Great White Shark and Shark Attacks in South Africa

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Unprovoked sharks in South Africa (spearfishing is considered provoking attacks)
2012 — 4 — 3 — 1
2013 — 5 — 1 — 4
2014 — 2 — 1 — 1
2015 — 8 — 0 — 8
2016 — 1 — 0 — 1
2017 — 3 — 0 — 3
2018 — 2 — 0 — 2
2019 — 1 — 0 — 1
2020 — 0 — 0 — 0
2021 — 3 — 1 — 2
TOTAL — 29 — 6 — 23
[Source: Shark Files, Florida Museum of Natural History]

In South Africa, sharks are regularly spotted, but attacks are rare. In the country there has been a total of 395 unprovoked shark attacks as of 2016, with non-fatal and unprovoked attacks numbering 299 and fatal and unprovoked ones being 96. There were 57 shark attacks in South Africa between 1994 and 2004 according to the Sharks Board, seven in the greater Cape Town area, of which five were in False Bay. In July 2011 a great white leapt on a research vessel in South Africa, [Source: Global Shark Attack File (GSAF), compiled by the Shark Research Institute,, 2016]

South Africa's coastline is usually third on the list of shark attack "black spots" — after America and Australia — according to statistics provided by the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida. Most attacks are during the summer months. South Africa records fewer attacks than other shark hotspots such as Australia and the United States. But the fatality rate is high: South Africa accounted for one-third of the 24 deaths worldwide on the International Shark Attack File in the early 2010s despite local bites making up less than 10 percent of all attacks.

In the 1950s, sharks attracted by blood from whale processing plants attacked six people in one month at beaches near Durban (See Black December Below). In the 1960s it was said that reefs around Durban were so infested with sharks that a couple of stunned fish thrown into the water would result in a sea almost boiling with six foot long monsters.

Like Australia, South Africa has netted beaches to protect swimmers from sharks. Even though the sharks can swim around and over the nets, the barriers keep them out by messing up the territoriality, some say. The use of nets at popular beaches has helped keep incidents to a minimum.

The main attacker — great white sharks — are a protected species in South African waters. They regularly prowl inshore during summer while tracking game fish and have traditionally gathered Seal Island in False Bay which in the winter to feed. Several small companies offer tourist boat rides into shark-infested waters. Tourists can also enter a submerged cage while the sharks are attracted by meat and blood dumped into the water. Scientists have criticized some of these operations as "an accident waiting to happen".

If anything the shark attacks have been good for business and tourism in South Africa. They bring attention to the country, its beaches and shark diving. There are South African travel packages that cater to and tap into this market.

Websites and Resources: Shark Foundation ; International Shark Attack Files, Florida Museum of Natural History, University of Florida ; Tracking Sharks, which records all global shark attacks; Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Fishbase ; Encyclopedia of Life ; Smithsonian Oceans Portal

Black December

Depth charge set off by navy ship in effort to get rid of sharks during Black December

Black December refers to an event that included at least nine shark attacks that resulted in the deaths of six people along the coast of Natal Province in South Africa, from December 18, 1957 to April 5, 1958. The event was attributed to several key factors occurred at the same time in December 1957 that attracted sharks to the Durban area: 1) whaling ships operating in the area; 2) rivers had flooded and washed livestock into the Indian Ocean and made the river deltas murky; and 3) recent resort development had increased the number of tourists swimming off the beaches. [Source: Wikipedia]

The first attack victim was 16-year-old Robert Wherley was attacked on December 18, 1957 by an unknown shark at Karridene. The attack was non-fatal and occurred while he was body surfing.. His left leg was severed at the knee and part of his left thigh removed. Fifteen-year-old Allan Green was attacked on December 20 by an unknown shark at Uvongo. The attack was fatal and occurred while standing.. He had multiple severe injuries. Twenty-three-year-old Vernon James Berry was attacked on December 23, 1957 by an unknown shark at Margate. The attack was fatal and occurred while floating. His right arm broken and stripped of flesh. His left hand was severed above wrist. His lower abdomen, buttocks, and thigh were bitten.

Twenty-year-old Donald Webster was attacked on December 26, 1957 by an unknown shark at Port Edward The attack was non-fatal and occured while skindiving. He has on his head and neck,Fourteen-year-old Julia Painting was attacked on December 30, 1957 by an unknown shark at Margate The attack was non-fatal and occured while standing. Her .left arm was severed, and her torso was bitten, her thigh was lacerated and there were many abrasions.

