Rethink the Fish Hoek ‘Shark Attack’

Lesley Rochat Photography - Fish Hoek Shark Attack

Let me begin by saying I am truly sorry that a shark harmed a man recently in my home village, Fish Hoek. I feel for the man, his family, and for the sharks. After reading the facts of the incident I am left with one big question: If someone warned you repeatedly that there was a lion in a park and if you walked about, there was a good chance you’d be attacked, would you still do it? No, you wouldn’t!

There’s one thing to be bitten by a shark without any warnings that it might be around, but to be warned that a shark is present and still choose to enter the water and then get bitten, well now that’s plain foolish. This is exactly what happened in all three cases at Fish Hoek Beach. Why did these people do it? Their behaviour appears to be totally irresponsible, irresponsible toward their families, toward the local Fish Hoek small business community eking out a living and tourism plummeting as a result, and irresponsible toward these majestic animals that are teetering on the edge of extinction, and which they have helped to brand as man-eaters.

In the case of Lloyd Skinner, which took place in Jan 2010, I heard that he had emailed his mother that day to say he would see her later but not before he went for a swim at Fish Hoek Beach, AND he added, he had read the warnings of the high frequency of shark sightings in the area and was concerned, and yet he still went for his fatal swim, apparently close to a shoal of fish.

This latest case was another act of irresponsibility – Michael Cohen, apparently a frequent swimmer of the bay and apparently also a frequent ignorer of the Shark Spotters warnings not to swim when the beach was closed, as it was that day, still chose to do so. It cost him his leg. And it cost sharks a very bad rap, resulting in a tsunami of ignorant reactions from many members of the public, including gung-ho, testosterone-driven males wanting to ‘hunt the shark down’ (as if they would be able to determine the ‘culprit’ from any other shark. White sharks are also one of the only protected shark species in South Africa, a country comparatively far behind protecting its sharks due to local fishery department’s total inadequacies and inertia – but that’s another story for later – and it’s against the law to kill a white shark, if caught it can result in a two year imprisonment and/or a R50 000 fine).

To set straight the stream of self-proclaimed shark experts opinions which offer impractical/ignorant solutions to what they perceive as a problem, note that for biological reasons white shark populations cannot explode; that there is no scientific evidence that sharks become rogue animals and hunt people; that shark nets are not barriers but fishing devices, which indiscriminately kill marine animals, including whales and dolphins and therefore not recommended for Cape Town; and that culling some sharks is not an absolute solution as one remaining shark can still bite.

I reflect back to Tyna Webb, also a regular swimmer of the bay, that was killed by a shark in 2004 in the same place and recall the now monotonous tune being sung then already: I had rushed down to the beach minutes after the incident and interviewed some of Tyna’s friends on camera who told me: “They warned us there were sharks in the bay and we told her she mustn’t go in, but she wouldn’t listen to us, she never did.”

What I said on National Television E-News the day Michael was bitten, I say again, it’s their domain, not ours, and we really need to keep our wits about us, use the ocean responsibly and keep things in perspective by remembering some simple facts: we need our sharks because they keep our oceans in balance (no sharks in the oceans means no tasty fish on your dinner plate, plus a whole lot of other negative repercussions that will affect us all since the oceans are our life support system), we slaughter over 70 million sharks a year, while worldwide last year there was only 6 fatalities by sharks, 2 of which were in South Africa. On average from 2001 to date in South Africa there has only been 48 ‘attacks’ (a word I use very sparingly as it is misused and misplaced since sharks are not out to attack us – if this was the case they would be doing so daily), and of those 11 were fatal i.e. 1 death by sharks per year over 11 years in South Africa. Ever wondered what the murder stats are in South Africa in comparison – try 15,940 murders in 2010/11.

So why the huge fuss when sharks kill on average only 1 person a year in South Africa and little fuss over daily murders? Perhaps it’s because we have become desensitized to murder stories because there’s just so many in comparison. Unless of course it’s the murder of the wealthy and famous and the details are intriguing to the average Joe Smoe who also happens to be an avid reader of ‘Heat’ or ‘You’ magazines and the like, or if the murder is comparative to the Chainsaw Massacre, which makes for a perverse, enthralling story. It’s about what sells papers, gets prime time coverage and the gorier the better. I mean, who wants to read about yet another murder in South Africa – pretty boring right? But a death by a shark or an ‘attack’ by a shark, with headlines like “Fish Food, Eaten Alive” with an image of a white shark bearing its razor sharp teeth, well now that gets the masses lining up at the café newspaper stand. People and the media are predictable.

According to the International Shark Attack File, it is true that globally the number of shark bites has increased. But before jumping to conclusion about increasing shark populations, sadly shark populations worldwide are in fact declining at an alarming rate, and many species will become extinct in our lifetime. It’s therefore a matter of simple arithmetic: an ever growing human population i.e. 6.8 billion and counting = more water users + spending increased amounts of time in the ocean = increased risk of encountering a shark.

