Saturday, June 25, 2005

Last shark attack in South Africa was caused by more than meets to the eye

South African medical student Henri Murray was spear fishing off the coast of Cape Town, the country's main tourism center, when a 5-meter (16-foot) great white shark seized him from below and dragged him away.

The June 4 attack, the third this year, drew banner headlines and newspaper stories across the country suggesting sharks have started targeting bathers, just like in the Jaws movie in 1975. It's also fueling a niche industry in South Africa, where British and German tourists line up to see the predators close up.

``When there is an attack, we get even more people phoning,'' said Kim MacLean, who has run shark diving trips near Cape Town since 1992, in an interview. ``It seems to boost interest.''

The center of the shark tourism industry is Shark Alley, a stretch of ocean between Dyer and Gyser islands, about 100 kilometers southeast of Cape Town, where eight companies offer day trips costing about 1,000 rand ($149) each. It is part of a booming tourism trade that attracts more than 190,000 overseas visitors to South Africa each month and employs 1.2 million people.

In peak season, more than 200 shark watchers, mainly from Britain and Germany, sign up daily for trips costing about 1,000 rand, said Dave Caravias, who runs a central booking agency in the town of Gansbaai, where the Shark Alley boats are based.

Feeding the Sharks

Operators throw sardines, pilchards and fish heads into the water, a technique known as chumming, to lure the sharks closer to their boats. Customers can then descend into a floating steel cage wearing scuba or snorkel gear for a closer encounter with the predators, which can measure up to six meters and weigh more than 3 metric tons.

Not everyone approves.

``The local diving and surfing community has rightfully become increasingly concerned about shark attacks,'' the Shark Concern Group, whose members include a shark attack victim and environmentalists, said in a statement. The risk of attacks may be increasing ``as a result of how humans are interacting with sharks, for example, using shark cage diving and chumming.''

In June last year a shark tour operator's boat caught fire in a Cape Town harbor and police said they suspected an arsonist was responsible.

Regulators and shark experts say there is no causal link between the attacks and the proliferation of the shark tourism industry.

``For the most part, sharks won't attack humans,'' said Len Compagno, a shark expert based at Cape Town's Iziko Museum, who served as a technical adviser on the original Stephen Spielberg movie Jaws about a great white that hunted humans. ``If people were sharks' natural prey a lot more people would be taken. Occasionally you do get an attack but it's rare.''

Sharks vs Bees

Just 46 attacks occurred off South Africa's coastline between 1960 and 2004, eight of them fatal, according to the International Shark Attack file. More people die as a result of bites from bees, wasps or snakes than in shark attacks, according to the Florida- based institute.

South Africa's last fatal shark attack before this month occurred in November, when 77-year-old swimmer Tyna Web was seized by a great white off Cape Town's Fishhoek beach, about 15 kilometers from where Murray, 22, was killed. While no-one has died cage diving, a British tourist narrowly escaped injury in March when a great white attacked the cage he was in.

The government's Marine and Coastal Management department is overseeing new research to tag and monitor sharks in a bid to assess what may influence their movements. It has ruled out revoking a 1991 ban on killing great whites.

``If we had any figures saying we are interfering with the great whites and are changing their behavior, I would shut my business,'' MacLean said.

Craig Ferriera, another tour operator, says that the amount of chum thrown into the water by the handful of operators is miniscule compared with that used by hundreds of commercial fishing boats.

Compagno expects occasional shark attacks to occur as long as humans stray into their natural hunting ground. ``There just are a certain number of incidences that will happen,'' he said ``If you want absolute safety, don't go in the water.''


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