Shark attack in South Africa today

An analysis of South African shark attack records over the last four decades has shown some interesting patterns. Most importantly, the results confirm that attacks are rare events, with an average of only six incidents per year. Since 1990 only 26% of attacks have resulted in serious injury and only 15% were fatal. This equates to an average of one serious shark-inflicted injury every year and one shark-inflicted fatality every 1.2 years along some 2000 km of coastline from the Mozambique border to Table Bay (Cape Town). Initially most attacks took place on swimmers in warm, shallow waters on KwaZulu-Natal beaches, but the shark nets, now concurrently with the drumlines, have greatly reduced the number of these incidents in the province to less than 1 per annum. There have been only two serious attacks at protected beaches in the last 30 years. Both involved surfers who were bitten in very clear water by a great white shark Carcharodon carcharias. The last attack at a protected beach took place in 1999, which bears testimony to the success of the shark nets in reducing shark attack.

In KwaZulu-Natal more attacks have taken place in the late afternoon than at any other time of the day, despite most people swimming in the heat of the late morning and early afternoon. This statistic is presumably related to the tendency of many sharks to venture inshore in the late afternoon to feed. Shark attacks have often taken place in very murky waters when the rivers come down in flood. Zambezi (bull) sharks Carcharhinus leucas find these situations extremely attractive and they have probably been responsible for many attacks in water no more than waist deep.

While the number of incidents in KwaZulu-Natal has been reduced by the use of shark fishing devices, in the Eastern and Western Cape the number has increased. Most of the recent victims in Cape waters have been surfers and body board riders, a pattern that has emerged in other temperate regions of the world. This is not surprising as wetsuits enable the wearers to spend long periods in the sea and waveriders venture further offshore than swimmers. Divers spearing fish have proved to be another high-risk group. They operate in water depths of 20 m or more and may venture several kilometres from the shore. The blood and irregular vibrations of their struggling, wounded fish often attract sharks. There are several cases of a spearfisher being bitten while finning to the surface immediately after spearing a fish. Spearfishers often see sharks, indicating that the latter, particularly larger individuals, do not fear humans and may be sufficiently curious to venture within close range. On the other hand the incidence of attacks on spearfishers, despite the attraction of struggling and bleeding fish, is less than one per year, thereby confirming that sharks do not regard humans as part of their diet.

There has been only a single attack of any significance on a SCUBA diver in South Africa, in which the victim was fatally injured while swimming at the surface before descent. SCUBA divers usually dive in large groups and the noise from the continual stream of exhaled bubbles will deter all but the most aroused shark. In South Africa it is illegal to spear fish while using SCUBA or any other artificial form of air supply.

The worst year on record for shark attack in South Africa was 1998, when 15 incidents were recorded. All took place in Cape waters; one was fatal and a further five resulted in serious injury. As the previous highest total was nine in 1994, there was much speculation in the media as to the reason for this marked increase. A popular scapegoat was the burgeoning white shark viewing industry, as Carcharodon carcharias was responsible for all six serious attacks in 1998. It was suggested that, through the sharks' repeated exposure to bait and chum used as attractants, they had learned to associate the boats and SCUBA divers with possible food.

The regulations imposed on the operators in this industry stipulate that the baits should be kept away from the sharks so there is in fact limited feeding. Baiting is not done by the SCUBA divers from within the cages, so the sharks are unlikely to develop an association between the divers and food. Furthermore, white sharks attracted to the baits are highly mobile and may only be exposed to the chumming for a very short time. Another compelling piece of evidence against the argument linking shark attack with cage diving has been that none of the attacks took place anywhere near the shark viewing operations. To date there is still no explanation for the spate of incidents (15) in 1998. Apart from some recent incidents in False Bay (see next paragraph), shark attacks in the vicinity of white shark cage diving operations are rare.

