid water, as well as diving to great depths and in strong currents.
Still, you can manage risks by internalizing some basic safety precautions. One is to observe sharks and respond to their behavior. If they appear excited or agitated – by virtue of quick, jerky movements – leave the water as quickly and smoothly as you can.
You should be aware of how fish are behaving, too. Play it safe by leaving the water if they suddenly seem agitated or dive for cover.
You should also plan ahead with your dive partner. Talk about dive logistics and contingency plans like hand signals, entry and exit considerations, and separation measures.
Know Your Sharks
Before you visit a beach or go diving, familiarize yourself with the types of sharks you’re likely to encounter. Learn about the kind of behavior you can expect from them. For example, bull sharks are aggressive, inquisitive and known to swim in shallow water.
Invest in shark deterrents like magnetic bracelets or wetsuits that mimic sea snakes. Another option is using an electronic device called a Shark Shield to repel sharks. Though it doesn’t guarantee your safety, the device is still useful.
Lastly, if you’re in Cape Town, you could download the Shark Spotters app. It’s updated by on-duty Shark Spotters, and it shows users which flags are flying at different beaches, as well as why. Among other things, flags indicate poor spotting conditions, shark sightings and the temperature of the water (sharks have their preferences).
The free download is available on iOS and Android platforms.
Avoid Situations That Sharks Like
By understanding that sharks are ambush hunters, you can avoid areas where they’re likely to be active. River mouths are a good example. Sharks tend to feed near these locations because they’re appealing to fish. Also, the water visibility is poor, which is to the shark’s advantage.
Avoid swimming when it’s dark out, or during twilight hours. Again, sharks leverage the low visibility to surprise prey.
Lastly, sharks ambush prey near deep water channels, in-between sand banks, next to drop-offs and on the edge of kelp forests. If you don’t know the dive site, avoid these areas while you’re in the ocean.
Other Signs To Look Out For
Don’t swim or surf in areas where lots of seabirds, dolphins or seals are feeding nearby. This activity hints at the presence of baitfish and sharks.
Similarly, stay away from areas where lots of fishing takes place.