Some two weeks ago I looked down at the Fish Hoek beach from the Simon’s Town main road and saw bathers up to their knees and the braver up to their waists, all terrified of the shark menace. How woeful that a beach, for decades regarded as possibly the safest beach in South Africa, should have been reduced to this state! This change occurred dramatically some 5 years ago. Many of the comments and opinions written about the shark attacks are from persons who were probably not alive 30- 40 years ago and have no knowledge of Fish Hoek during the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s.  So here are my comments. I must stress that these are my personal views, not those of any club that I belong to. The objective of this article is to illustrate just how safe Fish Hoek was up to a few years ago.

Let me introduce myself. I am approaching 70 years of age and most of my life has been spent in the Fish Hoek valley. My parents moved to Fish Hoek in 1947 when I was seven.

I am a founder member of the Fish Hoek High School (there were only 11 pupils in the matric class of 1958) and also a founder member of the Fish Hoek Surf Lifesaving Club.

I can describe myself as a “Water Baby”. I have been a swimmer, body surfer, surfer on long boards and boogie boards, lifesaver, snorkel and scuba diver, windsurfer and, for the past 35 years, a yachtsman.

By the age of 10 I had taught myself to swim in the pool at Skeleton Rock and as my confidence grew, would dive off “Skelie Rock” and regularly swim back to the beach. I wonder how many readers know that up till sometime in the late 80’s, there was no kelp in the Fish Hoek bay. The kelp growth ended at Seaforth and The Boulders before spreading to the Glencairn Point, jumping across the beach to the Quarry Rocks (our favourite diving spot) and then spreading to the Fish Hoek catwalk. It later migrated across the beach to the Kalk Bay Point. For anyone swimming or snorkelling along the Catwalk, the water was clear.

Today’s trekking activities are minimal compared to the early years when large shoals of fish were removed daily. Sometimes the water in the bay would shimmer silver with shoals of fish. It was common for the trek fishermen to force a path through the bathers when hauling in their nets, while bathing continued as normal. Indeed many bathers were deep out beyond or around the nets, and shark attacks during this highly stressful time for the netted fish were non-existent.

Those were the days of seal culling but in spite of this there was apparently enough food for the sharks as none were seen in the bay during these huge trek operations.

In 1952 there were two Fish Hoek based dolphins, surely among God’s most beautiful creatures, named “Fish” and “Hoek” that daily swam amongst the bathers, sometimes far out and allowing us to touch them and have a long free ride by holding onto them. These dolphins made international news. Visit the Fish Hoek museum for more information.

During those years it was a daily sight to see dozens of anglers off the Catwalk on Sugarloaf Rock and the Sunnycove Point, spinning in the morning and evening for yellowtail. At the age of 14, I was already snorkelling and we would dive daily on the 80 Yard Reef off Sugarloaf to retrieve spinners that had fouled due to reel over-winds. This was a welcome pocket-money supplement. After school we would dive for fishermen’s sinkers off the Catwalk, the Glencairn Quarry Rocks and the Glencairn Point, and sell the lead to the Central Hardware Store for sixpence a pound. We considered ourselves quite wealthy as lead was plentiful. Again, who was worried about sharks?

During the 50’s and 60’s the Fishing Authority conducted an extensive annual culling programme of the seal population on Seal Island, and this must have made an enormous impact on the shark population at the time. Sharks were considered to be confined to the Seal Island waters so one can conclude that there were sufficient food resources for the sharks and that their numbers were small. However at that time sharks were being caught off Macassar.

During this period the inshore waters of False Bay, were protected by a circle of permanent navigation buoys that were moored some mile or two offshore, demarcating the area where purse seine trawling was prohibited. This all changed some time in 1975 when the Fishing Authority were persuaded by the government of the day that the Bay should be opened to trawling, right up to the coastline. At the time there were rumours that certain ministers had shares in the major fishing companies.

In December 1976 I observed from Baden Powell Drive at Swartklip some 4 trawlers in a line abreast and close to the shore sweeping up everything they could trawl. These trawlers were often seen in the Fish Hoek bay. These activities decimated the stocks of fish in False Bay and the Bay of Plenty has not yet recovered. The removal of these fish shoals and culling of the seals should have had a major impact on the shark population, yet there were no reports of sharks extending their territory.

In 1957 the Fish Hoek Surf Life Saving Club (FHSLSC) was formed and I have taken part in numerous events at Fish Hoek, often being the “patient” waiting at the buoy some 150 metres from the beach until I was “rescued” by the belt-man. Part of the carnival was a Surf Dash or long distance swimming race around these buoys. There were no shark watchers, sirens, flags or safety boats and the last thought in anyone’s mind would have been sharks.

To keep fit for these events we would dive off the Skeleton Rock and swim across the bay, come ashore at the Clovelly end and then run back along the beach to the Catwalk. Who would even consider such a thing nowadays! There were FHSLSC training sessions during the weekday evenings as well as on Sunday mornings and these involved lengthy swims – no sharks, monitors, flags or sirens!

