The public response to the dramatic increase in shark attacks in False Bay in the past 10 years is putting scientists and the authorities under pressure to fast track our understanding of shark behaviour and to find solutions to reduce tragic encounters.  Following the shark attack on David Lilienfeld in April there has been a huge amount of controversy about the re-issuing of a permit to shark film maker Chris Fisher of OCearch to attract and tag great white sharks in False Bay?   The cost of tagging a significant number of sharks exceeds government research budgets and leading South African shark and ocean scientists believe that the research opportunities being made available to them by the OCearch project are invaluable and pose no risk to ocean goers.  Incidentally, the public are also able to track the tagged sharks through a dedicated Facebook site which means that the information about the movements of the tagged sharks is no longer exclusive to scientists. Click here for more info.

So why the controversy?  The key concern is that by chumming for and then handling the sharks while attaching the tags, they could become habituated to humans thereby increasing the risk of shark attacks.  I believe that to unbundle the hugely emotive but real issue of learning to assess and manage the risk of a shark attack, we have to understand fear and learn to manage risk.

Most humans have a primordial fear of sharks.  Sharks tick many boxes under the heading of scary animals.  They are cold blooded, have no facial expressions (what are they thinking!), are super predators, strike out of the blue, and are faster and more powerful than us. 

The movie `Jaws’ can justifiably be blamed for bringing our fears to the surface.  By portraying a rogue shark that targets humans ‘Jaws’ made the connection personal and allowed our instinctive fear to hijack our reason.  To an extent, documentaries and coffee table books that portray `Air Jaws’ a super predator striking at defenceless warm blooded prey also play a role in perpetuating our fear.  When the prey is human the tragedy sends shock waves deep into our psyche even touching people who don’t venture into the sea. 

There is a strong link between our fear of and fascination with `scary’ creatures such as sharks, snakes spiders etc.  The key is to grow the fascination into understanding and eventually into appreciation of the role of the animal in Nature and its inherent right to exist.  Perhaps then fascination will have mastered fear and as we reclaim reason, we can learn to manage the risks of living on Earth with sharks which ironically are essential to a healthy sea and our long term survival. 

The role of shark cage diving, film making and research involving tagging sharks clearly has a place in growing fascination, awareness and understanding.  How can this be achieved in a way that does not increase the risk either to sharks or to humans? A Catch 22, we need to get close to study sharks but they must not get close enough to lose their natural caution?  Although scientists say there is no proof that either chumming or tagging sharks conditions them to humans, intuitively many people believe that interacting with sharks will in time lead to them becoming less cautious of us.  While this does not presuppose that sharks will target humans as prey, it does feel more risky. 

Apart from fear, I believe that the increasing disconnection between people and Nature is a stumbling block to reducing the risk of a shark attack.  As more people take to the seas with sport equipment that allows them to go further from the shore and to stay in the water longer more encounters with sharks are likely.  Although scientists are loath to give information about the size of the great white shark population in False Bay there is sufficient anecdotal evidence from fishermen, divers, kayakers and surfers to support the popular belief that the presence of sharks inshore is increasing. 

The Oceans are a blue wilderness and the seashore with our favourite surfing, dive and fishing spots are the gateways to that wilderness.  Yet how many of us stop to consider the environmental factors, apart from the weather or waves before we dive in?  Is it `inshore season’ for sharks?   What does the Shark Spotters (for Cape Town) website say about current shark sightings?   Is there marine activity inshore such as the presence of fish, porpoises or a dead whale or seals on the beach that could increase the risk of predatory shark behaviour etc, etc? 

 OK!  As someone who has lived at the sea all her life and swam, dived and kayaked, I acknowledge that I never used to ask these questions either.  It is routine to do a weather check before going on a long paddle and while I am the first to accept that there are no guarantees, just as we check the wind and sea conditions, so we need to factor the potential presence of sharks into our planning for a good surf, dive, swim, paddle etc.  I have ongoing arguments with my 20 year old son because he does not think it relevant to do a simple shark risk assessment before surfing.  For him and his pals when and where to surf is about whenever they have free time and where the waves are best.  Awareness about shark activity or Shark Spotters on duty is not an issue.  I think it should be! 

When there is a shark attack, whether a scary encounter such as being bumped off your kayak, a tragic bite resulting in death or the most frightening, a rare predatory event where a shark eats someone, people demand a reason and a response from the authorities.  There is talk about rogue sharks, habituated sharks and an overpopulation of sharks.  While the authorities have a key role in ensuring that they do not authorise or promote activities that increase risks, surely as ocean users we need to take personal responsibility for our own safety.  The first step is to acknowledge that the Ocean and familiar False Bay is actually a wilderness area. The second is to learn to understand as much as possible about local shark behaviour.  Thirdly, we need to accept that injury or death by shark is far less likely than many of the other hazards in our so called civilized world – but that it does on sad and rare occasions happen.

Three surfers had what they describe as a narrow escape while surfing last week at Buffels Bay.  They were repeatedly approached and sized up by a large great white at very close quarters.  By staying calm and acting together they managed to get to the shore in safety.  I hope that Kevin will not think I am using his words out of context when I quote what he said about their experience:   “There is no hard and fast rule to beating the odds and I’m sure there are many factors which can contribute to situations. … As gory as it may seem, I do urge every ocean goer to look up the facts and figures about sharks and learn to accept that they are there, more often than we know!”   Click here to read about their experience  

KimK       May 2012

Read about proposal for a shark exclusion net for Fish Hoek swimmers and nipper training