Experts probe deadly SA shark attacks

2011-12-05 09:26

Port St Johns - The beach is a breathtaking site, the Indian Ocean rolling endlessly toward dramatic hills of lush forest sloping down to the powdery sand.

But Port St Johns beach in the Eastern Cape is among the world's deadliest for shark attacks, with five fatalities in five years, three in 2009 alone.

"We're probably the most unsafe beach in the world at the moment," said Michael Gatcke, who from the veranda of his guesthouse witnessed a teenage surfer being mauled in January.

As for what is causing the sharks to attack, "It's easy to speculate but hard to pinpoint what it actually is," he said.

Theories for the attack surge range from the shark-drawing blood of ceremonial animal sacrifices by traditional healers on the beach, to loud onshore music or a curse on surfers and lifesavers who have been the only victims.


Scientists say the attackers are mostly Zambezis - the "pit bulls" of the ocean, also called bull or whaler sharks - which are dangerously aggressive, grow to more than 2m long, and are known for shallow water attacks.

"I won't go out again. I've had it. From the first attack, I never liked water - from the first one that I witnessed," said former lifeguard Gerald Mtakati, 36, who responded to each attack and has seen flesh savaged to the bone.

The Durban-based KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board is now investigating the attacks and plans to catch sharks and fit acoustic tags and receivers.

"I'd say it's pretty unusual, not in the number of attacks but the fact that they were all very, very aggressive attacks and resulted in fatalities in all cases," said head of research Geremy Cliff.

"If you look at the national average it's probably one in six."

Zambezi sharks are at home in fresh water and likely drop their young in the giant Umzimvubu River estuary at First Beach, which lies east of Second Beach.

But what is puzzling both locals and scientists is the fact that the popular swimming spot was long considered safe from the apex predator.


"We've got no idea," said Cliff, who recently investigated two deadly attacks in the Seychelles.

"It's amazing the fact that that beach has been used for ages. Now, why all of a sudden have we had this spate of incidents? It's one of those things we can't just put our finger on."

South Africa accounted for two of six worldwide fatalities in 2010. There are shark nets in Durban and a sharks spotters programme in Cape Town.

In contrast, the Port St Johns municipality was briefly shut down in November by the local sheriff over money it owed to the lifesavers.

Authorities have long promised to look into the attacks, but the national government-funded study is only starting now and will look at understanding what is happening and not prevention.

Ndamase Mzimasi still volunteers as a junior lifeguard despite losing his brother in the deadly triple attacks in 2009.

"Sometimes it makes me nervous," the 19-year-old admitted, saying he's afraid to swim and sticks to the shallows.

Gatcke hasn't surfed at Second Beach since screams filtered up to his veranda as teenage surfer Zama Ndamase, whom he mentored, was being attacked.

"I haven't surfed since that day," he said.

"As the swell came past I just saw the red in the swell behind him and then that's when my heart just... that's when I knew okay, this is really an attack."

The 46-year-old closed his surf school in 2009, but had thought of the fatalities as a coincidence, as multiple attacks have been known to happen.

"But then after Zama's attack, it was very close to home and also sort of a realisation that there is something definitely going on here. It's not just the norm," he said.

"And that's what scared me."

  • Breedlike - 2011-12-05 09:31

    They will probably end up blaming global warming

      Ian - 2011-12-05 09:47

      or apartheid

      Poloyatonki - 2011-12-07 14:40

      or Malema

      madsipho - 2011-12-13 08:24

      Oh so my comment is removed here, no surprised though

      lynsey.rimbault - 2012-01-16 06:31

      Three stupid comments in a row...

  • Joe - 2011-12-05 09:32

    Listen, if sharks wanted to eat us we would have had thousands of attacks each year. That is bull shark breeding territory, and the bull shark is the animal with the highest levels of testosterone on the planet, so stay out of the water.

      Sattva - 2011-12-05 09:53

      hear hear

      Fred - 2011-12-05 10:03

      Very good advice. In reality there are very, very few attacks - many more people were killed driving to the beach - and it seems like a waste of time and money.

      Deon - 2011-12-05 10:45

      It is still safer to swim than drive a car.

      madsipho - 2011-12-12 12:34

      Lol, well said.

  • Tertius - 2011-12-05 09:45

    According to some locals a whale beached at Port St Johns a few yeard ago and not knowing what to do with the carcass a huge hole was dug and the carcass buried in the sand. Now speculation is rife that the oil and fat is seeping into the sea attracting the Bull sharks

      Peter - 2011-12-07 13:07

      Bull S$%^

      madsipho - 2011-12-12 12:37

      There comes another Julius Malema, talking crap.

