Do people instinctively understand the shark spotting flag system and can it be improved? is the title of  Zoë Saffer Gray’s 2011 ESKOM Science Expo project.  Zoë a Grade 8 student at Fish Hoek High chose a particularly pertinent topic for her investigation and her  research is a valuable contribution the problem of how best to reduce the risk of encounters between swimmers and sharks.  She chose to investigate understanding about the current system of flags and signage used to warn swimmers about the presence or not of sharks at the swimming beaches of the South Peninsula because she found the system confusing.  Zoë can be seen holding up her project findings.  From L to R  Arlene Wiley, Zoë Saffer Gray, fellow pupil Dante Boucher and Mr. Alan Saunders

Zoë set out to investigate whether or not people, mainly beach goers, “instinctively understand” the current shark warning system of white, red, green and black flags. See illustration to the Right.   She asked 100 people to look at drawings of the current flag system and to record their understanding of the meaning of the flags.  By way of comparison Zoë then asked the respondents  to do the same with a theoretical flag system she devised herself.  See illustration below.  Her system is based on the red, orange and green of traffic lights, a system which she explains most people are familiar with.  She described her system as follows:   “The red flag, for danger had a shark on it: a shark has been spotted. The amber, or caution like a traffic light, had an outline of a shark to say a shark had been there in the last hour. The plain green flag, like go in the traffic light, meant that it was safe to swim (it has no shark on it). I took the black flag from the existing system, but took off the shark because that tends to confuse people. The plain black flag meant that shark spotting conditions were poor.”


Zoë’s results show clearly that the respondents, mainly beach users, did not get the current shark warning system. However, the majority of the same respondents instinctively understood her `traffic light’ system even though it does not exist in reality.

 The statistical breakdown of her findings about the current system say it all. Only 30.476% of the respondents understood the meaning of the most dangerous flag in the current system, the white one indicating that a shark has been spotted.   At less than a third, this should be cause for concern.  Also alarmingly is the respondents perception that the red flag, the second most dangerous in the current system, was the most dangerous flag.  Zoe believes the confusion is caused by the definition “high shark alert” and because of its red “misleading colour.”

42.857% of respondents understood that the green flag mean “clear”.  51.429% of respondents understood the meaning of the black flag, but said that it was not an instinctive answer, because they had been told black meant shark spotting conditions poor. (There has been a lot of publicity about the black flag in the media because people have asked why it is flown so frequently. Eds Comment.)

 Zoë concludes that far too many people struggle to work out what the existing flags mean. “Most people were shocked that the flag which is supposed to get them out of the water is the white one, ” she reported.  

Well done Zoë for an excellent project, the findings of which raises alarm bells.  Her project is being entered by Fish Hoek High into the regional round of the Science Expo 2011 for schools across Cape Town.  She plans to forward her findings to the Shark Spotting team and to the City of Cape Town for their comments.  We trust that the authorities will read her research and consider what actions can be taken to improve understanding about the shark flags warning system.