Another interesting trend has been the relatively high number of incidents in False Bay and adjacent waters around the city of Cape Town. There were very few attacks in these waters prior to the new millennium. In the 1990's there were six incidents, with a single fatality (a spearfisher) and two other serious injuries (surfer and spearfisher). In the current decade (2000-2009), there were 12 incidents. The most disconcerting aspect of these 12 attacks is the fact that there were three fatalities and four other victims incurred serious injuries. Cage diving with white sharks once again returned to the spotlight as this activity is undertaken at Seal Island in False Bay and, despite the absence of any link, many suggest that cage diving operations are responsible for the increase in attacks. The City of Cape Town held a specialist workshop in 2006 in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund and Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism to discuss the possible reasons for the increase and what preventative measures should be introduced. A copy of the workshop report can be downloaded here.

Following a single, minor incident in 2007, there were no shark related incidents in Cape Town waters in 2008 or 2009.  This can, in part, be attributed to the regional spotter programme, in which lookouts situated at high vantage points alert beach users whenever they see a white shark approaching the beach.  For more information see www.sharkspotters.org.za.

Many of the injuries inflicted on humans by sharks have been minor and it is certainly incorrect to conclude that every incident is the result of a shark trying to eat its victim. Some sharks, such as the great white Carcharodon carcharias, tiger Galeocerdo cuvier and Zambezi Carcharhinus leucas, are aggressive species. They are equipped with razor-sharp teeth and wide mouths and are capable of causing considerable damage with little effort. There is little or no evidence to indicate that these species defend territories, but some attacks may be the result of a shark either investigating or repelling an intruder in its immediate vicinity.

Nearly 25% of attacks in Cape waters have been by raggedtooth sharks Carcharias taurus (sand tiger/gray nurse shark), but it is not regarded as an aggressive species and the injuries have all been extremely superficial. The raggedtooth shark has long, sharply pointed teeth that lack serrations. Such dentition is designed to seize relatively small fish that are often swallowed whole rather than to tackle prey the size of a human. Most of the incidents involving this species have taken place in shallow, murky waters and are probably a result of shark and human literally "bumping" into one another.

There has been a decrease in fatal injuries through the development of a standard treatment procedure and the widespread availability of a specially designed First Aid kit, known as the Shark Attack Pack. This trauma pack enables treatment to be initiated on site, and is aimed at restricting blood loss and providing intravenous fluid replacement. The key to treatment lies in controlling bleeding and replacing intravenous fluids as quickly as possible.

Given all the adverse publicity associated with shark attacks, one needs to put this threat into perspective. Most sharks pose little or no danger to humans who enter the sea. It is probably true to say that sharks are more scared of humans than we are of them. The number of people who drown at sea along the South African coast each year (17 deaths by drowning in 2002) far outnumbers fatal shark attacks (less than one per annum).

The KZNSB keeps records of all shark attacks in South Africa. Anyone with any information on a shark attack should contact Geremy Cliff at the KZNSB. The information recorded by the KZNSB is also lodged with the International Shark Attack File.

Number of unprovoked shark attacks in South African waters, 1990-2009
("Cape" refers to the Eastern and Western Cape provinces;
No incidents have been reported from the Northern Cape)

  Cape KwaZulu-Natal
  Total Fatal Total Fatal At protected beaches
1990 4 1 0 0 0
1991 2 0 1 0 1*
1992 1 0 2 0 0
1993 4 0 2 0 0
1994 9 1 0 0 0
1995 3 0 1 1 0
1996 3 0 1 0 0
1997 5 2 0 0 0
1998 15 1 0 0 0
1999 8 1 1 0 1**
2000 4 0 1 0 0
2001 3 0 1 0 1***
2002 3 0 4 0 0
2003 4 1 2 0 0
2004 6 2 0 0 0
2005 7 1 0 0 0
2006 5 0 1 0 0
2007 4 1 1 0 0
2008 3 1 1 0 0
2009 6 4 1 0 0
2010 5 2 2 0 0
2011 7 2 3 1 0
Total 111 20 25 2 3

 

* Angler fishing from a surfski (small 1-man craft ) with his legs dangling in water. A small shark 1-1.5 m long bit angler’s foot immediately after a fish was boated. The victim incurred superficial injuries to his toes. The nets, with their large mesh, provide limited protection against these small sharks.

**A surfer was attacked by a large white shark in very clear water. A similar incident occurred in 1980, also inside the shark nets.

***Kiteboard bitten by a mako shark just offshore of nets, rider uninjured.

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