Cape Town - The journey started with a big sign on the bedroom wall of a young Bellville schoolgirl – “My goal is to be a marine biologist”.
And while that journey hasn’t ended yet, it did reach a noteworthy milestone recently. That was when the girl, now a young woman scientist, stepped on to the podium of UCT’s Jameson Hall to be capped with a PhD degree in zoology for her thesis, which has revealed astounding information about one of the ocean’s most complex, charismatic and feared creatures, the white shark.
“It’s been a long journey and it’s been challenging, but it’s also been incredibly rewarding,” says Dr Alison Kock, who is also full-time research manager of Cape Town’s Shark Spotters programme
The title of her thesis was “Behavioural Ecology of White Sharks in False Bay: Towards improved management and conservation of a threatened apex predator”. According to the graduation programme’s summary, it is Africa’s first doctoral thesis on white sharks – more commonly known as great white sharks – and “adds substantially to our knowledge of global white shark ecology and conservation challenges”.
Using acoustic tracking technology and boat-based observations, Kock was the first to scientifically confirm that False Bay is a globally important aggregation site for both male and female sub-adult and juvenile white sharks. She also discovered that while white sharks of both sexes aggregate at Seal Island in winter to feed on naive young seals, only the female sharks then move to the inshore areas like Strandfontein, Muizenberg and Fish Hoek during the spring and summer months, where their presence overlaps directly with humans using these areas for recreation.
It’s been her work in particular that has underpinned the innovative Shark Spotters programme – a world first in trying to reconcile the urgent conservation needs of the globally threatened white shark, the socio-economic needs of the local Cape Town population and the regionally significant tourism economy.
Kock grew up in Bellville and attended Settlers High School, and it was her father’s love of the sea that sparked her interest.
“He’s an avid ocean person, a recreational fisherman and a diver, and I used to go with him from when I was little, so that’s where my passion for the ocean started. When I was in high school, my uncle made me this massive banner for my wall that said: ‘My goal is to be a marine biologist’.”
Kock did a BSc degree at UCT before taking a three-year break because she wasn’t sure she wanted to stay in academia. For two of those years she worked as a volunteer for well-known False Bay shark cage-diving operators Rob Lawrence and Chris Fallows, who were partners at that time.
“It was then that I realised we didn’t know what was going on. Tourists kept asking,‘How many sharks are there? What are they doing? Do they go to other places in the bay?’ and I constantly found myself answering, ‘We don’t know’. So I started doing a bit of data collection while on the boat.”
In 2002, after a year as a ranger at the Bushmanskloof resort in the Cederberg, she returned to UCT to do her Honours degree.
“One of my Honours projects was on the field data that I’d collected with Chris and Rob, and another was with (now retired Iziko Museum-based shark expert) Dr Len Compagno, identifying fossil shark teeth from Langebaanweg.”
She persuaded Compagno to supervise her and started working on her Master’s degree together with a Canadian research partner, Karl Laroche. He researched the effects of cage-diving on white shark behaviour, while she looked at the predation habits, habitat use and residency patterns of the species.
In 2005, she upgraded her Master’s to a PhD and started looking at both Seal Island and the inshore areas of False Bay.
“And it was partly driven by the need to understand what was going on in the rest of the bay because of the spate of shark attacks at that time, in 2004 and 2005. I didn’t know anything at all about the inshore area – I knew that fishermen had caught white sharks at Strandfontein in the past and that there’d been some attacks, but really we had no idea.”
The national Department of Environmental Affairs helped her tag white sharks at Seal Island with acoustic signal transmitters and put down a series of receivers along the inshore areas of the bay. About six to eight months later, the receivers were recovered and she started downloading the data that would show exactly when, where and which white sharks had swum past.
The slower a receiver downloads, the more data it has stored in its memory.
“Those receivers that don’t have a lot of data, it’s just zip. And I started plugging in the receivers from Muizenberg and Strandfontein and Fish Hoek and they were so slo-o-o-o-w. And I was like, ‘So!’ This was the first data showing that the sharks were regular visitors to the inshore.”
Kock says she was a very inexperienced young scientist when she started her research, and that she was “thrown into the deep end” because that period coincided with a spate of attacks. She was often abused in these early days – including by the media – and she found it hurtful.
Particularly after an attack, there are protagonists defending the sharks and antagonists arguing for a cull of “rogue” sharks, she says, and admits to making some mistakes in her responses at this time.
“People wanted answers, but I’d just started and my focus then was really to find out more about the sharks and their ecology. It didn’t have a people side to it. This aspect evolved into my work, and it’s actually taken me on a journey – from coming in wanting to understand white sharks and how they interact with the environment and what their their role is there, to something that’s more applied and can actually be of benefit to the community.”
People’s perceptions and emotions in response to shark attacks can’t be ignored, Kock stresses now.
“I’ve learnt to be more open to what people are saying. Because we all want the same thing: we don’t want shark attacks on people, but we don’t want the sharks killed. So an ‘us or them’ approach, pitting people against the natural world, doesn’t work in the long term, it has to be something that works for both.
“That’s why Cape Town’s Shark Spotters programme has been successful. It was a community idea and the community has felt involved in it and see that something is being done. It’s really shown how to deal with the situation and it’s a model case. Although there are still lessons to learn, I think we’ve done a good job.”
Paying tribute to the Save Our Seas Foundation for 10 years of funding, Kock confirms that her scientific journey has also been a journey of personal growth.
“And I’m now in a position where I can continue with the research work from my PhD and build on it, and also continue to provide information and hopefully make a difference to the shark situation in Cape Town.
“It’s been incredibly rewarding and I feel that I’ve grown as an environmentalist, not just as a scientist, and that I’m still growing. And that’s been really rewarding for me.” - Sunday Argus