In 2015, Cape Town’s Shark Spotters programme won an African Responsible Tourism Award for their innovative shark safety solution. Now after 15 years of using trained observers to reduce the risk of shark bites in Cape Town, the programme is doing research to design an automated shark spotting system that will improve their shark safety service.

Sharkspotter’s solution to safe beaches removes the fear factor from enjoying Cape Town’s beaches while working to protect sharks, particularly the Great White Shark – a globally threatened species.

Spotters positioned on the mountainsides surrounding swimming beaches look out for sharks near shore and use a series of flags as a warning system. Since its inception in 2004, the Shark Spotters programme has recorded over 2500 shark sightings.

The new project aims to develop a low-cost computer solution with an detection algorithm processing input from fixed cameras above the beach. This system will reduce risk from human error and fatigue, and will be less reliant on detection from an elevated position.

Field work for the project has begun on Fish Hoek beach and involves collecting footage of sharks for analysis and development of the cutting-edge detection algorithm software. While footage of live sharks is collected where possible, a decoy shark is also being used due to the sporadic and unreliable nature of shark sightings. Environmental and experimental variables are recorded during the data collection in order to assess their impact on the ability of the software to detect sharks, and to compare results to the effectiveness of the current human-based spotting system in place. The automated system will not replace the spotters employed in Cape Town, but rather assist them with more reliable and accurate shark detection.

The research project will run for a total of 18 months after which it is anticipated an effective automated shark spotting system will have been developed for use in Cape Town and beyond.

The partners on this project are the Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa at the University of Cape Town, and PatternLab SaRL, a research and development company specialising in data science and computer-aided vision from Switzerland. Shark Spotters is funded by the City of Cape Town and the Save Our Seas Foundation, has significantly improved water user safety at its operating beaches in Cape Town.