An unknown male was killed in was attacked on by an unknown shark at MaKakatana River. The attack was fatal and occurred while fishing. His right leg was severed above knee. Forty-two-year-old Derryck Garth Prinsloo was attacked January 4, 4, 1958 by a great white shark at Scottburgh. The attack was fatal and occurred while standing. He was mauled below waist. His femoral artery was severed. Twenty-nine-year-old Nicholaas Badenhorstwas attacked on April 3, 1958 by an unknown shark at Port Edward. The attack was fatal and occurred while swimming. His arm was severed above the elbow and his abdomen and leg were bitten. Fay Jones Bester was attacked on April 5, 1958. by an unknown shark at Uvongo. The attack was fatal and occurred while surfing.

Tourists fled the Durban area during Black December, crushing the local economy. Local authorities resorted to desperate, untested measured to protect swimmers and surfers from sharks. They ordered the building of enclosures built from wooden poles and netting which ended up being ineffective and destroyed by the surf. A South African Navy frigate dropped depth charges causing few shark fatalities but attracting many more sharks into the area that feasted on the fish killed by the explosion.

Great White Shark Attacks in South Africa

The main human-attacking shark species in South Africa — the great white shark — is a protected species in South African waters. Several companies offer tourists boat rides into shark-infested waters. Tourists can also enter a submerged cage while the sharks are attracted by meat and blood dumped into the water. Scientists have criticized some of these operations as "an accident waiting to happen". Some have blamed cage diving for increases in great white shark attacks — in particular the 2004 attack on 16-year-old surfer John Paul Andrew (See Below), who was killed by a shark, critics of cage diving said, that was lured to the area by cage diving operators, who often employ chumming (throwing bloody fish parts in the water) to attract sharks.

Worldwide, great whites are responsible for more serious shark attacks than any other species. Between 1876 and 2001, they were involved in 254 recorded unprovoked attacks, 67 of them fatal. Most of the victims were surfers or divers who were bitten in the leg or arm and had one or more arteries severed and bled to death. There might have been a lot more attacks were it not for the fact that great whites hunt in relatively cold water and rarely encounter humans.

After the 2004 attack, The National Sea rescue Institute (NSRI), the Sharks Board and Marine and Coastal Management all downplayed claims that the shark involved in Monday's Muizenberg Beach attack According to Sharks Board spokesperson, Simon Dudley, "There is nothing new about great whites occurring in the False Bay area. Flying behind the backline, on any given day, there would be good chances of seeing great whites. Seal Island, near Simon's Town, is a point of focus, with the sharks preying on the seals." "An incident like this at Muizenberg is not a reason to look for an external cause. I don't think it's likely that cage diving operations are drawing sharks to the area. The sharks were there already. When there's an incident like this one, it's natural that people look for external causes, and cage diving comes under spotlight. "Cage diving operations are restricted to specific spots, their modus operandi, according to permit conditions, is to set up a chum slick in the water to attract sharks, then bait is dragged on a rope to attract the sharks to the cage. Protocol prevents operators from feeding the sharks, but sometimes it's unavoidable that sharks get hold of the bait. It's unlikely that there's any real incidence of prolonged feeding.

Shark Attacks in South Africa in the 1990s

In 1996, South Africa had 17 shark attacks, more than it had had in many years. South Africa had had an average of five attacks a year over the past decade. Burgess said there were no reports of unusual oceanographic conditions, except for greater numbers of sardines, which could attract more sharks. In 1997 there were three shark attacks in South Africa,

A spate of shark attacks on surfers in South Africa's southern resorts in the winter of 1998 raised fears that a large, Jaws-like predator was roaming the coastal waters. Anton Devos, a 20-year-old forestry student, died in July after being mauled by a great white shark while he was body-boarding off Gonubie Point, north of East London. The shark bit his hands and right leg, severing a main artery in his left thigh and causing massive blood loss. In May, Neal Stephenson, South Africa's national body-boarding champion, lost his foot and part of his right leg in an attack near Plettenberg Bay, one of the most popular resorts on the southern Cape coast. Six other shark attacks have been reported along the coastline between East London and Saldanha Bay in the months before that. What was particularly unusual is the attacks occurred during the southern hemisphere's winter season when few people go into the sea. The average number of shark attacks a year along the southern coast is four. [Source: Christopher Munnion, Electronic Telegraph]