And though white sharks are efficient predators that are potentially dangerous to people, considering the daily number of water users, the actual number of shark bites remains extremely low. As our Rethink the shark PSAs illustrate, you are more likely to be killed by your toaster, flying kite, or falling off your chair than by a shark! (Watch our award winning Rethink the shark here or see video below this post). Why sharks bite people is mostly unknown but possibly because of mistaken identity, curiosity, investigation and in few cases, aggression. But following these guidelines can further reduce the very, very, small risk of being bitten:

  • Pay attention to shark signage and flags on beaches and obey them.
  • Obey beach officials if told to leave the water.
  • If a shark has recently been sighted in an area where no shark spotters are present, use another beach.
  • First time visitors to beaches should ask local law enforcement official, life guards or locals about the area.
  • For those kayaking or surfskiing far out to the sea, consider paddling in groups and staying close together.
  • Consider using a personal shark shield when surfing or kayaking.
  • Don’t swim, surf or surfski when birds, dolphins or seals are feeding nearby.
  • Don’t swim in deep water beyond the breakers.
  • Don’t swim, surf or surfski on your own or at night.
  • Don’t swim if you are bleeding.
  • Don’t swim near river mouths.
  • Don’t swim, surf or surfski near trek-netting, fishing or spear fishing activities.
  • Don’t dive using a baiting bag.

Where there are Shark Spotting Programmes, and for those who have never quite got the flags meaning, myself included, here they are:

A Green Flag means visibility for the spotters is good and no sharks are visible to the spotter.

A Black Flag means visibility for the spotters is poor but no sharks have been seen.

A Red Flag means that a shark has been seen recently but is no longer visible to the spotters.

A White Flag with a Black Shark, along with a loud siren, means a shark has been sighted and you should leave the water calmly but immediately.

No Flag visible means that spotters are not on duty.

Just remember that though the Shark Spotting Programme is effective, it can never be 100 % guaranteed because of human error and bad viz days, for example. But clearly in the recent case, had Michael chosen to adhere to the safety measures in place, he would have avoided being bitten – informed decisions and responsible behaviour while using the sea greatly lowers any risk of ever encountering a shark.

Will I go swimming in Fish Hoek beach again which I love? Of course I will, but I will be sure to check the flag and obey the safety measures, I won’t swim behind the backline where each previous incident took place, and I will be mindful that the sharks are thankfully still out there, somewhere, but that there’s more chance of me being killed driving home after my swim than of me ever being bitten by one. Or perhaps I shouldn’t ever swim in this ocean again, but then I best never drive my car again…

Watch my space!

  1. Lynda JonesLynda Jones10-25-2011

    Very balanced and sensible article. Thank you.

  2. Mike OtgaarMike Otgaar10-25-2011

    All these 'macho' creeps, and other idiots slamming sharks, morons targeting them in Mossel Bay, “all the bad rappers”, the twerps who have never seen a shark apart from a childhood visit to an aquarium; go back to your booze and rugby…

    What are you getting upset about. The only time you stick a toe in the ocean is during your annual holiday. The alcohol you consume before swimming is 100 000 times more likely to result in you drowning (or killing another person when driving) than any possibility of shark attack – I don’t hear you calling for a ban on the sale of booze!

    Leave the sharks alone. If we (swimmers, surfers, divers) choose to enter THEIR domain in spite of warnings, it is OUR choice. We know the risks, better than any of you. Don’t blame harmless creatures for our stupidity. And yes, I said HARMLESS. They are harmless if we stay our of their way!

    These magnificent creatures belong in the ocean, we don’t, we just visit their territory.

  3. Lesley RochatLesley Rochat10-27-2011

    Thanks Lynda and Mike for the comments. Mike I share your sentiments, one can only imagine the level of person who enjoys to hunt and kill senselessly. Hope to assist in False Bay re new research, education and awareness that is desperately needed around this issue – at the moment it is left to a few self serving individuals who are not meeting the general public's needs. Thank for the support, Kind regards, Lesley PS: Enjoyed browsing both of your websites.
    Here are a few other comments left on Facebook:

    Graham Holmes
    Despite climbing out of trees, learning to walk upright and developing a huge cranial capacity we humans are without doubt the dumbest animals on the planet!

    Mr Cohen reportedly told the shark spotter Monwabisi Sikweyiya, “If a shark takes me, then blame me, not the shark'."

