When the most fa­mous surf­ing shark in­ci­dent hap­pened be­fore my eyes, as well as in front of the eyes of my whole fam­ily, one could say that it rat­tled the cage. Fan­ning was sit­ting ex­actly where I usu­ally sit when I surf out at Su­pers, and to be honest, I haven’t both­ered much ever since. Some surfers are seem­ingly un­af­fected, pad­dling out ten min­utes after a sight­ing, while oth­ers, like my­self, get in­tensely in­flu­enced by the pres­ence of sharks.

This year it didn't make things any bet­ter when that grey boy came strut­ting through the line-up dur­ing the J-bay Open, al­though on the drone footage it was most def­i­nitely in cruise mode, go­ing for a soli­tary me­an­der up the point. It was still a startling mo­ment for spec­ta­tors, the surfers, and my­self to wit­ness such a thing.

I was chatting to Surf­ing Aus­tralia National Coach, Andy King, who had been tak­ing Ju­lian Wil­son on a few free surfs when there was time, and Kingy de­scribed a lit­tle beach break around the cor­ner from my house that he had been surf­ing with the world num­ber three. It has a rep­u­ta­tion of be­ing one of the sharki­est spots around, with the lo­cal fish­er­man al­ways com­ing in with shark sto­ries. I told Kingy as such, call­ing him a bloody id­iot or pos­si­bly words stronger than that.

“I felt them,” said Kingy. “When Jules got a wave and I was sit­ting out the back, I kinda sensed them. It would have been nice to have a few more guys out.”

“It’s crazy to surf out there,” I sug­gested. “Mate. We see so many of them all the time back home now. I’m def­i­nitely a lit­tle im­mune to the dan­gers,” reck­oned Kingy. “Thing is, what are you go­ing to do if more of ‘em start com­ing? What if this is the start of some­thing” You can’t stop surf­ing now mate, it’s too late.”

“Yeah, but,” I ad­mon­ished. “There are places with less sharks than that par­tic­u­lar cor­ner!”

“We’ve all been through a lot in our lives, and I reckon we might have to be a lit­tle bit more re­laxed about it,” replied Kingy. “Many of us are lucky to be alive to­day. I’m lucky to be alive. We just got to be cool with it, and go surf­ing. I mean, don’t be stupid about it, and get out when it gets full sketchy, but still, go surf­ing when you can, mate.”

Which is one, very en­cour­ag­ing way of look­ing at it.

There is a war rag­ing on all over the place though. Con­ser­va­tion­ists want to look after the sharks at the ex­pense of hu­man lives, shark cage divers want more of them, and want them to be ag­gres­sive and scary so that they can make piles of money off their high­fly­ing and op­u­lent thrill-seek­ing clients, while surfers and other ocean-go­ing peo­ple just want to see less of their peo­ple eaten alive.

Pro­lific The Aus­tralian news­pa­per jour­nal­ist, Fred Pawle, who pre­vi­ously penned a few mighty surf ar­ti­cles, wrote in a re­cent ar­ti­cle on the shark de­ba­cle that, “the shark de­bate, like most oth­ers th­ese days, con­sists mostly of opin­ions based on as­sump­tions or emo­tion. I can't ex­clude my­self from that, but the claim that peo­ple kill 100 mil­lion sharks a year is a good ex­am­ple. I've heard "sci­en­tists" re­peat this claim, but it's ut­ter rub­bish. A large chunk of that fig­ure es­ti­mates the num­ber of sharks killed in China, a coun­try that doesn't have bu­reau­cra­cies to record such statis­tics.”

There are many rea­sons be­lieved to be be­hind the fact that shark in­ter­ac­tions with hu­mans are es­ca­lat­ing on a daily ba­sis. On a world­wide scale it can be said that a greater hu­man pop­u­la­tion and one that is ever grow­ing, will see more hu­man ac­tiv­ity in the oceans of the planet. Along with this, thirty years of pro­tec­tion will see a species, whether orig­i­nally en­dan­gered or not, show num­bers growth. Th­ese two fac­tors, along with greater gen­eral sur­veil­lance fa­cil­i­ties like drones and the ever-present iphone cam­eras, en­sure that many in­ci­dents that would have gone by un­seen or un­recorded in years past, are now beamed into our worlds within min­utes of see­ing them. As our tech­nol­ogy ex­pands and im­proves, so too will we be able to see more in­ci­dents and start to re­alise just how many of them are around us at all times.

