A chilling reminder at SA’s deadliest beach

2013-12-29 14:01

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Underequipped lifeguards battle shark attacks and deadly rip tides

Last Thursday, just days before the festive season influx of holidaymakers into Port St Johns, life-savers at Second Beach were provided with another chilling reminder of what lies in wait in the rough seas off what has become the deadliest beach in the world.

A 30kg cob that had been bitten in half by what life-savers believe was a Zambezi shark was washed up, still flapping, in the surf where six people have been killed by sharks in the past six years.

A seventh victim, who was attacked in March, survived but lost an arm.

“This was a Zambezi – and a big one – that bit the cob in half like that,” says lifeguard Siphosoxolo Njiva (27), as he remembers that day.

“It’s scary knowing there’s a shark that can do that just here,” he adds.

Njiva, who works for a local school transport business for the rest of the year, knows what he is talking about.

He has witnessed all the fatal shark attacks while working during the annual November-to-January life-saving season.

Four of the attacks have claimed the lives of fellow life-savers and neighbours from Mtumbane Village high on the cliff overlooking the beach.

“All these incidents happened in front of my eyes. They mainly involved other life-savers, my friends and colleagues. It’s painful,” he says.

Despite all this, Njiva is prepared to go into the deadly surf to save people’s lives.

“PSJ [Port St Johns] is my town and life-saving is in my blood. I live for this. It’s what I’ve wanted since I was a little boy watching life-savers train.

“If there is a shark attack, we can still try to help, but we need better equipment for this,” he adds.

“When we started in November, we didn’t have equipment. It’s only now that we have been given buoys and uniforms. This makes it more difficult, but we will continue working. It’s tough knowing there is a strong chance that one of us could be taken, but we still do it.”

In response to the annual horror, the municipality had planned to buy a rescue dinghy and a Jet Ski to patrol the beach, which has two deadly rip tides in addition to the shark danger.

In October?–?when there are no lifeguards on duty?–?three people drowned after being swept out to sea by the rip tide on the southern edge of the beach. But a violent six-week municipal strike over alleged nepotism and corruption in the council meant that work ground to a halt and the planned purchases never happened.

A temporary plan was made on Christmas Eve.

A local Jet Ski owner was hired to patrol the area beyond the breakers, but the craft was not properly equipped for surf rescues.

Life-savers were also given paddle skis and other equipment.

Mayor Mnyamezeli Mangqo says the municipality is trying to raise funds to employ life-savers at Second Beach and other beaches all year round, rather than in the summer months only.

“We have now employed 42 life-savers for this season and are still in the process of buying a boat to ensure that their work is safer,” Mangqo says.

“Because of the strike, we have had to come to an arrangement with a private owner to provide us with the service in the interim. We are hopeful that our own boat will be in the water by January 1.”

In the long term, the municipality has been trying to develop a plan to enclose the beach using either a rock pool or nets.

Second Beach and other beaches in Port St Johns are central to the town’s survival.

They not only provide a daily living for scores of subsistence fishermen?–?and poachers?–?but attract fishing and diving enthusiasts from all over South Africa and around the world.

The beaches are also the party zone for Transkei towns like Mthatha and Lusikisiki, which are less than an hour away.

Last weekend, Second Beach was the scene of a massive, unorganised beach party which lasted through Saturday night and was still going at lunchtime on Sunday when City Press left the town.

Hundreds of people had been swimming at the deadly beach, even in the dark.

Mangqo believes beachgoers have a big role to play in making Second Beach safer. “People have to cooperate with the police and life-savers to help ensure their safety.”

And Njiva agrees.

“On December 25 last year, a person was killed by a shark. In 20 minutes, people were swimming in the same spot as if nothing had happened,” he says.

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