    So be it then, at your request I’m blaming you! Mr Cohen; I’m blaming you for being ignorant, selfish and egotistical!
    … Are you aware that your actions have resulted in a great swimming beach being closed? Your actions have resulted in tourists cutting short their trips to the Cape and taking their forex to different shores. Do you consider that your actions have probably resulted in a few children who’s parents rely on holiday makers spend, going hungry? Most of all, Mr Cohen I blame you for perpetuating a lie and anti-shark propaganda!

    An ocean without apex predators will be an ocean without balance and the biggest loses of that scenario would be us humans! It really is time to rethink the shark!

    Louise Read
    We are responsible for every action we take…Rest assured consequences Must & Will occur.

    Sidney Fred Jacobs · Steenberg High – Cape Town
    we need to accept that WE are entering their territory and it comes with risks…… yhey do not read the books aboyt themselves…. They make the rules! enjoy the sea and all its pleasures responsible.

    Tracy Danton · Resourcing Manager UAE and Gulf at Barclays Corporate
    Excellent!

  4. HanliHanli10-28-2011

    Well written Lesley. Great that you add all the 'don'ts' at the bottom that we so easily assume people should know, but is so important to reiterate.
    I agree with you on personal responsibility always coming first! Nice one!

  5. drudowndrudown07-11-2012

    While I fully support shark conservation like you do, I am utterly perplexed by the amount of intelligence you are investing in misinformation in order to condition the public to “rethink the shark” in illusory terms. So let me place some thoughts upon the tips of your eyelashes that you can respond to in turn.

    The most glaring contradiction may be aptly summarized as follows: while you (and, indeed, the majority of conservationists) incorrigibly contend that White sharks have been misbranded as “man-eaters” (despite the uncontroverted scientific data to the contrary), here you are expressly critical of Lloyd Skinner for entering the water when a White shark was present. That is non sequitur.

    Stated differently, either White sharks pose a legitimate risk to human beings, or the risk is, as you and so many others contend, some unfounded, misguided perception that is the result of (drudown, I can write this) “Jaws propaganda.” Taken to its illogical conclusion, if Lloyd Skinner subscribed to the dogma that you are preaching (e.g., White sharks are not man-eaters; the “cause” of (ahem) “shark accidents” is murky water or “mistaken identity”), the decedent is posthumously guilty of contributory negligence because he went into the ocean when a White shark was in the general vicinity.

    So which is it?

    Are White sharks dangerous to humans or not? Yes or No. Surely you cannot credibly contend in one blog that White sharks are “misunderstood” and “mislabeled as man-eaters” and then, in another blog, allege Lloyd Skinner is to be faulted for disregarding the risk. This is particularly so considering that there is zero scientific basis to conclude White (or Bull/Tiger/Oceanic Whitetip, et al.) sharks attack human beings on account of either (1) territorial response [pelagic sharks are nomadic and not territorial like a nesting crocodile] or (2) to protect their young [i.e., pelagic sharks render zero maternal care- unlike a brown bear protecting a cub]. That is, excluding obvious instances of purely investigatory (e.g., “mouthing behavior”), White sharks that bite off human flesh are feeding. Not that is some startling discovery, but let’s be clear: whereas other “man-eating” predators (e.g., crocodiles, bears, lions) have occasion to likewise consume (fully edible and digestible) human beings, unlike White sharks, other causal factors might “explain” the attack.

    Here, in contrast, the White shark that attacked Lloyd Skinner consumed a known, tertiary prey item (Homo sapiens). As such, the reason why Lloyd Skinner would merit criticism would be Fish Hoek has a robust White shark population and White sharks are man-eaters. If he or anyone else, disregards a known risk, they do so at their peril. You seem to focus on the unsubstantiated fact that Lloyd Skinner went for “his fatal swim, apparently close to a shoal of fish.” Tell me, from whence comes this “evidence” that there was a “shoal of fish” near the victim? Even assuming, arguendo, that there was a “shoal of fish” in the area, why is it relevant in any sociobiological analysis? Surely you don’t think the mature White shark confused a sea faring primate with a shoal of fish?

    You seem quite content to “blame” both Lloyd Skinner and another recent shark attack victim at Fish Hoek, Michael Cohen, for behaving irresponsibly…but, inexplicably, simultaneously contend that the documented behavior “cost sharks a very bad rap.” In what sense? That people will draw a proper inference that a predatory fish (White shark) that has always been known to prey on human beings- and did just that- is what people just observed with their own eyes, a man-eater? For someone critical of the public’s “ignorant reaction,” perhaps you could might reconcile the data for me. Because from my vantage point, it is you that incorrigibly reaches unfounded conclusions that do not comport with the data for all to see.

    For all your invocation of bee sting and vehicular mortality rates, the very premise of your blog (i.e., the victims were negligent) tends to show that the risk of attack in much higher than you contend, but even more so, that you misrepresent what the actual risk is to human beings in the end, i.e., becoming a meal.

    "Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away." –

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