Longboarders Fish-Hoek beach 1960

Longboarders FishHoek beach 1960 Ken Smith, Doug Wakeford and Brian Sturman.

This nucleus of the FHSLC can be regarded as the forerunner of surfboard riding in the south. In 1958 Doug Wakeford and I constructed the first 2 Hawaiian boards, 14 ft long and made of plywood. Other lifesavers followed suit so that more than ten boards were built which were used for life saving board races, but especially for surfing. Our favourite surf was at Sunset Beach, then known as Christian Beach. We would wait for the big ones far out beyond the surf-line, also at the Muizenberg corner, Fish Hoek Bay, The Kom and Long Beach, Kommetjie. To lose these boards off the Muizenberg beaches meant a long swim back to the shore. Only once do I recall seeing photos in the Argus taken from a light aircraft of three sharks off the Muizenberg surf. In essence sharks were of no concern.

During my twenties and later, in particular after a good passing weather front when large swells would sweep into the bay, we would rush down to the Fish Hoek Corner after work to body-surf. We would dive-in off the sloping rock in the corner or from the one at the gents’ changing booth (now demolished) to catch the big ones. Who would do such a thing now?

By 1980 I was building my second yacht, a Miura, and needed 2 tons (2000 kgs) of lead for the keel, so for the next 10 years I dived out lead sinkers along the coastline from Bailey’s Cottage, Kalk Bay Point, Clovelly and the Sunny Cove Point, often far out to where the fishermen cast. There was no kelp then, so in my black wetsuit I must have looked like a seal in the open water. In all, it took over 235 dives to haul out over 16,300 sinkers (free diving and alone, and yes, I did keep a logbook). A good haul would be 100 sinkers weighing some 15 kgs. My greatest concern during these dives was getting ashore in big swells, often swimming slowly through the surf to the beach with a heavy bucket of lead suspended under a buoy. Never once did I ever think about sharks!

In February 1981 I bought a windsurfer and spent many glorious years, especially after a good strong southeaster, hooked onto the boom of the sail in my harness, reaching at great speed across the Fish Hoek Bay to the Catwalk at Canoe Harbour. I was often flung off, requiring a water start! Again sharks were of no concern.

Twenty years ago I was regularly boogie boarding from Clovelly to the Fish Hoek Corner, waiting for the big ones far out and 10 years ago I often swam from the Fish Hoek Corner to the Tudor House buoy and back. The buoy was anchored some 200 metres from Sugarloaf Rock and was used by the yacht club for racing. Sadly my diaries show that the last time my wife and I used our boogie boards was in December 2006. I look at them longingly now as they gather dust on the storage rack.

Some time ago I was told about an event by a scuba diver who had taken part in a large group dive on the Whittle Rock reef. Whittle Rock lays well out in the bay, 4 nautical miles eastwards of Partridge Point and rises to 3.3 metres from the surface. The divers had chartered a large power boat to take them to the reef. After anchoring they had donned their gear and sat on the boat’s gunn’el to do the customary reverse somersault into the water. A short while later they were seen to be popping up to the surface like corks: the reef was found to be too heavily populated with sharks. So the question arises – where does this shark population fit into the current problem?

In the light of the above paragraphs some conclusions may be drawn regarding the current situation. I often sail around Seal Island and the seal population is quite abundant. There are documentaries on Seal Island and the Great Whites showing the seals running the shark gauntlet to get back on land. Certainly the predation by the Great White on seals off the island feature prominently in foreign video clips. There is no debate about the presence of sharks as they have always been here in False Bay, but only recently have they been frequently coming into Fish Hoek Bay.

The following are therefore relevant:

(1)   What has happened, in a space of some 5 years, for our wonderful bathing beach and possibly the safest beach in South Africa to have been reduced to this state?

(2)   Are the Great Whites off Seal Island a threatened species? Certainly in other parts of the world they are. In Mauritius, I have witnessed huge catches of sharks, gutted and trimmed of their heads and tails.

(3)   Or has the shark population increased dramatically over the past ten years because they are protected and there is an abundant supply of seal meat to feed them, since no seal culling is taking place?

(4)   Has the practice of caged shark diving and chumming attracted sharks to people?

(5)   Are the sharks swimming into Fish Hoek individual rogue sharks, because we don’t see them regularly looking for food in large numbers?

Conclusion: It is my view that we should not freely hunt sharks but immediately after a shark attack, any shark seen in the bay should be baited or harpooned and removed for analysis of its stomach contents to verify if it was in fact the culprit.

I agree with a writer of an earlier letter in the False Bay Echo who referred to the double standards we apply, being willing to kill a land animal when it harms one of us.

The removal of a few of these sharks should have no effect on the entire shark population and it would be interesting to see the effect on subsequent shark movements and attacks.

See pictures and more

Ken Smith, Clovelly – March 2010