  • Jerolan - 2011-12-05 09:54

    The water is their natural habitat. Not ours. So if the sharks decide to expand and move into near areas, that is their business. Leave the sharks alone

  • Nirvan - 2011-12-05 09:57

    Sharks do not naturally hunt humans period. What is more of a concern is the number murders in that area over the last five years committed by a different kind of animal...

  • Oceanh - 2011-12-05 10:11

    unfortunately this is a result of the raw sewage that is being pumped into our oceans. Sharks scent urine and blood from miles away

  • John - 2011-12-05 10:15

    There has always been shark attacks and there will always be shark attacks. I don't think what happened 50 years ago is any different. Sharks are highly effective predators and if you look and smell edible they will eat you. It's like getting out your car in a game reserve where Lions happen to be lurking. They don't differentiate between you and buck. So everytime a human is attacked by a Lion is it neccesary to research as to why "suddenly" there are so many attacks on humans?

      Gungets - 2011-12-05 12:49

      John - sharks are amazingly discriminate in their feedingand humans are not their natural prey. This is bourne out by the number of incidents with sharks to do not qualify as "attacks", they lack the aggression and repeated bites that turn them from "incidents" into attacks. It is cold comfort for those bitten, but if a shark attacks you, you die. If you survive it is because the shark did not like the food on offer and backs off. They like a very high fat content, whales, seals etc. Humans are generally too bony and lack fat. ----> As for PSJ, and the Wild Coast - I don't swim there, not beyond waist deep anyway. Huge populations of sharks, lot's of Zambi's.

  • cliff.slabbert - 2011-12-05 10:18

    Eish ! I would just stay out of the water in this area until the research is done.

  • Aldo - 2011-12-05 10:38

    I would be happy for the government to use our tax money to buy Juju a beach house, no, it's perfectly safe. Why are there no people? Private beach...your private beach...came with the house...

  • damian.visser - 2011-12-05 13:01

    I came across a video on Youtube a few months back advertising diving to observe sharks at Port St Johns. That would probably mean chumming, and if it was going on at Second beach there isn't enough bay for me to feel comfortable being in the water if someone is chumming with Zambesi's around. Anyhow, I didn't know if the video was genuine or if the activity was still going on, so flagged it with an explanation (this was just after the attacks on the surfers). It's still there this morning (search for "Port St Johns", throw in "Tiger" or "Apex"). Does anyone know if shark diving is taking place at Second beach? If so, I'd say it was highly unwise given the water usage in the bay.

  • jeff3 - 2011-12-05 13:02

    It's worth mentioning that Tony Mechin phoned me a few days before he, sadly, committed suicide earlier this year; and told me that in recent years a pig abattoir had started operating upriver on the 'Vubu somewhere, and they were dumping blood, etc. into the river. At the least, it bears checking out.

  • Ivan - 2011-12-05 16:45

    Sharks Board which is the biggest contributor to the decimation of shark populations and the resultant eco-system collapses should not be consulted on anything. Their entire purview is to kill as many sharks (whales, dolphins rays turtles etc as well) as possible. The have misled the public into believing that the only way you will be safe is if there are nets. Now they have drumlines which only target large sharks, thus taking the breeding adults out of the population. We swim in their (sharks)ocean with full knowledge of the fact that sharks are out there. Would there be the sdame furore if someone was hicking in the Kruger and got eaten by a lion? Would we then go and put random snares everywhere?

      Craig - 2012-01-16 08:31

      Ivan - I presume this is the same Ivan who posted this comment on a website aptly titled Southern Fried Science: Ivan van Heerden September 22, 2010 at 4:57 am "I would rather bring people to see sharks during a feeding, than to take them to the Natal Sharks Board who have killed over 50 000 sharks in the last 30 years alone and who still claim to be a conservation agency." Ivan, time to stop grinding your axe, mate, with unsubstantiated, libellous accusations. As a former journalist in KZN, I assure you that the NSB, together with the Queensland Sharks Board, have done superb work in conscietising people to the plight of sharks, and their role in marine eco-systems. One suspects you are an embittered Souf Coast fisherman who once got shouted at by an NSB official, and still finds his cane and coke bitter to the taste?

  • Ajaykumar - 2011-12-05 18:38

    I visited pt st johns many years ago. I remember looking down from a small cliff and seeing sharks being butchered on the rocks...blood everywhere. No wonder sharks are attacking...firstly blood in water and secondly several safe clearrive mouths for zambezis to have babies!

  • Kyle - 2011-12-14 00:33

    my issue is do they know math? how can there be 5 fatalities in 5 years but 3 in 2009 alone? Doesnt seem very accurate or reliable

      Justin - 2012-01-16 09:26

      5 fatalities in the last 5 years, not one fatality a year. ie, could have been 3 in 2009, one in 2011 and one in 2007.

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