We’ve been screening cult feature films to sell out audiences on the Cornish clifftops all summer long at Wavelength Drive In Cinema. Don’t miss your chance to see 1975’s epic Jaws on he big screen, Sat 5th September, tickets here
Somebody once claimed there’s a foolproof way of determining whether there are shark species living in the water nearby; walk down to the water’s edge, dip your finger in the water, taste it.
If it’s salty, there’re sharks.
But as evidence from recorded attacks demonstrate, populations of the handful of species known to present a hazard to humans are clustered around a few select areas of the surf world, and one observable trend is that the attack clusters are generally getting more concentrated in the same areas, rather than spreading out along coastlines as surfing does.
Depending on where you live and surf, sharks are either something you think about every time you paddle out, or, as in the case of European surfers, not really an issue.
While the Jaws effect has made sharks probably the most feared/hated species of animals in the world, most of the killing is done by humans, for food. When the 2019 IPBES Global Assessment on Biodiversity claimed overfishing was the biggest single threat to the oceans, bigger than climate collapse, bigger than plastic, sharks were very much part of that cascading ecological collapse.
That said, and despite the overwhelming imbalance on who’s eating whom, there are five main areas in the surf world where shark attacks on surfers and bathers have been so prevalent in the 21st century that they are impossible to ignore.
Brazil’s NE Recife coast is an ideal case study of how coastal development can lead to a spike in attacks.
A 20-kilometre stretch of coastline encompassing the north-eastern coastal city of Recife is statistically the most dangerous place in the world for swimmers and surfers.
Between 1992 and 2013, there were a record total of 62 shark attacks, 24 of which were fatal. Previous to that year, shark attacks were more or less unheard of. In 2018, 18-year-old swimmer Jose Ernestor da Silva died after having his penis and femur amputated by a shark bite, metres from shore at Piedade beach.
The problem first arose in the 90’s, following the construction of a huge harbour just 40km south of Recife in Boca del Suape. To facilitate the construction process, two freshwater estuaries were disrupted, where a population of bull sharks were known to spawn.
It’s thought north-bound currents and fewer available fish displaced these sharks towards Recife, while a combination of over-fishing, increased maritime traffic and river waste (in particular slaughter houses discharging blood into the Jaboatão River) attracted further shark populations closer to the coast in search of food.
As with another of the shark zones featured herein, Reunion Island, the outbreak led to a ban on surfing, the authorities concerned at the negative knock-on effect attacks were having on local tourism.
In more recent years, authorities have taken to capturing and relocating the bull shark population further afield which is reported to have slowed the number of attacks, but that’s not to say the waters are safe.
USA (West Coast)
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.
Red Triangle has been the location of 4 of the 5 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). The most recent fatality was shaper well known shaper Ben Kelly, attacked by a juvenile great white at Manresa State Beach, Santa Cruz, May 2020.
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…
USA (East Coast)
East coast US shark attacks are concentrated in Florida (717 attacks since records began), although North (52) and South Carolina (82) are also fairly high risk areas; North Carolina hit the headlines in 2015 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.
Further north, near the area Jaws was set in, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Arthur Medici was killed in 2018, while the most recent fatality (July 2020) was in Maine, when 63-year-old Julie Holowach was killed by a great white swimming at Bailey Island, in Maine’s first recorded fatal attack.
Great whites were first declared a protected endangered species in SA 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 less too much to worry about for surfers and swimmers, 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. Since Mick Fanning’s incredibly close encounter with what’s suspected also to have been a great white, there have been just two fatal attacks, scuba diver Leopold Mairhuber in KwaZulu Natal, and abalone poacher Siyuvile Xelela at Dyer Island.
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, between Sydney and the NSW/Queensland border. Of five fatalities so far in 2020, two were on surfers, Rob Pedretti, 60 and Mani Hart-Deville, 15, both in NSW.
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 attacks between 2011-15, 7 of them were fatal, saw Reunion gain the infamy of being the most dangerous surf zone in the world for shark attacks. 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 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.
In 2013 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 some of the island’s surfers, has since been relaxed, and the local government now provides guarded surf sessions, 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.