‘I never used to pray before I paddle out.’ Says the old hippy dude I always see in the water and still don’t know his name, he’s leaning sagely against his old rusty VW Kombi; his bedreadlocked, headwrapped girl in the back of the old passion wagon, crushing the green. ‘But ever since these attacks, shit man… I just don’t feel safe in the water. You get paranoid, especially when you’re out on your ace.’ He stares out into the orange glow of the setting sun. A surfer whistles as his mate drops in on a backlit pearler. Halcyon. The old hippy clicks his tongue and goes, ‘eish… that was a cooker’. Praying for waves is an old cliché, praying not to be cleft in twain by the razor sharp jaws of the ocean’s finest predator while catching those waves is a new one.
Cape Town has not always been synonymous with sharks. Certainly not in the minds of the locals. But when a kid gets chomped in half by a great white shark at a popular spot, on the beach a kilometre from your home, you become a little more careful. It is not going to stop you from surfing, you file it away in the back of your mind as a freak incident, a numbers game, like hitting the lottery or some kind of sick karmic booby prize. You do whatever you can to rationalise it, get over it and get back in the water. I went surfing that afternoon, around the corner. An act of defiance, a big, stiff two-fingered salute to the beasts of the deep. It was just a once off, terrible thing where a 6 meter great white shark mistook a booger for a seal and practically chomped him in half. The bite measured from below his butt to under his armpit. It was a huge shark. The kid didn’t stand a chance, he bled out in less than three minutes. It happened at one of Cape Town’s most superlative waves. A heaving A-frame beachbreak with several peaks that wall up and run. I’m talking sublime barrels here, deep and long, fast down the line sections, floaters, huge carving top turns, snaps in the pocket. The agony and the ecstasy, this wave simply cooks. After the attack I still go surfing there, but I am more cautious. I keep an eye out for black shapes in the blue water. I always take a buddy, and am quite relieved to find a couple of guys in the water (not too many of course). This is a new thing. I used to hate anything resembling a crowd. But nowadays it is probably better to hedge your bets.
Then a few weeks ago, another. 16 year old, JP Andrew, this time on a surfboard got munched by a great white shark while surfing in Muizenberg. JP survived the attack, but the shark took his leg off at the upper thigh, and then spat it out. It washed up about 30 kms down the beach, a few days later. JP, when he came out of the coma, said he wants to keep it in a jar by his bed. At least the kid still has a sense of humour. Muizenberg is the learner’s wave, the beginner’s slope, kook’s corner, soft waves and warm water. Situated in a place called the False Bay, on the other side of the Cape Peninsula, that crooked little finger of land poking out into the Atlantic ocean with waves all around.
At the same time as the increase in shark attacks around Cape Town a lot of noise has been made around the boom in shark cage diving operations. The waters around the Cape of Good Hope are notorious as one of the only known great white breeding grounds in the world. There is a very large seal population and the natural phenomenon of upwelling, which causes fresh, cold, nutrient rich water from the Antarctic to percolate up around the Southern coastline. This brings with it plankton and an array of fish that are followed by their feeding chains. The web of life. Shark cage divers take tourists out in their boats, dump ‘chum’, a mixture of fish guts, blood and oil, in the water and wait for the sharks to surface. Soon enough Jonny has arrived to take a closer look at that fine smell, and they chuck the tourist into the cage with diving gear to photograph Jonny and his big toothy grin. Interestingly Prince Harry was super keen to, ‘swim with the sharks’ while on his, your tax paid gap year vacation in South Africa, with scant regard for the dodginess of the business and his dad’s ‘caring environmentalist’ image. Fire the monarchy, I say, but I digress.
A good way to rationalise shark cage diving is to take it out of the water. Imagine sticking a bunch of tourists in a cage on the savannah in a game reserve. Then spread springbok entrails and chunks of meat around the cage and wait for the lions and hyenas to show up. It’s completely unethical and unnatural. Messes with how the animals understand the world. Yet what is completely unacceptable on land, is somehow allowed in the sea.
Needless to say the shark cage diving operations are picking up serious flack after the spate of shark attacks. Some of the local operators run cage diving in the False Bay, sometimes in view of surfers at Muizenberg Corner and Nine Mile breaks.
Like any good Sherlock, to get some clarity on the issue of shark attacks in Cape Town, I head to my local, The Fisherman’s Pub in Kommetjie. Kommetjie is to Cape Town what the North Shore is to Oahu. Kinda. A little fishing village quickly being annexed and over run by estate agents and Cape Town’s urban sprawl. Needless to say there are plenty of waves and some increasingly fierce locals. Interestingly the Fisherman’s pub is located right next door to the Stepping Stones addiction clinic. Looking at the people cluttered around the bar it’s hard to tell which way they’re heading, on or off the twelve step programme. Again I digress. After a long day’s surfing, classic reef conditions, glassy waves heaving on a shallow ledge and running for a nice while before the kelp gets too thick and starts stopping the board dead, I end up at the pub. Surrounded by fishermen, sea dogs, locals and nary a pretty face in the place, I take up a stool next to my assembled panel of experts: Philippe a commercial line fisherman and Craig Bovim. Craig is an interesting dude, he shakes hands with a wonky left grip and cradles his pint to his mouth almost between his wrists. His hands are almost useless. He’s a diver and sports fisherman who had most of the muscle and tendons in his forearms lacerated after a ‘small’ altercation with a great white shark. He was diving crayfish (lobster) in nearby Scarborough, using bait bags filled with fish heads, to lure the crawlies out of their holes. Out of nowhere this big Johnny arrives and heads straight for Craig, he manages to stuff the bags in the creature’s mouth and swim away, but has his arms ripped apart in the process.