20120518-Shark warning Salt Rock South Africa.jpg
Shark warning at Salt Rock South Africa
Some municipalities have closed their beaches temporarily, fearing that a solo man-eater might be on the loose. Shark researchers have dismissed the Jaws theory but local officials, fearing loss of tourist revenue, are demanding that they come up with an answer to the shark problem. The surfers are philosophical. Kobus du Toit, who chases the surf around South Africa's wild coastline, said: "Everyone knows there is a shark risk but we are in greater danger of being in a car smash on the way to the beach."

According to the Daily Telegraph, “The surfers know all the signs of shark activity — diving seabirds and leaping dolphins. The midwinter sardine run along the KwaZulu-Natal coast is accompanied by thousands of marine predators. Researchers admit that a series of shark attacks during the winter months is unusual, but they are unanimous in dismissing the theory that a lone, marauding predator is responsible for all the attacks. The incidents have been some distance apart and researchers say that it is clear that different species of shark have been involved.”

In January 1999 a South African paddle skier attacked by a four meter-long man-eating Great White Shark punched it on the snout to escape, the Citizen newspaper reported. ''As the shark attacked I instinctively hit it in the mouth with my right hand. The shark then sank its teeth into the side of my ski...I actually felt its nose touch my leg,'' Evan Ridge told the newspaper.He was 50 meters off Bonza Beach in Eastern Cape province when attacked. Willie Maritz, curator of the East London aquarium, examined the 42 cm (16 inch) bite in the flimsy, surfboard-like paddle ski and declared it that of a Great White. ''Ridge is extremely lucky to have survived. It is unusual for a Great White to be in our waters at this time of year. However, there have been a lot of dolphins around which could explain the presence of the fish,'' Maritz told the newspaper.

In July 1999, a shark killed a 14-year-old boy while he surfed at Buffels Bay near Cape Town, police said. Hercules Pretorius and a friend were about 50 yards from shore when the shark attacked Pretorius on his right side. The friend helped the boy reach shore, but he died before medical assistance arrived. [Source: AP]

Great White Shark Attack Prompts Revenge Attack on a South African Shark

In December 1997 a great white shark attacked and killed a diver while his family watched from the shore at Pringle Bay, about 44 miles southeast of Cape Town. People who saw the attack saw Hill standing in the water and then they saw a pool of blood where he had been standing,'' police said. [Source: Associated Press]

Witnesses saw a three-feet-long dorsal fin protruding from the water before the attack, and saw the water turn red in the vicinity where the man, 39-year-old Ian Hill, was diving. Hill, an electrician from Durban, was on holiday in Cape Town with his family. His wife Sandra and daughter were on the beach when the attacked occurred and were sedated by a doctor afterwards. The search for Hill produced only his spear gun. In another suspected shark attack on Sunday, a surfer at St. Francis Bay about 60 miles west of Port Elizabeth, suffered leg wounds when he was attacked 250 feet from shore, officials said. [Ibid]

Ten days later vacationers took their revenge on a shark thought to have been behind the attack. In January 1998, a 14-foot-long great white shark was battered to death by holidaymakers in knee-deep water off a beach near Cape Town. Hair from the shark's stomach is being analyzed to see if it was the creature that killed Hill about 30 miles away. Holidaymakers on the beach at Macassar in False Bay, east of Cape Town, some armed with steel rods and police-style batons, waded into the shallows and attacked the shark, which was ill or injured. One was bitten on the leg by the dying shark, but was not seriously hurt. [Source: Times Newspapers Limited.

Great White Shark Attacks in South Africa in the 2000s and 2010s

In April 2012, a young Cape Town bodyboarder died after his leg was bitten off at a remote surfing spot. In September 2011, a near-fatal mauling occurred at the popular swimming site Fish Hoek, where there was a fatality in 2010.

In the early 2000s, three of four spear fishermen who went underwater together resurfaced without their mate, Later the wet suit of the missing diver was found. A researcher told told Smithsonian magazine: “The tear marks indicated it was a great white shark that had somehow cut him out of the suit and devoured him.”

