Most dangerous beach in the world

2012-04-05 00:00

THE most dangerous beach in the world — Second Beach, Port St Johns — wasn’t always the most dangerous. A few years ago before the recent spate of shark attacks it was one of the most relaxed, unspoilt beaches in the world.


The little village given this dubious title by local and international media was a place that was on top of most people’s holiday wish lists. A place that was difficult to get to, but relaxed­. When you got there you forgot the rest of the world existed. Apart from the locals its permanent residents were an eclectic mix of artists, farmers, hippies, at one time the staff of the rebel radio station­, Capital 604 and at another stage, ex-Rhodesian Selous Scouts, who trained up an elite army corps.

Second Beach, a picture-perfect spot — white sand, blue water, waving wild banana (strelitzia) leaves — is five kilometres from the village. A kilometre­-long bay with rocks on both sides, the southern side leads to Silaka Nature Reserve and the northern­ side has The Gap and its famous blowhole. The Gap is known as one of the best shark-fishing spots in the world and local angler­ Tony Oates has caught many a world record there.

A current topic of discussion in the town is that The Gap, with its numerous sharks, is within 100 metres­ of Second­ Beach, full of tourists splashing in the waves, and until fairly recently no bather was ever hassled­ by a shark. Anglers will attest to the fact that sharks swam in and around the bay. So what happened? Why was the beach so safe for 60-odd years? Why did it become the beach of death?

On January 15, 2012, Second Beach, for the sixth time in five years, became the scene of another tragedy. The previous five victims had all been surfers or lifeguards, and had all been on the backline or in deep water when the attacks occurred.

The most recent attack happened in waist-deep water, and the victim was singled out from his friends who were also in the water. It was the third attack to happen, exactly two weeks after the New Year’s celebrations at Second Beach.

The people of Port St Johns are divided­ in their thoughts as to what is causing the attacks, especially as most of them have happened in January­.

Reasons cited range from powerful­ sangomas to a whale washed up 13 years ago. According to Nongwase Mafuna­, a resident of Mtumbane Township which overlooks Second­ Beach, a sangoma who lives in the area­ owns the sharks and when certain people annoy her, she sends her sharks in to sort out the problem. As with most stories of this nature, the sangoma has not been identified.

Then there’s the incident of the young sperm whale that was washed up 13 years ago. Stories abound of sangomas luring this leviathan of the sea onto the land so that it could be used to make powerful medicine. Meat was hacked off the whale in a frenzy, before the animal was even dead and very little was left of it, other than parts of the skeleton and entrails, and these, according to Wayne Rohland who lives at Second­ Beach, were buried.

Mark Addisson, a dive operation owner who has visited Port St Johns on numerous occasions, believes that the flesh of the whale cannot have decomposed, and the sperm oil is seeping though the sand, chumming the waters.

Local resident Kathryn Costello is sceptical of this theory.

“If this is the case, why are there not attacks throughout the year?” she asks. “This is about as ludicrous as the one about it being a single rogue man-eating shark.

“Rogue man-eating sharks have to eat more than once a year. No, this has to do with the number of people who visit Port St Johns over the festive season and there not being adequate toilet or any other facilities at Second­ Beach. Possibly, also, as Zambezi sharks are the scavengers of the sea, and may have had easy pickings over the season, there is a very real possibility that people are drowned and not reported over the New Year period, as happens in Durban, and because the currents and tides seldom return stuff back to shore, drowned bodies may be attracting sharks.”

The Port St Johns Municipality is desperate to have answers and has called in the KwaZulu-Natal sharks Board (KZNSB) to study why these tragedies have occurred.

Geremy Cliff of the KZNSB is at a loss. “There have never been any rules about why sharks attack. A popular­ beach in the Seychelles recently had three attacks, and the KZNSB was engaged to study that area­, but found no satisfactory answers for the attacks,” he says.

The KZNSB has been to Port St Johns on a number of occasions and have tagged juvenile Zambezi sharks that were caught in the Umzimvubu River with tracking devices. A number of listening devices are in the river. These will show sharks’ movements, and hopefully bring some answers to the puzzle.

The large rivers on the east coast of South Africa have always acted as shark nurseries — the female sharks swim up these rivers to pup, the adults then swim out to sea again, leaving the young to grow before also venturing to sea. Due to bad farming practices, a number of KwaZulu-Natal rivers have silted up very badly over the years, forcing the sharks to look for new nurseries.

The Umzimvubu River could be hosting more sharks because of this. The river has always been known to have sharks in it, which is why nobody swims there.

The river mouth is a few kilometre­s north of Second Beach. During the summer months the water is a chocolate-brown colour on account of the high rainfall washing top soil into the river. Added to this is effluent from the town.

Port St Johns does not have enough public toilets, and the surrounding bush is used. Also, informal settlements around the town and Second Beach do not have any sewerage, only pit toilets and open latrines. The streams that run through these settlements spill into the Umzimvubu, about 500 metres from the mouth of the river.

The dirty water from the river is mostly carried southwards towards Second Beach. Locals say that when the water is dirty, people should not be allowed to swim.

“The young surfer, Zama, who was the 2011 victim, was given a huge funeral­ which was politicised. One speaker spoke about it being our right to swim. It is everybody’s right to swim, but it is also everybody’s right to think and respect the ocean, and to consult local knowledge, which is, — if the sea is dirty, do not swim,” says Mike Gatke who witnessed one of the attacks.

Port St Johns Tourism now has the job of turning around the negative write-ups and TV time that the town has had.

“There are plans to build a tidal pool at Second Beach, and to have more lifeguards on duty to keep people out of the water when it is dirty.

“Tourism is the only industry Port St Johns has and people depend on tourism for their livelihoods­. We must encourage visitors here to enjoy the other aspects of this beautiful part of the world, until it is safe to go back in the water,” says Dan Mangqu, Port St Johns mayor­.

In the meantime in the coming winter­ months the town will be at the centre of the tourism industry surrounding the annual sardine run, with divers flocking to experience it. One of the main attractions: to swim with the five species of sharks found in the area.

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