Posted on Tuesday, 30 September 2003
Dear Shark Lovers
As many South African’s will be aware, a 19 year-old body boarder was the tragic victim of a great white shark attack at Noordhoek Beach, Cape Town in mid-September. A woman, whilst swimming amongst a pod of sea lions, was also fatally wounded off California a few weeks prior to the Noordhoek incident.
I feel this would be an opportunity to discuss the subject of shark attacks so that we can all try to understand these tragic incidences more clearly.
I first want to relay our sympathy to the Family and friends of the victims. The Noordhoek attack felt especially close to home as Chris is also a very keen body boarder and regularly surfs that exact same spot, as do many, many other surfers around the Cape Peninsula. This stretch of coastline is generally thought to be “shark free” as it is on the other side of the peninsula away from the popular shark spots, however this is not the case. A small seal colony is located 10 kilometers away and there is good reason for a transitory shark to be moving along this stretch. White sharks are not often seen at this seal colony, but we have found dead seals with white shark bites on Noordhoek beach which obviously suggests white shark activity. Other surfers have also reported to have seen sharks while surfing there and one surfer has even seen a seal being predated on.
At the time the body boarder was attacked there were large amounts of baitfish in the area that were being heavily fished and there were also many whales that would have been mating in the shallows. Any of these factors could attract a shark to the area. Another interesting point to note is that the body boarder was actually attacked while surfing the waves inside the outer sets. The visibility would have been a lot poorer due to the sand being churned up and these conditions could unfortunately have made it easier for the shark to make a mistake. After the first strike the shark did not return, but sadly one bite from such a huge animal caused fatal injuries.
Surfers, body boarders and spearfishers seem to be most commonly attacked. The surfers and body boarders can resemble a seal shape from below and as only 4% of all shark attack victims have actually been consumed we are led to believe that the shark has mistaken the surfer for its prey item, the seal.
Spearfishers are obviously at risk as the injured fish speared will attract any shark to the area. The South African Spearfishing Championship was actually previously held at Seal Island (during the winter months!) and amazingly only two attacks took place. None were fatal.
I must stress that a shark attack is a very rare occurrence and I am constantly surprised at how few attacks actually take place considering the number of water uses today. Since 1990 there have been a total of 78 incidences along the South African coastline, 7 of which have been fatal. Generally in a white shark season at Seal Island we will record a total of 600 predatory events over a four month period. I can only think how lucky we are that we are not the sharks’ preferred diet as we are definitely not as well as equipped in the water as seals are.
Should you encounter a shark in the water while surfing there are a number of steps to take to avoid an accident:
- If the shark is far enough away always try to get out of the water.
- If the shark is in close proximity always maintain visual contact with it. Do not turn your back on it, even if it means paddling in backwards.
- Try to form a group with other surfers and make your way to shore together.
- If the shark approaches you, remain motionless but be aggressive should it actually try to attack you by striking the shark in the eye or gill area .
Divers can also encounter sharks unexpectantly in the water and the following guidelines can make the experience safer and enjoyable:
- Stay on the bottom if possible.
- Do not make erratic movements and remain motionless.
- Always maintain visual contact. This is most important as predators rely on surprise for successful predation. Once you are in eye contact with it, this element is taken away.
Other precautions for general swimmers would be to avoid swimming at dawn or dusk, keep away from river mouths and areas where there is baitfish.
Then of course there are people such as ourselves that will go to any lengths to find sharks and share their environment with them. Sharks are not easy animals to find and, amongst other things, we use highly sophisticated sound instruments to attract them to the boat. Then once we are able to get in the water with them, it is even more difficult to get them to pass close by. Chris even has a pair of yellow-fins as sharks are supposed to be attracted by bright colours. As much as we are passionate about sharks, we are also respectful. It is such a privilege to share space with a shark, knowing what they are capable of, and feeling completely unthreatened by them. If a shark does feel uncomfortable with you it will let you know by certain body language. Sometimes this can be really subtle, such as a slight repetitive gape in the case of mako’s, other times a rigorous head shake in the case of smooth hammerheads. The well known displays of reefs sharks with dropped pectoral fins arched backs and irregular swimming are sure indicators that your presence is no longer welcome.
Should you notice any of these actions, respect the shark and give it its space.
I again cannot stress how rare shark attack events are, but unfortunately when there is a shark attack the media like to use the event to sell news. After the attack at Noordhoek there were of course the usual so-called “experts” claiming that shark attacks are on the increase where as the statistics actually state the opposite. It was encouraging to hear that a lot of the public realized it was a case of mistaken identity. We must also be aware that when entering the ocean we are also entering an area where predators roam.
What majority of people don’t realize is that sharks are far more threatened by humans. In the just last 14 years we have managed to destroy 80% of most shark species. Consider that sharks have been in similar form for the last 400 million years. It is easier to see that we pose far more of a threat to them than they to us.
As we had had an unusually late white shark season at Seal Island this year, we were hoping for a later finish as well. But, by the second week of September it seemed as if the sharks had decided otherwise. We were seeing a lot of predation in the first couple of weeks, but very few sharks up at the boat when we were on anchor. After the end of the second week this dropped off all together and we had basically decided that was the end for 2003.
On the 25th we were kindly given some information that a Southern Right Whale carcass was floating past Seal Island. As luck would have it, a fairly strong cold front was moving through Cape Town and the sea’s condition was not all that pleasant. To see white sharks feeding on a whale carcass is a very spectacular sight and we have unbelievably been privileged to witness this happening at Seal Island three times since 2000. It is a very rare event for people to watch and I still can’t believe what we have seen!
This particular carcass was quiet relative to the previous two. In a three hour period we recorded 5 different white sharks feeding. As it became dark we had to leave the carcass sure that it would float out of False Bay and into the pelagic off-shore zone. A whale carcass is a very small object to find again in a very large ocean, but if we could have found it again we are sure that the spectacle would have been amazing.
Should anyone wish to read about the last two whale carcasses please email me and I will forward on the newsletter for that month.
As it is now the end of our season Chris & I will be going on an exploratory trip into the Indian Ocean to look specifically for sharks. We will be stopping at a number of sea mounts and Atolls where shark work has not been done before. We will be looking for the following species: Oceanic white tips, tiger sharks, great hammerheads, bull sharks, whale sharks and silver tips. We are extremely excited about the possibilities of what we may find and I will be writing all about it in November when we return!
In the meantime you may want to have a look at our site as we have (finally!) updated new images from this year’s white shark season as well as images from our pelagic trips in the beginning of the year. There are also some new dolphin, penguin and seal pics.
We hope you enjoy them!