Soon enough the conversation swings from rugby, and how we just might beat the Irish, to sharks. Now Philippe is not your average fisherman, he was once a physicist, got bummed by the rat race and the urban lifestyle, quit his job, bought a house and a boat on the peninsula and started fishing, diving and surfing in between. He’s generally a friendly, happy man but has a few axes to grind on the subject of sharks. ‘Ay those researchers know fuck all about the sharks.’ He moans. ‘They never come and ask the fishermen. I mean how many hours can they clock up on research? Fishermen have millions and millions of hours at sea… Those research trips are just holidays for academics. They learn close to fuck all.’
Between the two of them they reckon the cage diving operations are just part of the problem. ‘You’ve got to understand it like this,’ says Philippe. ‘Great whites occur all over the world, there’s that old wives tale that they prefer cold water but that’s rubbish. They’re the apex predator in the ocean, top of the food chain and they exist everywhere. It is also widely known that they tend to follow tankers and ocean liners.’ He washes that down with a slug of beer.
They’re a bit like a journalist, I reckon, that lucks into a retainer from a magazine. A great white will tail large ships living off all the crap they throw overboard, and snacking on whatever else happens to cross its path.
‘You got it.’ Says Philippe. ‘Now 10 years ago we didn’t get a lot of sea traffic coming around South Africa because of apartheid and sanctions. Suddenly, in ten years, we are getting tons of sea traffic. The great whites that follow these ships must pull into Cape Town and think, “whoa… jackpot!”’ He says, his eyes wide, excited. ‘I mean they pull in here with our clean water, good fish stocks and abundant seal population and for them it must be like rocking up at a party with a free bar and trays of Kentucky Fried Chicken everywhere. They end up staying.’ He flushes the foamy dregs down his throat.
‘Then of course you have to take into account that there are more and more people using the ocean everyday, so there are more people in the water and great whites are a protected species now, so nobody has been hunting them in years, which used to keep their numbers down.’
He stops and eyes two fishermen squaring off over a dishevelled divorcee, who is trying to order a glass of wine from the barman.
Craig who has been quietly nodding in agreement throughout the diatribe, picks his moment. ‘The problem with the cage diving operations is that they don’t understand how sharks really operate.’ He says matter-of-factly in his quiet unassuming way. ‘Sharks don’t just use sight, hearing, smell and taste when they’re hunting, they also have these receptors just below their nose that pick up the electro-magnetic fields which any living creature emits. They’re like these little black heads just below the nose, called Lorenzii receptors. That’s why a shark’s nose is so sensitive and they always say to punch a shark in the nose if you get attacked.’
I always thought that was a joke.
‘So what happens with these shark diving operations is that they chum the water, get the shark all excited and hungry, then they chuck some divers in the cage, so while the shark can smell and taste food, the only bio-sign it is picking up is that of a human.’ He pauses, and carefully sips his brew. ‘It’s a bit like training the sharks to associate a human’s electro-magnetic signature with food.’
‘People get simplistic about the debate,’ he continues. ‘They say it’s all about chumming, but tuna fishermen chum the water a lot more than the shark cage divers, but they don’t stick a live human being in there too, so the sharks don’t make that connection.’
‘I’ve been pushed around in my little boat by a hungry great white,’ Philippe cuts in. ‘I swear that thing was over 6 meters. It was like one of those baboons in the reserve that have been fed by tourists and come and sit on your bonnet and stick an arm through the window. Like any wild animal, once they lose their fear of humans they go rogue.’
The attack on JP Andrew at Muizenberg seems to have been a turning point in the shark attack debate, the Department of Environmental Affairs is currently conducting research into whether the cage diving operations are aversely affecting great white shark behaviour. Especially with rumours filtering in that some of the operators throw an old surfboard in the water to get the sharks closer to the boat. However in a nation like South Africa where the national zeitgeist is all about economic development and social upliftment, shark cage diving represents a tourist cash cow upon which many people have based their livelihoods.
Furthermore, it was charged that greater communication between the Cape Town City department’s could have avoided the attack on JP. On the same day a work crew from the city council bulldozed open the mouth of a nearby river, allowing the nutrient rich water to flow directly into the sea about 200 meters from Muizenberg. The filthy river water attracts small fish, which in turn attract bigger fish, which naturally attract the big Johnnies. No one informed the lifeguards, or even thought about the potential danger of opening up the rivermouth right next to a surf break, in a bay where great white sharks breed.
Recently, symbolising the undercurrent tensions of an industry on the brink and a seriously traumatised surfing community, a shark cage operator’s boat was set on fire in a case that local police are calling arson. It is unsure whether rival cage diving operators or disgruntled surfers sparked the mayhem. Opinions are like arseholes, everybody’s got one and surfers are particularly keen to show you both. With the different interest groups at loggerheads and all the gumpf about business, development and money thrown into the already murky water, it seems that resolution is a long way off.
In the meantime Cape Town’s surfers keep a beady eye peeled for triangular fins, and whisper prayers before paddling out.