HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: The scariest thing about sharks are the warning flags


Editors' note: A previous version of this op-ed stated that estimates showed an average of 100 shark attacks in South Africa per year. It is, in fact, 100 shark attacks globally per year. This has been rectified.

It’s estimated that there about 100 shark attacks globally each year. The Cape Peninsula had only 28 unprovoked shark-attack incidents since 1960. Cape-based shark tourism company White-Shark says that of the attacks, only four to five are fatal. The rest are just, you know, your regular old shark bites. A bit of skin, a bit of flesh, a bit of bloodied water to lure the other predators closer.

That’s why, as you drive from Cape Town all along the south coast, you will notice several shark spotting shacks along the way. They’re usually green cubicles situated high above sea level, manned by one person with a pair of binoculars or perhaps a device that’s a bit more sophisticated. Based on this person’s calculations, warning flags are put up and people on the beach below are warned about imminent danger.

Here’s the thing though: shark warning flags in South Africa make absolutely zero sense.

Just this past week, my sister visited me and as we drove to Betty’s Bay, there was a bunch of people gathered around one of these green shark spotting shacks. Rising above their heads was a red flag with a shark on it, blowing in the wind. “Must be a shark in the water,” I said, assuming surely that red means, “DANGER, DANGER, HIGH ALERT, ABORT THE WATER, EVERYONE SAVE YOURSELVES, YOU ARE ABOUT TO BE ATTACKED”. I don’t think this is a far-fetched and stupid assumption to make. The colour red is most commonly associated with stop, like at a traffic light. Or as a code for some sort of alarm. This is not the case with shark sightings.

Later in the week my wife decided to take a drive out to Fish Hoek for a swim and a work session with a view of slightly warmer water than that which surrounds us in the icy Atlantic of Sea Point. After she settled into a coffee shop and started working, she suddenly noticed a lot of hustle and bustle, noise and haste, outside. A shark was spotted!

The flag went up first, of course, and she too assumed that it would be red. It was not. The flag that warns ocean users that a predator is imminent is actually a white flag with a black border and a simple graphic of a black shark in the middle.

I am boggled as to how anyone came to the conclusion that this kind of flag design is the simplest and most informative way to warn people about Great Whites searching for human prey.

In fact, if one just looks at that flag, it almost looks like nothing. It could be a logo for a clothing brand, for example. No one, absolutely no one outside of the shark-spotting industry or perhaps anyone that works in the business of marine conservation, could possibly use the best of their deductive reasoning and come to the conclusion that this flag as defined means: “A shark has been spotted. A siren will sound. Leave the water immediately”.

There is a red flag, and sure, it does mean that swimmers or surfers, or perlemoen poachers, should be on alert, but again, it does not mean stop, drop and get the hell out the water. And it should.

Other flags used are a green flag with a white outline of the same graphic of the shark – this one makes more sense, again, to use the traffic light example, green is for go, and it means that shark spotting conditions are good.
And finally, there is an all-black flag, again with the white outline of the same shark graphic in the middle. If you search for the meaning of this flag on the internet it is supported by a question mark. If the question mark was actually on the flag, this colour may make more sense because it would cause a sense of pause for anyone who saw it.

But alas, the question mark is not on the flag and so anyone who wants to know what it means has to go and look, because again, there is no deductive reasoning that can be applied here. The official meaning of this flag is that: Spotting conditions are poor. In plain speak, this translates to: Look, enter the water, have a swim, stay in there as long as you want, but I, shark-spotter extraordinaire, can see almost nothing. Thank you and goodbye.

I was so interested in the thinking behind this that I went and researched other countries.

To me, Mexico’s system makes the most sense. The flag colours are based on the traffic-light system. Again, a very simple, universal iconoclastic solution. Green for go, red for stop and yellow for proceed with caution. Now, I’m sure Mexico has its own signs and symbols and flags and warning systems scattered around their oceans, but you don’t necessarily need to study a textbook to know what they mean. They’re pretty self-explanatory.

In Cape Town, however, only the Internet will tell you what these flags mean. Or you can stop on your way at a little green shack and get a quick tutorial. I am almost 100% sure no one does this.

If you’re on the ground, the only way you will know what to do is if the siren goes off. Fair enough. Other than that, unless you write a test, which can simply be compared to a driver’s learner test where you have to memorise all the signs and know what they mean, you will have zero idea of what’s going on.

Without that, you’re verging on the edge of just being another slice of human chum... Old chum.

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.

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