I guess most people will have read about or seen the shark vs Mick Fanning incident during the final of the J-Bay World Surf League Open Championship on Sunday 19th July. It seemed to go viral.
The final between Julian Lewis and Mick Fanning (both from Australia) had just started, but was cancelled after the incident. The two finalists shared 2nd place and the price money.
See the video here:
Looking at the map below (click for a larger version), on the south-east coast you can see that this ‘attack’ happened close to where I am from. I was born in Grahamstown, grew up in Port Elizabeth (spending a lot of time in Jeffrey’s Bay) and then moved back to Grahamstown to study. I also lived in Cape Town and spent part of my honeymoon at Gansbaai. One of the densest known great white shark populations in the world lives around Gansbaai – Dyer Island – which makes the area a prime shark research location.
I grew up by the sea, learned to swim before I went to school and used to swim competitively – 400m butterfly and 100m butterfly in the medley relay. If you ever wonder why I have huge shoulders – that’s why! I also trained as a lifesaver when I was at school. I spent lots of time hanging around surfers on the beach – one of my friends is the 2014 South African Longboard champion and his children have been surfing since they could just about walk – here is David’s son Kye at the age of 10 – already a surfing champion.
…so I am comfortable in and around water and being able to look after myself in it….BUT I have always hated:
- being out of my depth in the sea
- swimming in the sea or in a lake, river or dam
- murky water
- feeling things brushing against my leg in the water. Seaweed, fish, debris (just writing it gives me the willies)
- swimming in the dark
- bubble curtains/bubble nets*
And when things like this Fanning incident happen (though the chances are very slim), I understand why I feel that way. We all grew up knowing our waters had sharks. Most of South Africa’s beaches do not have shark nets, and the great white shark has been a protected species in South Africa since 1991, so they may not be killed. Instead there is a warning system with shark spotters and flags (no flag means there is no spotter). South Africa has 11 official languages so all notices are in several of them.
Sharks are beautiful. I love them. Particularly Great Whites. I have always felt that the sea is their territory and we encroach on it. And surfers feel that way as well. They care about the sea and the creatures that are in it. As Mick Fanning said ‘in our sport we always think about sharks and know we are in their domain’.
Opinions vary on what type of shark Mick Fanning encountered, with most people feeling it was a Great White (or maybe a blacktip or bull shark) between 3 and 5 metres, probably young, probably curious rather than hungry. It, in all likelihood, became caught in Mick’s leg rope while nosing around. If it was on the attack it would probably have bitten right through his board or his legs immediately. Instead it was thrashing around to get free, though even then a threatened animal will usually attack. Whatever happened, one bite and he would have been a goner. He is physically fine but it will probably take a long time to get past the mental trauma. He was a hair’s breadth away from death – literally (in the true sense of the word).
And THIS is why I think Great Whites are beautiful! Taken by Chris Fallows in South Africa. Read about him and his wife Monique’s process and the habitat they work in when photographing these denizens of the deep. I collect postcards by Chris Fallows as he really does take the best photographs of the Great White. There is another spellbinding article by Chris here
*bubble nets or curtains (photo below)
Quite simply a curtain of bubbles used instead of nets. The sound of the air rising from the ocean floor to the surface confuses the sharks by stimulating their auditory systems, while the bubble barrier blurs the sharks’ vision and blocks chemical smells from reaching them. By altering the bubble size, air pressure, and air flow rate of the device, bubble curtains can produce hydrodynamic cues that may affect shark behaviour. The curtains are designed to deter the sharks from passing through the bubble curtain into a cordoned off area, presumably where swimmers and surfers would be near the shore.
These nets are more environmentally friendly as sea creatures do not become caught in them. But opinions vary as to how effective they actually are.