GuidePedia



Sharky shark sharks. The source of so much controversy these days and so misunderstood!
Following Mick Fanning’s fisticuffs with a shark in this year’s J-Bay final, questions regarding the peaceful coexistence of surfers and sharks are more pertinent than ever. How to deal with shark attacks, whether it be drum lines, nets, electromagnetic devices or investing in more scientific monitoring and research is a complicated and touchy political matter, but the bottom line for surfers is that big predatory fish and surfing don’t go together well — in particular the great white, tiger and bull shark, whom out of more than 480 shark species are responsible for the majority of fatal unprovoked attacks on humans. So we figured we’d take a look at some of the sharkier surf regions to host such species.

Global Outlook

From a quick glance at the International Shark Attack File, the number of reported attacks per year over the last decade has remained more or less stable, ranging between 60 to 80 year – strange when you consider the total number of beachgoers on the planet today, but then the number of sharks have dramatically decreased. (Environmental activists Sea Shepherd estimate 100 million sharks are killed by humans every year; National Geographic seems to have this figure at 10 million, which is still 2 million sharks for every human killed by a shark.) Nevertheless, you’d still do well to know a little about the following hot spots, listed here (very roughly) in reverse order of sharkiness…

5. West Coast USA

Unlike the tiger shark that will just about eat anything, adult great whites are known to have a specific feeding preference for blubber-rich marine mammals (dolphins, seals, sea lions, walruses, whale carcasses, that kind of thing) and Northern California’s cooler temperate waters are known to serve as another rich habitat for them.
Colloquially referred to as California’s ‘Red Triangle’, this danger zone extends from Bodega Bay, north of San Francisco down just south of Monterey Bay and then out beyond the Farrallon islands.
Responsible for 3 of the 4 fatal attacks to occur in California in the last 10 years, the one exception involved a Great White incident in San Diego in 2008, although females are known to breed in warmer waters off the coast of Baja California).
But when it comes down to total numbers of attacks (just 33 over the last 10 years), California pales in comparison to the east coast of America…

4. East Coast USA

This mostly means Florida (717 attacks since records began), although North (52) and South Carolina (82) are also fairly high risk areas; in fact North Carolina hit the headlines this summer following a spate of 7 attacks within the space of a month — an unusually high number. Two of these attacks occurred on the same day on the same stretch of beach, as two teenagers lost limbs in separate incidents.

Between 2004 and 2014 alone, the state of Florida was the scene of over 200 shark attacks. But while the waters off the coast of Florida are well-known sharky territory, the main reason for such a high incidence of attacks stems from the millions of visitors that visit Florida’s white sand beaches every year. The more people in the water, the greater the chances of an attack.

It’s worth bearing in mind too that most attacks in Florida are minor. The state has only recorded two fatal attacks in the last 10 years and a total of 14 over the last 100 years or so. Juvenile white pointers and other man-eating sharks such as tiger and bull sharks are known to frequent the region, at times circumnavigating Florida’s pan-handle right into the Gulf of Mexico (possibly to give birth), but a higher percentage of attacks prove fatal in North Carolina, where the continental shelf drops off into deep water much faster.

3. South Africa

South Africa is where the great white was first declared a protected endangered species in 1991. Since then shark cage diving has grown into a thriving tourist industry, and the country’s built up quite the shark rep for itself. Dyer Island located just off Cape Town even earned itself the nickname Shark Alley due to the large variety of species in the area.

The practice of chumming — baiting sharks closer to shore for tourists — most likely hasn’t helped reduce South Africa’s number of shark attacks: it’s the third highest country on the International Shark Attack File, having witnessed 12 fatal attacks in the last 5 years. Following the drama of this year’s J-Bay final, Australian legend and longtime South Africa resident Derek Hynd said he was convinced that shark cage diving was to blame for an increase in attacks.

However, it’s important to remember that different shark species favour different niche habitats. The huge seal colonies that live off of Cape Town are what really lure great whites to the region. Kosi Bay estuary, meanwhile, located at the north-eastern extremity of South Africa, is a well known hot spot for bull sharks, known to the locals as Zambezi. On the east coast around Durban the beaches are netted so there’s not too much to worry about there but up and down the rest of the coastline you’d do well to ask locals for info and take standard precautions such as avoiding known feeding times, surfing alone etc.

