Posted on Tuesday, 30 November 2004
Dear Shark Lovers
While Chris & I were away on a 6-week trip a fatal shark attack by a great white took place at Fish Hoek beach, Cape Town on November 16th. The attack was on 77-year old Tyna Webb who had been going for an early morning swim, as she had been doing everyday for the last 17 years. I first heard about it while sitting on the Tube in London while on the way to the airport so we did not have any idea about the details other than the fact that the attack took place a mere 10 km from where we live.
Upon landing back home in Cape Town we very quickly were able to find out what had happened. The media and the public were in the grips of Shark Hysteria. In the first few days after the attack the newspaper and radio talk shows were extremely quick to report claims that the shark must be hunted and that the shark population has increased, now putting all water users in danger. Of course all these statements were made by people with no knowledge of sharks as well as not being from any official departments. I greatly admire Mrs Webb’s Family who very publicly stated that they did not want any harm to come to the sharks and that this is the last thing that Mrs Webb would have wanted.
Apparently Mrs Webb was a “Child of the Sea” and would never miss her morning swim. She was aware of the danger of sharks and had been warned many times by friends and family especially bearing in mind that she would swim up to 150 meters off shore. Ironically she was also warned before taking her last swim that a shark had been sighted. The day before the attack the local beach seine net fishermen had caught over 1000 yellowtail. This is the favourite fish for white sharks to feed on. Also, in the region of 200 white steenbras (large thick scaled fish averaging 15-20lbs) were released by the trek netters that morning very close to where Mrs Webb was attacked , as these were caught as bycatch. The fish just being present in the Bay would be a reason for any predator to be in the area but having a net of 1000 struggling fish being pulled onto the beach would be a huge attractant for sharks. The attack took place at about 7am. Great white sharks are diurnal feeders meaning they feed at dawn and dusk and this would probably have been another contributing factor in the attack. About 70% of the 2700+ predatory events that we have witnessed occurred in the first hour and a half after sunrise.
For the last 2 months many different white sharks have been sighted moving close to shore in False Bay and of course many speculations have been made about this too. The most common speculation, one that the media has lapped up, is that because the white shark has been protected for the last ten years, the population has exploded. If I may give our own speculations I have to say that this is the most uneducated speculation I have ever heard! We have worked with white sharks for the last 11 years and spend in the region of 100 days per year observing them. Up until 2002 the average amount of sharks we would see in a day would be 12 different animals. This past season the very most we saw was 11 different animals in one day, the average being about 4. Also, very importantly, we only saw one shark that was larger than 4 meters this past year. So, we are not seeing any sexually mature sharks. We feel that at very best the shark population is maintaining a constant number, but most likely on the decrease.
We did see more natural predation this year than any past year, but some newly acquired scientific information could account for this that I will talk about later.
Another speculation we have regarding more shark sightings close the shore could be that the sharks are being forced to look in new areas for food as these resources are being diminished. Our white shark operation actually shuts down after September simply because we do not see the sharks at Seal Island during the summer months. We have always known that they prefer to feed on the summer fish that come into the bay, as well as other sharks that move with the fish. Such sharks are bronze whalers (copper sharks), ragged tooths, smooth hounds, hammerheads and rays. These shark populations have been plundered further up our coast for their meat and fins. These decreased populations are particularly evident by the lack of sharks that are being caught in the trek nets as by catch. Ten years ago nets of sharks were not uncommon, but we have seen a huge decrease in the amount of sharks caught over the past few years. In fact since the start of our spring we have not seen one shark that has been caught. So, the point being, if a shark cannot find food in a area where it has been for hundreds of years what is likely to happen? We would think they have to look elsewhere.
Lastly, due to the Public now being so aware of sharks there are hundreds more people who are looking out for them. False Bay is ringed by mountains and there are many high spots from where one can view the sea and helicopters are doing daily trips looking for sharks too, and seeing them! The water has also been unusually clear and with very little wind the sharks stand out like sore thumbs.
All these shark sighting have also had a positive effect in that when a shark is spotted life savers are able to clear the water of bathers, surfers etc and once the shark has moved out the area the beach is again opened.
