Shark encounters in South African waters

21 July 2015

Professional surfer Mick Fanning was attacked by a great white shark in Jeffreys Bay, in Eastern Cape, while he was surfing in the finals of the J-Bay Open on 19 July.

The incident put shark attacks front and centre, but the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board reports that an analysis of South African shark attack records over the last four decades confirm that attacks are rare, with an average of only six incidents a year.

“Since 1990 only 26% of attacks have resulted in serious injury and only 15% were fatal. This equates to an average of one serious shark-inflicted injury every year and one shark-inflicted fatality every 1.2 years along some 2 000km of coastline from the Mozambique border to Table Bay (Cape Town),” says the sharks board.

Shark Spotters, a pioneering shark safety programme and now the main shark safety programme used in Cape Town, echoes the words of the KwaZulu-Natal organisation.

It says that shark bites are rare typically random events. “On the Cape Peninsula, the first fatalities were recorded at Seaforth and Simonstown, in 1900 and 1901. Since 1960 however, only 25 attacks have occurred on the Cape Peninsula. That is less than one attack per year.

“Of these 25 attacks on the peninsula, a high percentage has been on spear fishers. Only four of these last 25 attacks have proved to be fatal. Sharks don’t see people as their natural prey, but they may occasionally bite to investigate what you are, they may also bite because they feel threatened or in some cases they may even mistake people as their prey.”

The ones that got away

Fanning was lucky to fend off the animal by punching it as it bit through the leash affixing his surfboard to his ankle. He is not alone; in recent months, there have been several other times people have lived to tell the tale.

Buffelsbaai – 28 June 2015: A man in his early twenties lost a leg in a shark attack while surfing. Medics reported that people who were with him in the water loaded him on to a surfboard and brought him to shore.

Plettenberg Bay – 27 June 2015: Surfer Dylan Reddering, 23, survived a brush with a 3m-long great white while surfing, emerging from the incident with only severe tissue damage on the right side of his body. He kicked and beat the shark away while trying to swim to shore.

Port St Johns – 3 May 2015: Backpacker tour operator Mathieu Dasnois, 29, was testing a new face mask when he was attacked by a great white shark at least 4m long. The shark grabbed his hand when Dasnois tried to fend him off. The boat went to his aid but the shark breached from underneath and pulled him away with Dasnois’ foot in his mouth. He managed to get his foot free and escaped when the shark tried to breach again.

Nahoon Beach – 23 January 2015: A bather was bitten on the foot by a ragged-tooth shark while swimming in the surf. He was treated at the scene by lifeguards and was expected to make a full recovery.

Muizenberg Beach – 1 August 2014: A surfer was badly injured when he was attacked by a shark while in the breakers. He sustained severe lacerations to his lower limbs and had to be airlifted to hospital.

Fish Hoek – 29 September 2011: Michael Cohen, 43, lost a leg when he was bitten by what was thought to be a great white shark. The Briton had allegedly ignored warnings from shark spotters and insisted on bathing anyway. At the time, News24 reported that the shark alarm could not be sounded because of a city-wide power failure.

Fanning’s close encounter

Watch as Fanning faces off against the shark:

Speaking in Sydney, Australia this morning, Fanning described the attack as a “very humbling” experience. He was grateful to those who came to his rescue.

“I guess someone was looking out for me. to walk away from a shark attack without a scratch on you, it’s a miracle really.”

Looking back at the footage afterwards, he said he was shocked to see how big the shark was. “I didn’t think the shark was that big when I first saw it. then I went back [to the footage] and looked. yeah, it was pretty big.”

Speaking about the attack, he said: “It just sort of came up and went for the tail. I don’t know why it didn’t bite my board. it just kept coming back. I was trying to put my board between us. All of a sudden it came again. It tried to position myself away from it, to the side of it. It was right there and that is when I punched.”

He wondered what to do: “Should I go for my board or swim? I turned around and I had my fist ready. luckily by that stage the boat and the jet skis were on top of us. They did such a great job.”

Shark protection

The KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board says that in the early days, most attacks took place on swimmers in warm, shallow waters on KwaZulu-Natal beaches, but the shark nets, now working concurrently with the drumlines, have greatly reduced the number of these incidents in the province to less than one a year.

For over a decade the sharks board experimented with electrical fields to repel sharks. In 1996, this culminated in the development and sale of a successful electrical shark repellent, the SharkPod (Protective Oceanic Device).

Distribution of the SharkPod ended in 2001, but the rights to use the waveform patented by the board were granted to an Australian company, SeaChange – now called Shark Shield – which now produces repellent devices for use by individuals.

The board is investigating the possibility of using its patented waveform in a shark repellent cable that potentially would surround an entire bathing area with an electrical field. In 2010, the organisation contracted the services of physicists and electrical engineers to assist with this line of research. The project is ongoing.

SAinfo reporter