26 November 2004

Great Whites from a surfer's point of view

When Alex Macun was killed by a shark while surfing off Ntlonyana on the Transkei Wild Coast on June 29, 1982, it was the first time that someone relatively close to me had been taken. It was also the last. Alex and I were at school together, and although he was two years ahead of me, his younger brother, Ian, and I were close friends.

That I have only ever lost one acquaintance to a shark attack is in itself statistically significant (Tyna Webb's daughter and son-in-law are old friends of mine, but I had never met Tyna herself). The reason I say that is because I have been surfing and diving for over 40 years now. I began diving and surfing not long after I learnt to walk.

Most of that surfing and diving has been either in False Bay, in the Atlantic waters between Kommetjie and Cape Point, and in the waters between Rooi Els and Betty's Bay. Yes, I have seen sharks. Yes, I have had one or two close encounters, but never of the dangerous kind.

I have lost a number of friends to other causes: some have been journalists who have been killed in the line of fire, others have died in car accidents, one has been murdered, I lost two friends in one plane crash. But Alex is the only one to have been taken by a shark - and the overwhelming majority of my friends, acquaintances and family members are regular users of the sea, and are thus vulnerable to shark attacks.

That is why I was delighted by the way in which this newspaper chose to cover the astonishing photographs taken by chief photographer Andrew Ingram this week. In a helicopter flight over False Bay, Andrew photographed 11 great white sharks within four kilometres of each other. The sharks were concentrated in a stretch that includes some of the Cape's favourite surf spots, including Sunrise Beach, Surfer's Corner and Kalk Bay Reef.

It would have been all too easy to run a hysterical report along the lines of "False Bay teeming with great whites" and thus feeding into the atavistic fears of regular users of the sea. Instead, the Cape Times article was a sober and dispassionate piece of reporting, quoting shark experts as saying the high concentrations of sharks and the almost negligible number of attacks was further evidence that great whites do not naturally feed on humans.

My favourite quote in the story was from a shark expert who said: "if sharks really wanted to attack people, Muizenberg corner would be a yum-yum factory." Certainly, taking out a surfer at the corner would be a lot easier for a great white than it would be for your average lion trying to take an impala at a water hole.

So I will continue to surf, although my diving days are over because of dodgy eardrums. But even in my diving days, I was much more scared of getting tangled up in kelp, or being dashed against the rocks, or getting my arm trapped in a cave in search of crayfish, than I ever was of sharks. And when surfing, it is the catastrophic, consciousness-inducing wipe-out, or the uncontrolled aggression of other surfers that is far more of a worry than the sharks.

Even so, like every surfer, there are certain precautions I take: I don't surf near open river mouths, or sewage outlets. I don't surf after sunset (well, if the surf's really pumping, I do), and I never, ever, not in a million years, say the word "shark" when I'm in the water.

Surfers, you see, have this unshakeable belief that to use the word shark while out in the backline is inviting an attack. So we talk about "the men in grey suits" or the "Johnnies". My nine-year-old son learnt this the hard way. We were surfing together at Arniston, and it was getting towards sunset.

"Dad," Zac said to me, "don't the sharks start feeding near sunset?" I firmly admonished him to never use that word in the water because it was bad luck. He fell silent, then, in a tremulous little voice, said: "Dad, please can we go in, I'm getting really scared of those things whose name I'm not allowed to mention."

Source: Cape Times


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