In July 2000, a teenage surfer survived an attack by a great white shark in the Indian Ocean off East London. Shannon Ainslie, 15, was paddling his surfboard about 50 yards from the beach when he was lifted out of the water by a shark, which was estimated to be about 12ft long. He was able to paddle back to shore despite being injured. His right arm was later put in plaster. Ainslie escaped with a severely injured hand. Doctors were able to reattach a severed middle finger. The curator of the East London Aquarium, Willie Maritz, identified the shark as a great white from an amateur video recording of the incident. [Source: Anton La Guardia, Telegraph Group Limited]

The video has revealed for the first time that even when surfers are riding a wave they are not safe from the ocean's most feared predator. Fifteen-year-old Shannon was taking off on a wave as the shark lurched forward and threw him over the back of the breaker. A second Great White was seen lurking nearby. Surfers were surprised by the direction of the attack. The shark seemed to come from the shallow water on the front side of the wave where surfers traditionally felt they were safe from attacks. 'Normally you think of the shark coming from the deeper water... that shark came through the break and the white water,” one surfer told AP. The video also confirmed that great whites strike without warning. “Every single person in that water was oblivious to it. Totally unaware of that thing's presence,” a former world surfing champion. “The thing with great whites is that they mug you.” [Source: Associated Press]

In April 2001, a surfer had a narrow escape when he was twice attacked by a great white shark at East Cape beach near Port Elizabeth. Dunstan Hogan, a 46-year-old South African, was dragged underwater by the shark. "The shark bit my surfboard and my body together and took me about five to six feet under the water," he said. "I was still holding my board under the water when my feet hit the sand. I opened my eyes and saw this big figure thrashing about." He managed to surface and pull his surfboard towards him and once he got back on, he paddled for the shore. "As I was paddling I saw this big thrashing of grey and then it came up from beneath and knocked me into the air." Mr Hogan managed to cling to his board and continued paddling to the shore and safety. He said he was "very grateful and extremely lucky to be alive" and plans to go surfing again when he has recovered. Local sports physician and general practitioner Dr Peter Schwartz said Mr Hogan's bite wounds were the biggest he had ever seen.The East Cape beach was closed after the attack, but later re-opened. [Source: Daily Dispatch, Ananova Ltd]

Great White Shark Attacks Teen Near Cape Town

In April 2004, 16-year-old John-Paul "JP" Andrew fought for his life after being savaged by a five-meter great white shark in an attack that took place off Muizenberg. "Lifeguards said they noticed something was wrong when they saw half of the boy's board being tossed into the air," said the National Sea Rescue Institute's Vaughan Seconds. "They pulled him out of the water and when I got to him I saw his right leg had been completely bitten off and he had bite marks on the other leg. By then, he already had lost a lot of blood," he said. Seconds said a patrolling helicopter had spotted the shark a short while after the attack and it had been identified as a 3.5m-long Great White. [Source: Marlene Malan and Clayton Swart, Die Burger]

A fellow surfer pulled Andrew to safety and, within minutes, seven lifesavers were with them. Everything was done to keep Andrew alive, while they waited for paramedics to arrive. According to Nick Reyneke of SA Life Savers, Andrew lost consciousness five times while being taken to hospital. Each time, paramedics were able to bring him around. Angelo Plaatjies, the area manager for Rescue SA, said lifesavers battled for 20 to 25 minutes to keep Andrew alive while waiting for paramedics. He said the teenager had had no pulse and was not breathing. He had also been bleeding profusely. The surfer was rushed to hospital where he had cardiac arrest twice during a delicate operation to save what remained of his leg, said hospital manager Clive Lake.

Grant Kirkland, 28, was also out surfing when the attack took place. He heard Andrew scream and went to his aid. "I was near him and saw a white wave with the boy being pulled along with it. Someone screamed: 'There's a shark.' "I went to him and saw his leg was off. I pulled him on to my board and went in. By that time, the shark was gone," he said. Kirkland calmed Andrew down, but the teenager lost consciousness when they reached the shore. Another swimmer said he saw two shark fins. "I saw it close in on "JP". It happened very fast. There wasn't much blood," he said.

Two weeks before a swimming competition for divers at Simon's Town naval base was cancelled after a Great White shark was spotted in the vicinity. Reyneke said on Monday a ban on swimming had been imposed and a helicopter would patrol the shoreline to determine when it would be safe for bathers.

