April 2004 Shark Bytes
Posted on Friday, 30 April 2004
Hello Shark Lovers!
I guess the words on everyone’s lips in Cape Town this month are “shark attack”. On the 5th of April a 16-year-old surfer lost his leg as a result of a shark attack at Muizenburg Beach. The shark is presumed to be a great white shark and this is the fifth incident between water users and sharks at Muizenburg since 1960. Thankfully the surfer has made a miraculous recovery and is now recuperating at home.
As is always when there is a shark attack or shark encounter with water users it makes a big news story and all the so called experts crawl out of the woodwork with their theory about what has happened. Chris and I were extremely shocked and upset when we heard the news, and not only for the boy who was attacked, but for the sharks too. Muizenberg is 10 kilometres from Seal Island as the crow flies, and it is also an area where Chris has spent thousands of hours in the water, as have many other people. It is a very popular beach for surfing as well as bathing, paddle skiing and kite boarding and hundreds of people are using the water there everyday. We actually live less than 1,5km from where the attack took place. As I have previously explained (so sorry for those that already know), we believe that some of the white sharks that we see at Seal Island in the winter months actually move closer inshore to feed on summer fish species such as yellowtail, kob, geelbek as well as other sharks such as bronze whalers that are in False Bay during the summer months. This obviously means that the sharks are inshore on a regular basis and are probably amongst water users a lot of the time. We went down to the beach as soon as we heard about the attack and we observed that the river mouth was open, there were many southern mullet close inshore as well as a few seals. These are all natural reasons for a shark to be in the area.
The media reports that followed did not actually condemn the shark as a man-eating monster as has happened in the past and public perception is that sharks can sometimes make mistakes, albeit very rarely. I think this is a very encouraging and a step forward for shark awareness and conservation. But, as always, the blame has to fall somewhere and this time shark cage-diving operators that chum the waters to attract sharks are now taking the fall. Again people that are not qualified to make such statements and have never worked with sharks are saying that eco-tourism operators are teaching sharks to associate people with food and thus resulting in shark attacks. The media have been lapping this up and by doing so are selling hundreds of thousands of newspapers and the talk radio stations ratings are increasing.
Shark diving operators have a code of conduct that stipulates what may be used as chum. Mammal products are not allowed and neither is blood! In our case, if and when we do chum we use 10 kilograms of mashed sardines and that is it.
Now take for example a trawler or large fishing vessel processing thousands of kilograms of fish per day and dumping the waste back into the water, or the boats that clean their fish in the harbours or even one step closer the spearfishermen who actually shoot fish which attract sharks and then excite them to the point where the sharks take the fish, are these people not doing exactly the same thing? Yet for the decades that these practices have been taking place their have been no shark attacks ever linked to these practices. When will people learn that if you go into the sea there is a small chance a shark may attack you. Is it not the same as walking through a game reserve and then being surprised when a lion bites you? We have the choice though to stay out the water if we are afraid of sharks and are then be guaranteed of not being attacked. We are also not allowed to purposely feed the white sharks and we make every effort not to do this. Also if one thinks about the situation logically, if the shark does eat a bait the only object that it would be able to associate the food with would be the boat, so how would the shark then associate this with a surfer? The sharks also only spend a few days at a time at Seal Island, which would not give a fish much time to learn that it can get food from a boat. Chumming is a very emotive issue and at the end of the day I believe that people will believe only what they want to. We should rather spend our time developing constructive methods to warn and evacuate water users if a shark is spotted. We should all realise that if we are in the water we are in a wild animal’s environment and these are the risks that we all take. If people are afraid of sharks then simply do not go in the water. We should feel lucky that sharks have no interest in feeding on us. We have seen how efficient they are in hunting seals and if this were their intent hundreds of people would die everyday.
We do not usually run trips to see great white sharks in summer due to the fact that we do not find them at Seal Island and do not look for them close to shore so as not to conflict with water users. We have found that they slowly start to return to Seal Island in about April/May and we went on our first trip in the middle of the month. We have had very good days where we have seen some predatory activity on the Cape fur seals. Seal Island never ceases to amaze me that one very small area can provide such perfect hunting conditions for white sharks. To even see one predatory event is very unique, but we have already seen a handful in the few trips that we have undertaken. We have struggled to attract the sharks up to the boat even though we knew from the predatory activity that they must be there. I don’t think that we will ever fully understand white sharks. Any other species of shark will investigate a bait, but white sharks only do what they want to do! We had one shark that stayed around the boat for about an hour. We were so excited to see one again. We have gotten used to seeing blue sharks and mako sharks that are in comparison a lot smaller. A white shark has a tremendous presence and when they are calmly swimming around the boat you are left in no doubt that this is a creature that has no match. My feelings of excitement never change, even after seeing hundreds of white sharks. They are addictive and the more you see them, the more you want to be with them! As you can tell I am very much looking forward to the next four months of white sharks…
We have been trying to squeeze in the last few pelagic trips before the white shark season starts and have again had very successful dives with Mako sharks. This year we have seen more mako’s than blue sharks which is unusual. On most trips we have seen more that one mako at a time. They usually do not like each other’s company so it is a special privilege to see two together. What I really want to share with everyone is a dive that I had with yellowfin tuna.