Image: Shark alert
Jason C. Miller  /  AP
While shark attacks aren't overly common — more people perish because of bees, wasps and snakes — the threat fills surfers and beachgoers with fear.
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updated 5/18/2007 10:04:56 AM ET 2007-05-18T14:04:56

Just when you thought it was safe again to watch online videos of graceful surfers riding magnificent swells at the world’s best beaches — all the while thinking: “Sure, I could do that!” — along comes footage from South Africa that’ll have you contemplating the merits of stamp collecting instead.

The video in question was shot on a perfect, blue-sky day — summer on one of the southern hemisphere’s loveliest coastlines — and perhaps what’s so alarming is how inviting the Indian Ocean looks. Actually, no: strike that. Most alarming is what happens at the exact moment a young blonde surfer begins to “cut in” on his wave.

The scene, captured on home video camera, involves not one but two great white sharks pouncing on the unfortunate hotshot — first from his left, then from his right. It’s a “hit and run” ambush, plain and simple, and yet the lucky surfer survives it, walking away with a harrowing tale, a board full of teeth marks (wow, those jaws are wide), and a severely bandaged right arm and hand.

The short, riveting movie, available online at multiple venues including YouTube, is credited as taking place at Jeffrey’s Bay near Port Elizabeth, or J-Bay as it is known in the worldwide surfing community, one of South Africa’s most famous surfing beaches (and home each July to the Billabong Pro surfing competition).

The fact is, it doesn’t matter which beach, exactly, because it could have happened almost anywhere along South Africa’s eastern coastline — from Cape Town, up the gorgeous Garden Route, and beyond to Durban. The entire area is famously shark infested, some spots more notoriously so than others. The fishing village of Gansbaai, near Cape Town, for example, is known as Shark Alley for its unrivaled density of great whites. And the mouth of Kosi Bay, in KwaZulu Natal, is known for its aggressive Zambezi, or bull sharks. Of course, sharks populate large bodies of water — they don’t stalk individual beaches (or surfers). However, it’s possible to create a list of some of the more shark-infested beaches of the world.

One of our sources was the Florida Musuem of Natural History, which, along with the American Elasmobranch Society, administers the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), a compilation of all known shark attacks from the mid-1500’s to the present day. The ISAF also serves as an educational resource to put shark attacks, and shark conservation, in perspective.

The ISAF reports, for example, that more people perish because of bees, wasps and snakes — or from drowning, for that matter — than from shark attacks. (And in fact, more beachgoers have to get stitches for damage from shells than from sharks) And yet shark attack is a primal fear — and a hazard that, however slim, can have gruesome results.

It makes sense that the ISAF is hosted in Florida. The Sunshine State and one of its beaches — New Smyrna, on the central east coast — holds the dubious honor of being the shark-attack capital of the world. But even this fact tells us something else about the relativity of shark-attack data (for example, that a lot of people are in the water in Florida).

Volusia County’s New Smyrna is one of those fine coastal destinations for which Florida is famous. Surrounded on all sides by water — the Atlantic Ocean, the Intracoastal Waterway, Mosquito Lagoon and Indian River — and boasting excellent subtropical weather (warm and comfortable summers plus warm and comfortable winters), the laid-back seaside community attracts a high density of visitors: surfers, anglers, swimmers and tourists.

New Smyrna’s well-surfed, sub-tropical waters are also ideal for sharks — tigers, blacktips, spinners and many others. A high density of sharks and a high density of people ... you begin to understand the problem.

Conventional wisdom has it that those last two, blacktip and spinner sharks, especially youngsters, are the cause of most incidents in New Smyrna’s waters. There are indeed shark-related fatalities, but most encounters are simply cases of mistaken identity (a hungry, disoriented shark nips an unwitting tourist — so many to choose from) and the results, if not minor, certainly end without loss of life.

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Of the more than 400 shark species in the world, says the ISAF, only about 30 types are known to have attacked humans. And only three have a reputation for the highest number of “unprovoked” attacks: great whites, tiger sharks, and bull sharks (the last, known as Zambezi sharks in South Africa, have earned a particularly bad reputation for their mix of aggression and ability to swim upstream into shallow freshwater rivers and inlets).

To compile a list of the most shark-dangerous beaches also means going to waters that are home to these three ocean predators. And so we find ourselves in Hawaii — which boasts a large number of tiger sharks — and in the seal-rich waters of Northern California, in an area known as the “Red Triangle” stretching from Bodega Bay to Ano Nuevo Island near Santa Cruz and out to the Farallon Islands (beyond San Francisco’s Golden Gate). The triangle includes Tomales Bay, Stinson Beach and the famously reclusive Western Marin enclave of Bolinas. Here, great whites lurk in vast numbers, and when a favorite surfing spot or abalone diving area happens to be just beyond the mouth of a bay or lagoon that also serves as a hatchery for seal pups. Well, you can see the potential for trouble.

Our quest also takes us to the seal-rich waters of Australia — the east coast, more densely populated, sees more shark attacks annually, and yet the south coast sees more fatalities because of its great whites, or pointers as they are locally known — and to South Africa. Here, great whites are known for leaping fully out of the water as they attack, and swimming with these magnificent creatures (in protective cages!) has become something of a tourist attraction.

Sources differ as to which of the three spots—Northern California, Australia or South Africa — holds the record for the highest number of attacks. We’ve read the reports and seen the photographs. We’re here to tell you: it’s a moot point. Be careful.

But also put the issue in context. The relationship between sharks and humans is a complicated one, fraught with misunderstandings, primal instincts and base fears. Our research tells us that with overfishing and hunting, sharks are actually getting the short end of the stick. Many species require conservation efforts to keep them from the brink of extinction.

That’s one context. Here’s another: the next time you go the beach (especially one on our list here) whatever you do, avoid black wet suits and seal-like behavior.

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