According to the Sharks Board, this was the first attack on Muizenberg Beach in twenty years, the last being in 1984, when a surfer, Selwyn Boran, was attacked by what was believed to be a great white. Boran narrowly missed injury when his board was bitten. The last fatal shark attack in Cape Town was in September 2003 when a teenage surfer bled to death after being bitten by a shark.

Great White Sharks Kills an Elderly Swimmer Near Cape Town

In November 2004, 77-year-old Tyna Webb went for her morning swim off a Cape Town beach as she had done almost everyday for 17 years. A witness said, “From the beach I saw the fin then the whole shark coming out of the water,. All that was found of Webb was her red bathing cap. It was the second attack on swimmers in the area this year. The attack took place about two miles from the 16-year-old surfer John-Paul "JP" Andrew lost his right leg.

Webb was attacked by a great white at Sunny Cove beach in the suburb of Fish Hoek. Mrs Brian de Jager, a friend of Mrs Webb's and one of the 15 local people who witnessed the attack, told the Guardian: "I took my usual walk and I saw Tyna swimming. The next minute I saw this fin coming through the water and then the discoloration in the water. It was so quick, it all took place in only 30 seconds." [Source: Andrew Meldrum, The Guardian]

Other witnesses said the shark had been six meters (19 feet) long and circled Mrs Webb before attacking. Craig Lambinon, a spokesman for the National Sea Rescue Institute, said crews later spotted the shark from the air. "The shark is bigger than the helicopter... it is huge," he told the South African Press Association. Clive Wakeford, the president of the Fish Hoek Lifesaving Club, said some of Mrs Webb's remains would eventually wash up. "It's unwise to swim that far out, especially early in the morning and late in the afternoon," he said.

The deaths provided ammunition for the debate as to whether to stop tourists feeding sharks, a practice that may have encouraged the animals to linger in the waters. Mr De Jager, the assistant manager of Sunny Cove Manor, a guesthouse near the beach, said: "It's difficult to know what to do about the sharks. There is a great deal of divided opinion. Some people say put up shark nets, but that is very invasive and badly affects other marine life. "Others say that chumming [throwing fish entrails into the sea] to attract sharks for tourist boats should be stopped because they say that brings sharks closer to swimming areas. But scientists say that is not the cause of the problem." He suggested that buoys emitting frequencies that annoy sharks could be placed around swimming areas.

Great White Shark Attacks Man During Lifeguard Training

In 2006, Achmat Hassiem was attacked by a great white shark during a lifeguard exercise off the coast of Cape Town. While trying to escape from the shark Achmat recalls: “I turned around to see where my leg was, and that’s when I saw half of it was in the shark’s mouth already”. He lost his right leg but found a “new passion during recovery” — swimming. In 2012, he won a bronze medal in the Men's 100 meter Butterfly at the Paralympics in London. [Source: CBS News]

According to book “Killers in the Water": Achmat said: I caught something out of the corner of my eye, a black shadow in the water. I thought it was a seal or a dolphin and then this fin broke the water. The shark was heading towards my brother Taariq. I screamed for the rubber duck to get out to him. They didn’t understand what I was shouting about — I was screaming, ‘Get Taariq, get Taariq, he’s in danger’. Then I started splashing, trying to distract the shark....“I got in the boat. It turned and went straight for my brother,” said Taariq. [Source: “Killers in the Water - The New Super Sharks Terrorising The World's Oceans” by Sue Blackhall (John Blake), 2012]

Achmat said: “But the shark didn’t attack. It bumped me and its body rolled along mine, then its tailed whacked me. I was rocking, trying to keep my feet. I lost sight of the shark but I could see my brother further out. He was screaming something at me. Then I saw it coming. Its mouth was open. All I thought was to try and get away from its mouth, so I put my hand out and tried to push myself on top of it. My hand was on the shark’s head and I tried to get my right leg over it. I couldn’t move my leg and then I saw half of it was in the shark’s mouth. It started violently shaking me; it was terrifying. I could feel my leg being torn apart but there was no pain. I was in absolute shock… I was being attacked by a great white.”

