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Sentinel for South Africa's Surfers

Patrick Davids, 33, keeps an eye on surfers and swimmers at Muizenberg Beach, south of Cape Town.
Patrick Davids, 33, keeps an eye on surfers and swimmers at Muizenberg Beach, south of Cape Town. "It's his beach," one avid surfer says. "You feel it." (Photos By Craig Timberg -- The Washington Post)

So about two weeks after the attack, one of the surfers gave Davids a pair of binoculars and a cellphone and asked him to hike up the hill. If he saw a shark, he was to call a surf shop on the beach, whose employees would then be charged with clearing the beach.

That first makeshift system evolved quickly. Soon Davids hired a partner, so one spotter could watch from the hill while the other patrolled the beach, ready to blow a warning whistle. Then, as funding from the city and several private sponsors began, the shark spotters bought air horns and, more recently, a siren and flashing lights that can be activated remotely by a spotter on the hillside.

The spotters use a system of flags: Green for all clear. Red for a recent sighting. Black for when cloudy water obscures their view. And when a shark is spotted swimming toward shore -- as happens, on average, a few times a month in the waters near Muizenberg -- the spotters hoist a flag bearing the chilling image of a great white shark, its dorsal fin aimed toward the sky like a dagger.

Yet for all the terror inspired by the great whites that lurk near Cape Town, Davids has come to view them as victims, not aggressors, as humans encroach ever more on their habitat and deplete their food supply by overfishing.

The sharks, he said, are only following their instincts in entering the warmer, shallow waters in search of food at about the same time the Southern Hemisphere's sunny holiday weather draws throngs to Muizenberg. After more than two years of studying their movements, Davids has even given names to the sharks that make regular visits, including a 15-footer dubbed Charlize in honor of South African-born actress Charlize Theron.

"They're not the monsters," he said. "Humans like to break and spoil everything."

As the shark spotters' program has grown, becoming what organizers say is the only such professional operation in the world, Davids has sobered up, gotten a small room at a beachfront lodge and found a steady girlfriend. He was also promoted to a management role overseeing several other spotters. Every morning he hands out the binoculars, polarized sunglasses and clipboards while also deciding who gets the crucial spot on the hillside.

Though Davids often travels by train to other beaches to monitor his staff, he revels in the days when manpower is short and he must stay near Surfer's Corner.

Beginning shortly after dawn, Davids greets visitors, watches for thieves, administers first aid, gives surf reports by phone and on a Web site, doles out copious free advice, keeps an eye out for swimmers in trouble and minds all manner of things: cars, keys, wallets, watches, surfboards, sunglasses. Rarely does he return to his room at the lodge until after sunset, when the last surfers head home.

"It's his beach," said Masimo Magerman, 36, an avid surfer who was the first to hire Davids to keep his car keys. "You feel it."

It's an accomplishment all the more striking for a man born "colored," as mixed-race South Africans are known, in the days when apartheid was still deeply entrenched. Now he sees a growing mix of people enjoying Muizenberg together, black, brown, white.

"A couple of years ago," he said, "there wasn't even a colored guy on the beach. The only colored guy on the beach cleaned the toilets."

As one recent day on the beach drew to a close without any unfortunate encounters between shark and surfer, Davids began to relax. The sun sank steadily toward the brow of a nearby hill, and the retreating light put him in a mood to reflect on how his life has changed.

"You won't get a third chance," he said. "If you get a second chance, you better grab it with both hands."


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