Hakai Magazine

Coastal science and societies

Cape Town shark spotter Chesray Wheeler
As part of a pioneering safety initiative, Chesray Wheeler has spent five years keeping an eye on great whites. Photo by Charlie Shoemaker

Coastal Job: Shark Spotter

A sharp-eyed lookout stationed on a mountain helps keep swimmers away from sharks in Cape Town.

Authored by

As told to Kimon de Greef

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Some people work in cubicles, others work in kitchens, but the most intriguing workplace of all may be the coast. Meet the people who head to the ocean instead of the office in our Coastal Jobs series.

False Bay in Cape Town, South Africa, is a global great white shark hotspot. Since 2000, there have been at least six recorded attacks, three of them fatal. A local nonprofit, Shark Spotters, positions lookouts on the slopes flanking the bay—the first program of its kind internationally. Five beaches have full-time coverage; another three are seasonal. One of the group’s 30 spotters, Chesray Wheeler, explains how he helps keep beachgoers safe.

When I was a child growing up in Cape Town, I used to think of sharks as vicious predators, because of the movies and all the stories people told—and there were a lot of shark attacks in False Bay.

Five years ago, I started working for Shark Spotters. We sit up on the mountain for five hours a shift with a pair of polarized lenses, a set of binoculars, and a radio. The polarized lenses cancel out the glare on the water and you can see dark spots beneath the surface. Then you must use the binoculars to make sure if it’s a shark.

It might be a piece of kelp, or maybe it’s a sunfish with its fin up. One season we had a lot of sunfish in the bay and people thought they were seeing sharks everywhere. But you don’t want to take a chance, and even if I’m not sure I’ll clear the beach. So I radio the other spotters down at the beach and they set off a siren. Then you see everyone start paddling toward the shore.

It can be difficult to stay focused when you’re alone on the mountain. I could play on my phone and just forget about the ocean, or daydream, or go for a walk. But when people are in the water it’s my duty to let them know when I see something, so I just keep scanning, moving my head from side to side. I enjoy the peace of being in nature. And it’s very, very exciting to see a shark.

The first time I saw one, my heart started racing and I was shivering when I spoke on the radio. These days I’m a bit calmer. You’re more likely to die on your way to the beach than be killed by a shark. They aren’t out to hunt us—most of the attacks happen when they confuse us for seals.

We mainly see great whites in summer, when they come closer to shore, but last year was quiet because there were orcas attacking the sharks and eating their livers. In winter, the sharks hunt seals at an island in the bay. I had an opportunity to go out there with some researchers and see the sharks up close. We had one that was half the size of the boat; it came to the surface and I looked right into its eye. I saw sharks breaching right out of the water with baby seals in their mouths. I’m telling you, there was a lot of blood!

But when I’m in the water, I feel safe. Recently, I had some surfing lessons and bought myself a board. This job got me outdoors and I really enjoy it. The fear I once had for sharks is gone.