“I was still trying to get out of the shark’s mouth. I was getting short of breath and I remember thinking why don’t I just let myself drown — that would be better than what the shark would do to me.Then I decided, no, fight. I hit the shark with my fists. A shark’s body is coarse and it was like hitting sandpaper, a tank wrapped in sandpaper. Soon I had no skin on my knuckles but I had one good leg left and I was trying to kick the shark. Then it shook me again, twice, and so hard that on the second one there was this cracking sound, even under the water — my leg broke off.”

“I swam towards the surface, I stuck my hand out of the water and that’s when I saw my brother in the rubber duck. He grabbed me, saying ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got you’. I was hauled into the boat as the shark came back. It dwarfed the boat. It hit the underneath of the boat. My brother jumped on me to hold me. He closed my eyes so I couldn’t see what had happened to my leg. Later he told me that there were perfectly cut triangles of flesh with bits of broken shin bones hanging out. But still I felt no pain.”

Later that day, Achmat was operated on, and up until the very moment the anesthetic took hold, he still had no real idea what he had been through. He describes how there were moments when he felt as though he was looking down on himself playing a part in a movie. Reality arrived the following day. He awoke in intensive care. “The first thing I saw was my brother crying. That hit me hard. He saw I was awake and said, ‘Thank you’. I said, ‘What for?’ ‘Saving my life,’ he said. Then he said: ‘You know what happened?’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Look under the blanket,’ he said. I was scared to look. I looked and saw my leg was gone — that was the first moment I really knew what had happened. I’d always played sport, it was all I wanted to do. I went into this great depression.”It was on my third day in hospital that the pain really kicked in. You feel like your leg is still there — I felt like I had cramps in my right foot, but of course I didn’t have a right foot. It’s the worst pain I ever went through.

Pro Surfer Mike Fanning Fights off Shark During Competition on Live TV

In July 2015, 34-year-old Australian surfer Mick Fanning was attacked by a shark while competing in the J-Bay Open in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa. The contest was streaming online when the shark swam up alongside the three-time world champion and tossed him from his board. Fanning managed to land a punch squarely on the shark's back, and he escaped without a scratch.

AFP reported: Fanning was competing in the final heat of a world tour event at Jeffreys Bay in the country’s Eastern Cape province when a looming black fin appeared in the water behind him. In a churn of water and spray, Fanning could be seen battling to fend off the shark. “It came up and got stuck in my leg rope,” he said in a television interview afterwards. “I was kicking and screaming. I just saw a fin. I didn’t see teeth. I was waiting for the teeth to come at me as I was swimming. I punched it in the back.” [Source: Agence France Presse, July 19, 2015

Fanning, nicknamed “White Lightning”, was sitting on his board in the water when the shark lunged at him, tipping him off the board. He was taken out of the water by safety crews in nearby rescue boats, and said he had only lost his board leash. The World Surf League (WSL), which organised the J-Bay Open, said two sharks were spotted in the water near Fanning and his rival Julian Wilson, also from Australia. “We were all watching and then all of a sudden you could see the fin so we knew it was a shark,” spectator Kaylee Smit told the News24 website. “We could see the splashing and he was knocked off his board. “I thought this guy was going to die in front of us. The whole crowd rose to their feet in complete silence and then that was broken by the announcer screaming over the information system for people to get out of the water. I am still in shock and I am shaking.”

The WSL issued a statement saying that the competition was cancelled after discussions with both surfers. “Mick’s composure and quick acting in the face of a terrifying situation was nothing short of heroic and the rapid response of our Water Safety personnel was commendable,” it said. Craig Lambinon, spokesman for the National Sea Rescue Institute, told ENCA television news: “We believe it is probably the first time that an incident like this at a surfing competition has been caught on camera.

Calvin Bradley, of surf magazine ZigZag, was watching from the beach when the attack took place. “(Fanning) was waiting for his wave to come through and while he was staring out to the horizon, suddenly a fin suddenly appeared behind him,” he said. “Everyone’s heart just dropped because we knew exactly what was happening... He disappeared behind the waves and we were expecting the worst. It looked like he managed to get off the shark with his kicking and punching. He escaped unscathed, his leash was bitten by the shark and the rescue crew... rushed to where he was and brought him on board. He was very shaken.”

