When the news broke that a Great White shark had fatally attacked a human (for the second time in five years) in False Bay at Fish Hoek, I shuddered. But not from the shock. I was more concerned that the subsequent media frenzy would bloody the water.
Lloyd Skinner, a 37 year old Zimbabwean swimming near the “Catwalk” – a promenade that runs along Fish Hoek’s southern shoreline – had been taken in about 2 metres of water about 100 metres from the beach.
Sadly, he’d been swimming right in the path of the migratory summer “cruise zone” that Cape Town’s
Great Whites have been known to follow annually in False Bay from September to about March. In the colder months from April to August they move out of the shallows and the bay.
What Great Whites are doing in False Bay so close to the shoreline in summer, nobody quite knows. Marine scientists are beginning to speculate that they could be coming inshore to breed. Problem is no-one has yet seen Great Whites mate, or give birth – although scientists are gathering more reliable data each year.
Another factor – and one that makes the two Cape Town attacks so very unusual – is that over 90% of the time, scientists have observed that the Great Whites are happy to cruise beyond the breakers, showing no interest whatsoever in feeding in the shallows.
So what could have happened to the unfortunate Mr Skinner?
Of course, one can only guess, but my feeling is that the shark (finding a strange swimming object in its path) initially bit Mr Skinner to test him for his “prey value”. Having surfed in shark populated waters for forty years from Namibia to northern Zululand, my experience tells me that sharks are curious, if not cautious, predators. They like to test things first.
One of their methods is to “bump” the object of curiosity – and a friend of mine, Ward Walkup, was thrown off his surfboard by a shark at Seal Point near Cape St Francis. I’ve also seen curious sharks circle and “eye” what’s in the water too. This happened to a surfer at Jeffreys Bay (I was there) who was buzzed twice by a shark that eventually swam off.
The only problem is that with such powerful jaws and razor sharp teeth, just a bite – and that’s how a shark feels strange objects – can cause massive injury. When they’ve been spat out, many shark attack victims suffer tremendous blood loss.
I know of surfers in East London who’ve been lucky enough to survive such experiences at Nahoon Reef, yet another shark “hot-spot” along our coast – together with Mossel Bay, Amanzimtoti, Stilbaai, the Transkei Wild Coast and KwaZulu Natal.
Without trying to sound macho, I’ve spotted sharks in the water many times. I’ve seen them silhouetted in the swells; I’ve seen them swim under my board and I’ve been called out of the surf because somebody else has seen them. Every time it has been a sober reminder. In a wetsuit and floating on a piece of fibreglass it’s the shark who is in his element; it’s me playing in his parlour.
And as I said to Craig Lambinon of the National Sea Rescue Institute last week on air: the Great Whites were in False Bay thousands of years before us, they’re just doing what they’ve been created to do – and will probably carry on doing this long after we’ve all departed this earth.