DURBAN (Reuters Life!) - The boat speeds out of Durban's port before dawn carrying men with a crucial job: checking the nets that keep sharks at bay each day before thousands of World Cup soccer fans hit the beach.
Since June 11, hundreds of thousands of visitors from around the world have enjoyed the coastal city's winter sunshine, sandy beachfront and spectacular surf, but the Indian Ocean waters off Durban are also teeming with large, hungry sharks.
Great Whites, tiger sharks and bull sharks -- known locally as Zambezis -- are the most dangerous to humans among the 14 species typically caught off the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) coastline and the Sharks Board based in Durban is taking no chances.
"We have adequately provided protection for holidaymakers, irrespective of the volume of people on the beach. We've got them covered," said Sharks Board spokeswoman Debbie Hargreaves, aboard a boat showing tourists the early morning work.
The board was set up in 1964 to protect bathers from attacks after a spate of deaths in the late 1950s and it now guards 38 beaches along 360 km (224 miles) of KwaZulu Natal coastline.
The Board's record from 1990 through 2009 speaks for itself: the last attack at a protected beach was in 1999 and the surfer survived. The last fatal attack was in 1995, but not at a beach guarded by the Sharks Board.
In the same period, there have been 16 fatal attacks off the Cape in southern South Africa -- with seven in the past three years -- as more and more bathers take to the sea, shielded from the chilly waters thanks to wet and dry suits.
"If you look at a graph, shark attacks in KZN have gone down and the shark attacks in the Cape have actually risen, purely because of the volume of people that are now utilizing the beaches in the Cape," she told Reuters.
The nets are 214 meters (yards) long and 6.3 meters deep and run parallel to the beach about 400 meters out in water 10-12 meters deep. They are not designed to stop all fish from reaching the beach -- sharks could swim under or around them -- but the nets ensnared 650 sharks along the coast last year.
The checkers pull the net out of the water as they go and can quickly tell if a shark has been caught by the weight. Some sharks survive and are freed, while the dead ones are taken away, frozen and used for research.
The Sharks Board has gradually reduced the number of nets in a bid to do enough to protect bathers while not harming the rest of the fish population. In 2000, there were 44 km of shark nets in KwaZulu-Natal, now there are 23 km.
The board is also introducing drumlines, essentially a large baited hook on a line, to replace some nets as they seem to be just as effective at catching the really big, dangerous sharks.
In Durban's Umhlanga Rocks suburb, the dead sharks are dissected in front of the public at the Board's headquarters, part of a public relations exercise designed to boost general knowledge about the creatures.
The biggest shark landed by the Board was caught in 2002 in Richard's Bay, where the Nigerian soccer team was based. It was a great white shark 4.78 meters long weighing 1,160 kg.
Hargreaves has spent nearly 12 years cutting open sharks and has helped pull out anything from a Wellington boot, car number plates, most of a hammerhead shark inside a great white shark, plastic bottles -- and even a tagged racing pigeon.
But surfers like Craig Daniel fresh out of the water after a morning surf said they were certainly grateful for the Sharks Board's early morning work.
"I've been surfing for more than 30 years," he said. "I feel a lot safer here with the shark nets than I do down the coast."
(Editing by Paul Casciato)