Shark Attacks Return to South Africa in the 2020s After the Orca-Induced Lull

According to Shark Files: Shark bites resumed in South Africa in 2021 after zero reported incidents the year before. Great white sharks are thought to be common off the coast of Cape Town, but after a pod of orcas (Orcinus orca), which are known to prey on sharks, migrated into the region in 2017, white shark sightings became rare. “We don’t know how often orcas kill white sharks, but when they do, they seem to have a preference for the oily liver and leave the rest. As of 2021, however, white sharks appear to have migrated east, and more are now seen along South Africa’s Wild Coast,” ISAF manager Tyler Bowling said. As a result, three shark bites were reported for the country in 2021, one of which was fatal. [Source: Jerald Pinson, Shark Files, Florida Museum of Natural History, January 24, 2022]

In April 2021, 20-year-old bodyboarder David Lillienfeld was killed by a great white shark near Cape Town. The Huffington Post reported: “Lillienfeld was in the water with his brother, Gustav, when the shark struck. Although Gustav tried to pull his brother to safety, David died after the shark, who was estimated to be five-meters (16-feet) long, bit off his leg. Craig Lambinon of South Africa's National Sea Rescue Institute said the missing limb was the only damage to Lillienfeld's body."There are no other bite marks or lacerations on the deceased man's body — only the complete amputation of the right leg and the leg has not been recovered," he said. [Source: David Moye, Huffington Post, April 20, 2012]

Cape Town Area Shark Spotters

In 2012, AFP reported: Undetected on the mountain slope, Tino Simmerie sweeps his binoculars over the South African bay where bathers happily splash about in turquoise waters. "They don't have a clue what's going on basically," he said, staring out at the popular Fish Hoek beach where he once saw a shark come up to the shore. "We never know for sure when a shark is going to come into this bay — that's why we're every day up here to just keep an eye out." Armed with a walkie-talkie, binoculars and polarised sunglasses to protect against the harsh ocean glare, the 22-year-old is part of Cape Town's frontline against the Great Whites sharing its seas.[Source: Justine Gerardy, AFP, June 21, 2012]

“The pioneering programme, Shark Spotters, started in 2004 after a spate of bites and sightings by placing human look-outs at busy beaches to give the alert for the sea to be cleared if fins are seen moving in. "You can understand, it's a very emotional issue especially for the people who have witnessed shark attacks," said Sarah Titley, Shark Spotters project manager. "Being eaten by a very large fish is a very scary unknown that makes people react in a completely disproportionate way to what the actual sense of risk is. You've got a one in 253 million chance of being killed by a shark." "So the risk is very small but it's such a traumatic event for people and it really does cause a lot of hype and hysteria."

Spotters are on permanent watch at four beaches, and at six during summer, using a simple but effective system of flags and sirens between the look-out and a beach-based controller that beach-goers depend on — even if unknowingly. Not everyone listens to the spotters. A British man lost part of his legs in 2011 after ignoring the Fish Hoek beach's closure. "Since the programme began in 2004, we've had over 1,200 shark sightings," said Titley. "People report sharks just swimming straight past them, so if sharks really did want to eat people, we'd be suffering a lot more attacks that what we do," she added.

Shark Nets in South Africa

Many beaches in Australia and South Africa are protected from sharks with nets. According to AFP: To counter some of the fears, an exclusion net is on the cards for Fish Hoek, to add another layer to the city's prevention buffers after the attack seven months ago deepened its deadly reputation on the back of two deaths since 2004. "It's a series of fixed nets which are very small diameter mesh so that nothing can swim through it," said Cape Town alderman Felicity Purchase. "We needed to find something that would be practical, that would not cause damage — we don't want to kill the sharks, we don't want to damage the other marine life that comes through." [Source: Justine Gerardy, AFP, June 21, 2012]

Shark nets are controversial and were ruled out years ago, but officials say they need to tackle the damaging economic fall-out and that the square-inch sized mesh technology is successfully used in Hong Kong and the Seychelles. "This will provide a safe area for parents who are worried about their children particularly, and for the elderly who are not so fast getting out of the water," said Purchase, saying two nets will cost 750,000 rand ($93,000). "This will certainly prevent shark attacks in an area which allows considerable swimming space for our bathers. So I believe it could actually be the end of shark attacks."

The city therefore accepts that attacks are inevitable with a population of 3.5 million people sharing its 307 kilometers of beautiful coastline.

Image Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Shark Files, Florida Museum of Natural History, Global Shark Attack File (GSAF), National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Natural History magazine, Discover magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2023

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