Sharks are wild animals and their environment is the ocean, there are no boundaries. We must understand that although shark attacks are incredibly rare, tragic events can take place. Human beings make mistakes all the time so I feel it is unreasonable for us to think that sharks, mere fish, should not make mistakes too.
Also with regards to the shark attack, but on a different note, one of Chris’s photographs was illegally used in two of South Africa’s local newspapers. The image was then passed onto many other newspaper and websites around the world. We are extremely upset as to the way the image was used in connection with the shark attack. If any of you have seen this image on a website or in your local newspaper please contact us as we are trying to establish the extent to which it was used. The image is of the shark breaching out of the water with its mouth wide open.
Your help would be very much appreciated.
The very exciting scientific news I would like to share with you all is that a female great white that was tagged in Cape Town waters with a satellite tag proceeded to swim 10 000km to Western Australia. This is the first definite evidence that our South African sharks and the Australian sharks may be of the same population.
One thought that we had was that perhaps Seal Island is being used as a feeding station before covering these great distances. Hopefully in the future we will find out. As I always say, sharks have this incredible ability to constantly make us rethink what we already know about them!
The shark news that I really want to get to tell you all about is that Chris & I were able to visit Guadalupe Island at the beginning of November. We were extremely lucky in that we were invited by a friend of ours to visit Guadalupe on his private boat. This was an opportunity of a lifetime as we headed out from San Diego to Guadalupe 300 miles away!
In the last four years Guadalupe has become a very popular spot to dive with great white sharks. The volcanic Island rises up from 4000 feet and is surrounded by very clear blue water. It has always been a dream of ours to actually see a white shark in blue water, but I did not expect to find Guadalupe Island as spectacular and mystical as it was. The island has incredibly sheer steep cliffs and dotted around the base are small populations of southern elephant seals and Guadalupe fur seals. These fur seals are very closely related to Cape fur seals that we have at Seal Island and they look very similar when wet. They are however a beautiful golden colour when dry and also make a very strange wailing sound! The first time I heard them I felt I was in a haunted house and the noise was made more eerie as it echoed off the steep cliffs. We were able to visit the seals every morning at sunrise in the tender, and this was for me one of the highlights of the trip.
Our first sight when arriving was actually a white shark feeding on a fur seal. As we were approaching we saw a white shark pop up on the surface, and then followed the shake of the seal and then the consumption. We spoke to the commercial operators that work in the area and they confirmed that they had never actually seen a white shark on a natural predation. There are a lot of yellow fin tuna as well as yellow tail at Guadalupe and we are sure the white sharks are feeding on these too.
We unfortunately did not have good weather while we were there which made diving in a cage very challenging and we also battled to get the sharks to stay around for more than just a few minutes. On the third last day we got lucky when one of the local Mexicans gave us a fresh yellow fin tuna carcass and this kept one shark around for a good while. Not long after this a large female shark of about 4,2 meters arrived. Amazingly, several pilot fish accompanied her. These pilot fish are pelagic making us wonder where she acquired them, and it is also something that we have not seen before with a white shark. The good news was that she was very content to stay around and did so for two days! She was definitely the dominant animal in the immediate area and although there were another four sharks deep below us she did not allow any of them to come up to the bait. As soon as one of the other sharks would appear she would be right back again asserting her dominance. On our last night there Chris did a night dive with her. This very unique experience led to some very unique photographs of a white shark at night!
Guadalupe is very different to Seal Island with diving in blue water being the big draw card. We also feel that it is the most spectacular white shark location in the world in terms of physical beauty. Unfortunately if one visits through a commercial operator they do not offer the opportunity to see the seal rookeries as the main thrust is on diving. We were just fortunate enough to able to experience the whole environment and this greatly added to the whole adventure.
Now that we are back home we will be concentrating on the pelagic sharks. Already last week Chris saw two beautiful mako sharks, one of which slightly touched in the head and was apparently like a bullet around the boat!
On “Photo’s of the Month” we have put up images from Guadalupe including underwater images of white sharks in blue water!
We hope you will enjoy looking at them. Also a reminder that if anyone is wanting to purchase posters or prints for Christmas please do so as soon as possible in order to reach you in time.
…And one more reminder regarding the illegal use of the image…please let us know if you have seen it used anywhere…