Jeffrey’s Bay, South Africa’s most famous wave, is not its sharkiest, but sightings there are far from uncommon. In 2003, Taj Burrow left the water during a heat after spotting what he thought was a great white, refusing to get back in when contest organisers told him he was mistaken and that the heat would continue regardless (“I’m from Western Australia, and I know what a great white looks like,” was Taj’s not unreasonably response); then in 2013 an experienced local open water swimmer was killed by a great white towards the bottom of the point. After Mick’s incredibly close encounter with what’s suspected also to have been a great white, at this stage it seems unlikely that tour will return to J-Bay in 2016.

2. Australia

When it comes to life-threatening animals there’s no place like Australia. From deadly venomous spiders and snakes to saltwater crocs and Box jellyfish, nature doesn’t come much more diverse and hostile than Downunder! And sharks of course make up part of the list.

To date Australia reports the second-highest number of shark attacks after the U.S., although far more fatalities (153 compared to just 35 in the States). In the last few years a great many of these fatal attacks have occurred in Western Australia, and the “culprit” has generally been the great white. Between 2011 and 2012, the state of Western Australia recorded a staggering 5 deaths in just 10 months over a relatively small portion of the coastline (there have been just two fatalities on the state’s coastline since then).

Many consider the bull shark to be the most dangerous shark species to humans as they favour shallow coastal waters, and the murky water conditions in which they like to hunt are often associated with highly populated areas. And yes, they can even swim a long way up rivers.

But the great white? An increase in numbers would seem to be the obvious explanation for this spike in attacks. Following in South Africa’s footsteps, Australia declared the great white a vulnerable species in 1999 due to significant population decline, and many think they’ve made a strong recovery.
Because of the great white’s protected status, Australia’s recent shark culling policy required a special exemption which many animal-rights activists claimed to be unlawful. In fact, in Australia the shark cull was met with such fierce opposition that professional fishermen refused to collaborate with the government. The policy has since been largely abandoned.

Historically, however, most shark attacks have tended to occur on the country’s east — and far more densely populated — coast; indeed the most recent fatal attack took place in northern New South Wales, where there have been numerous attacks already this year.

1. Réunion Island

While Reunion Island has long been known as a sharky surf zone, never has the popular French Indian Ocean tourist destination experienced such a horrific pattern of attacks as in the last few years.
A total of 18 in the last 4 years. 7 of them were fatal. This despite the relatively low number of water users, which has decreased dramatically since this recent trend began. An outbreak of bull shark attacks that at first glance closely resembles the situation in Recife, although the reasons for it are very different.

Opinions between scientists, surfers, divers and fishermen remain divided, but a 20-kilometre stretch of coast set aside as a marine conservation reserve on the west side of the island, as well as a big open ocean fish farm (closed in 2012), are thought to be partly responsible.

Set up in 2007 to safeguard endangered coral and barrier reef, the reserve’s food sources, in addition to the fish farm and the associated concentrated waste, are thought to have drawn the bull sharks to the area, with the reserve also acting as a refuge from fishermen. According to a study conducted in Hawaii, fish farms are known to attract many sharks, including tiger.

That said, it’s likely there are other contributing factors as to why the bull shark population has become so aggressive in the area, unsustainable tourism (leading to poor water and waste management on the island) and fishing practices no doubt playing a part. (The island’s tourism industry is now suffering greatly.)

Having introduced a shark-monitoring programme in 2011, local authorities were initially reluctant to introduce any culling measures (surfers being accused of taking irresponsible risks), but three further attacks in 2012 would force local authorities to go back on their decision, introducing an initial 20-shark cull despite world-renowned Belgian free-diver Frederic Buyle stating there weren’t that many sharks in the area.

Two Julys ago the death of a 15-year-old swimmer just meters away from the shore spurred authorities to implement a further 90-shark cull, as well as a near-total ban on swimming and surfing. That ban, which was often flouted by the island’s hardier surfers, has since been relaxed somewhat, and the local government now provides guarded surf sessions two days a week, when the line-up is patrolled by a team of specially trained shark spotters. They’re armed with spear guns, but their job is not to kill sharks, rather it’s to raise the alarm and evacuate the water if a shark is spotted in the vicinity.

So far this year there have two fatalities caused by sharks, one of them 13 year-old Elio Canestri, one of the island’s most promising young surfers. Last year Réunion native Jéremy Flores spent two weeks on the island visiting family, and the surf pumped non-stop, but he dared not set foot in the water.

 
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