Friday, September 22, 2006

Facts or fiction?

It was a calm, perfect morning as Tyna Webb put on her bathing suit and cap as she had done every day for the last 17 years, summer or winter, and dipped into the cool inviting waters of Sunny Cove off South Africa to begin her early morning swim.

Described as a "tall, very elegant, handsome lady, athletic and in excellent health," the 77-year old Grandmother often replied to warnings about not going out too far by saying: "When it's my time, it will be my time."

At about 7am, high on a hill above her, André Mentor, 48, was on the mountainside acting as a spotter for the local fishing crew. It was a vantage point that allowed him to see what Tyna Webb couldn't. As he watched her swimming along, about 150 metres from the shore, she seemed happily oblivious to the 18 foot long shadow circling below her.

Though he screamed and waved his flag to warn her, all he could really do was watch with mounting horror as the shark closed in.

He was not alone. Some 15 other people also witnessed the attack. Others say they saw the shark speed towards Webb and attack her, then the sea around her fill with blood. As one witness described it, the shark "took her, leaving her lying in the water, and then came back for her again and again."

"All that was left was a little red bathing cap," said Paul Dennett, another witness, who watched the attack from his nearby home. Search and Rescue crews who later spotted the shark – a Great White – described it as "bigger than the helicopter. It is huge."

More recently, two lifeguards involved in a training exercise on a beach near Cape Town were 200m offshore in "glassy, clear seas with approximately half a meter swell and a slight on-shore breeze." Acting as "patients" for another three lifesavers in a boat, the two in the water, who were brothers, found themselves drifting alone together at a depth of 2m to 3m, when one spotted a shark heading for the other.

"It was by me when my brother shouted 'Taariq, shark!'," recalled 17-year old Taariq Hassiem, who knew his 24-year old bigger brother, Achmat, would never joke about a shark.

Thanks to the warning, Tariq scrambled into the boat, narrowly managing to escape the shark. But the shark then turned around and headed instead for his brother. As Achmat disappeared beneath the water, a dark cloud appeared where he was.

"I got in the boat," Tariq recalled after the ordeal. "The shark then turned and went straight for my brother. I stuck my hand in the water to see if I could hold him. He grabbed on to my hand. We grabbed him out as fast as possible... His foot was cut clean off," he says.

Few unimaginable horrors affect the human psyche quite like the thought of being eaten alive. And since the demise of the dinosaurs, there are few animals on this planet capable of doing that to you. One obvious one is the shark. But where the real fear comes from is the fact that you'll probably never even know it was there, not until you're halfway through its digestive system.
Perhaps that is why, in a country where there are more people killed on the roads than in almost any other country, where there are more rapes, robberies and murders than almost anywhere else on the planet, a fierce and hugely disproportionate debate is currently raging over what many believe to be a worrying upsurge in shark attacks off the coast of South Africa.

Hardly a day goes by that the newspapers don't contain at least one strongly-worded letter, if not an entire opinion page, on the subject. Equally fascinating is the fact that the ferocity with which some of these opinions are put forward is second only to being savaged by a shark.

Wrote one angry columnist recently in the growing acres of newsprint on the hugely-divisive subject: "We are plagued by sick sadists, child killers, murderers, rapists, car jacking, muggings, yet one mere little shark manages to put the nation on a state of alert. It is truly amazing just how effective those five letters are – shark."

Yet some claim the hysteria is justified. Paul Botha, who runs a surfing lodge near Cape Town, claims Great White sharks have shown a frightening 'tenfold' increase in numbers since the 1990's, when they became a protected species, and that the attacks have already had a huge impact on tourism. "Surfers from Australia, America and Europe have lost all interest in coming here," he says.

Many of the attacks, however, such as that which took the life of medical student Henri Murray as he was spear-fishing in June 2005, have occurred in the False Bay area near Cape Town, where Great Whites share the same breeding grounds as their favourite food – seals.

"To go swimming in False Bay is nuts anyway," says angry shark defender Patrick McNamara. "This is the Great White's restaurant, its hunting ground, not your playground. By taking the risk, we put ourselves in the path of the shark. We are the ones that should be removed from the sea."
Running alongside these strongly-held beliefs are the scientific assertions, usually by shark researchers, that Great Whites are simply inquisitive creatures, don't really like eating humans, usually just have a bite before they realise that, then swim off – usually with your leg or arm in their mouth. In other words, Great Whites are really terribly misunderstood.

This is perhaps why many people appear to have no truck with recent calls for culling these fearsome black-eyed killers – who are an undeniable part of the food chain. Instead, recent suggestions (each with a slight hint of self-interest) include having daily fly-overs (from a pilot) to putting spotters in air balloons (from a spotter) to catching Great Whites by the tail and hauling them back out to sea when they get too close to the beaches (from an ex-shark hunter).

The latter suggestion comes from a man called Theo Ferreira, who claims to have had encounters with more than 5,000 sharks over thirty years – first as a shark hunter, then as a "researcher." He also claims that during the 1970's, he four times hooked a legendary 7m Great White known locally, with understandable awe, as the "submarine." A fish that almost pulled his boat to the bottom of the sea, he recalls.

Ferreira then played an important role in having the Great Whites declared a protected species some fifteen years ago. But even then, he remembers huge discourse.

"We established the White Shark Research Unit at the time but infighting sent everyone their own way, doing their own research," he says. "Results were never coordinated. We tagged more than 250 sharks at the time. There were very few young predators, and the mean size of adults was about 3.2m. Today the average size is about 4m, with a large population of young Great Whites."
That may be bad news for swimmers, but not for shark tourists seeking a close encounter with what has now joined lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, hippos and crocodiles to become one of Africa's must-see Big Seven.

"The sharks are actually contributing tremendously to the tourism industry and job creation. Eco-tourism is booming. People come to see the Big Seven now, with the Great White Shark being one of the main attractions," Patrick McNamara asserts.

Even here, there is major discord. The practice of chumming the water with fishy blood to attract the sharks, then getting them used to being near humans, is frequently blamed for the rise in attacks. Attacks which can be experienced even from the supposed safety of a metal shark cage as British tourist Mark Currie, from Barrow-in-Furness found out when an 18 foot Great White shook him around like "an ant in a jar."

And so the result of all this disagreement, like so many things these days in South Africa, appears as if it will result in nothing new being done. As the country's perfect beaches and pristine waters promise to fill up again with tourists for the approaching summer, the only prevention tactic remains shark spotters looking out from high on the hills above, a measure which could not save Tyna Webb.

"The sharks were never a problem in the past – they've always been there but they never used to attack people," says veteran surfer Steven Harcourt-Wood, who only last weekend survived an encounter with a 3.5-metre Great White. "I've seen small ones out at the back from time to time but this is different. Their behavior has changed completely."

Which brings us, as always, to the film Jaws. Its key moments, after all, involved an approaching summer season and a woman swimming on her own in glassy waters before being savagely and unexpectedly gobbled by a Great White. Then came a training exercise that went wrong, and a shark cage almost torn asunder. Finally, we had a shark hunter wrestling with the biggest fish he'd ever seen in his life as it threatened to pull his boat down to the bottom of the sea.

Though these events in the movie scared the hell out of us, all of them were just fiction. On the other hand, all of them actually happened in South Africa.


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