Beautiful beach, deadly ocean

2013-01-20 10:00

Port St Johns has the highest incidence of shark-attack deaths in the world and it might stay that way, writes Paddy Harper.

The beautiful Second Beach of the picturesque resort town of Port St Johns has become the deadliest stretch of coastline on earth when it comes to fatal shark attacks.

On Christmas Day the notorious but highly popular beach – one of the jewels of the former Transkei’s Wild Coast – claimed its seventh victim since the current spate of fatal attacks began five years ago.

Liya Sibili (22) from Ntsimbini, a rural village about 35km inland from Port St Johns, was taken by a shark in waist-deep water at Second Beach at around 4.20pm. Only his bathing trunks were recovered despite a three-day search for his body.

Solutions are going to be expensive and environmentally devastating, with authorities eventually being forced to choose between protecting human lives and the environment.

Sibili’s death was the second fatal attack in 12 months. On January 15 last year Lungisani Msungubana was killed by a shark, a year to the day on which Zama Ndamase, a provincial surfer, was killed.

In the summer of 2009, three local youngsters, Tshintsekile Nduva, Sikhanyiso Bangilizwe and Luyolo Mangele were killed at Second.

In 2007 a shark killed Siyabulela Masiza, a life-saver, who had already been bitten on his calf and survived in 2004. The bodies of Masiza and Nduva were never recovered.

Mike Gatke, who closed his Port St Johns Surfing Academy at Second in 2009 after the three fatal attacks, believes that the holiday slaughter will continue.

“We’ve quite rightly been labelled as the most dangerous beach in the world. There is a very real problem here. Shark attacks happen everywhere, but not like they do in Port St Johns. Here there have been six fatal attacks in four years, two in one year alone. That’s not coincidental,’’ said Gatke.

“If it were Cape Town or somewhere else there would be a focus on the problem and something would be done about it. Here it just continues to happen and nobody takes notice.’’

The Mzimvubu River, which enters the ocean at Port St Johns’ First Beach, is a breeding ground for Zambezi or bull sharks, according to research on the attacks conducted by the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board.

The board’s first report on Port St Johns in 2009 identified tiger sharks as being involved in some of the fatal attacks. Their teams this year tagged Zambezis, great whites, raggedtooth and dusky sharks in the ocean, and Zambezis in the river itself.

For the bulk of the year the beach is relatively quiet, but the festive season and Easter sees a massive influx of bathers from towns around the Transkei, for whom it is the closest and most accessible beach.

This week Second was quiet, due in part to bad weather and an earlier back-to-school date than last year. Most bathers only ventured in knee deep, clearly intimidated.

A group of youngsters sent to fetch water for religious ceremonies dragged along a child-sized sponge figure on a rope which they floated in the sea while they filled their buckets and bottles. They claimed the sharks would attack their decoy before them.

“The sharks will bite it, not us,’’ claimed one.

Shoes Vava, who had driven nearly 100km from Mthatha for a swim, said he was aware of the risk he was taking.

“I know people have been killed. There are signs up there warning us. I don’t go in too deep but I will keep swimming. It’s the risk I’m willing to take.’’

Geremy Cliff, research head at the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board, said the area was particularly dangerous. Elsewhere, on average, one in six shark attacks is fatal, far lower than the seven fatalities from seven attacks at Second.

“There are far more deaths from drowning, but in terms of shark attacks this is particularly deadly,’’ he said.

“It’s unfortunate, but we haven’t been able to find any immediate solution. If there was something we could do to stop the attacks we would. At this stage there isn’t,’’ Cliff said.

A sharks board report to the department of environmental affairs, which last year commissioned research to try to solve the problem, suggests that solutions will be expensive and environmentally damaging.

“At this stage of the research project nothing has emerged as a simple solution to the shark-attack problem,’’ it said.

The report said building a tidal pool would improve the beach’s recreational value but would not help either surfers or competent swimmers. It would also be very expensive to build.

Shark nets and drum lines like those used in KwaZulu-Natal would be expensive and would require almost daily maintenance because of the heavy sea conditions at Second Beach. They would incur a

high “environmental cost’’

as they would catch large numbers of rays, turtles, dolphins and whales.

Small mesh exclusion nets, also known as shark barriers, would not work because of rough seas, while shark spotters would not be able to see sharks in the murky water, it said.

Cliff said netting would be highly controversial.

“We have been asked by government to assess the feasibility of installing shark nets and we will need to do depth measurements of the sea bed at Second Beach. This does not mean nets will be installed. A huge public consultation process will be necessary.”

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