The fact re­mains that they gen­er­ally don't want to eat us or meet us, they just want to be able to cruise around and to find their seal break­fasts. They don’t want their seal break­fasts to be a soggy piece of car­pet, de­ployed to fool them into mak­ing Youtube stars out them at­tack­ing and think­ing it’s break­fast blub­ber.

Pawle, for one, finds the leg­is­la­tion be­hind the pro­tec­tion of the species galling, to put it mildly.

“De­spite decades of ex­pen­sive re­search, pre­cious lit­tle is known about shark abun­dance and be­hav­iour, which is why ev­ery time there is an at­tack we have the same fu­tile de­bate,” says Pawle. “It gets worse. It turns out Aus­tralia was em­phat­i­cally told the de­bate was ill in­formed in 2004, when a Ja­panese fish­ing of­fi­cial strongly ob­jected to our suc­cess­ful ap­pli­ca­tion to in­crease world­wide pro­tec­tion of Great Whites. The of­fi­cial ar­gued that the ap­pli­ca­tion was based on in­suf­fi­cient ev­i­dence and failed to con­sider the po­ten­tial of in­creas­ing at­tacks on peo­ple.”

Those peo­ple be­ing surfers, the ocean­go­ers, fam­i­lies and we who par­take in ocean­re­lated sports and past times.

Re­u­nion Is­land is prob­a­bly the most messed up surf and tourist des­ti­na­tion on the planet right now. In 1989 I went AWOL from my two years con­scrip­tion in the South African De­fence Force, and ended up in Re­u­nion, camp­ing in the for­est at St Leu. It was a place you could go and live, surf and slip into the re­laxed and fun is­land life.

Th­ese days you can still go and live there – pop­u­la­tion 850K in 2016, cli­mate trop­i­cal and hu­mid, wa­ter temp never be­low 23˚C – but you cant go and live a surf­ing life­style there any­more.

Adrien Du­bosc, an ex­pe­ri­enced lo­cal body­boarder, was bit­ten in April of this year on the leg while in the wa­ter at Pointe au Sel. De­spite CPR and res­cue ef­forts on shore, Du­bosc suc­cumbed to his in­juries and passed away.

That fa­tal­ity marked the 23rd at­tack on Re­u­nion Is­land since 2011 – the ninth fa­tal at­tack on the is­land – ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Shark At­tack File.

No one knows for cer­tain why the sharks ar­rived in such num­bers on the west cost of Re­u­nion, and why it hap­pened so quickly. It pos­si­bly be­gan with the cre­ation of a ma­rine re­serve on the west coast in 2007 along a stretch where many of the prime waves are to be found. More sharks at­tracted by more fish. Oth­ers blame the in­crease on a 1999 ban on shark meat be­ing sold. As a re­sult, fish­ing for sharks has all but ended.

The reef sharks were ap­par­ently over fished as well, close to erad­i­ca­tion in this lo­cale, the side ef­fect be­ing that they used to pre­date on the bull shark pups, so now there are many more adult bull sharks. Ei­ther way, the shark num­bers are out of whack and peo­ple are dy­ing.

While all this is go­ing on, the au­thor­i­ties are wring­ing their hands at the sit­u­a­tion, some­times putting in nets, and ban­ning surf­ing so that they can­not be blamed, and at other times send­ing out drones and armed pa­trol boats, but the truth is that the only way to cut down the shark ac­tiv­ity and at­tacks is to dras­ti­cally cut down the num­bers.

In Re­u­nion it’s not go­ing to hap­pen. The con­ser­va­tion­ists are hav­ing none of it. I doubt many, if any, are surfers, yet they con­tinue their some­what flawed ar­gu­ment that surfers are in the sharks’ ter­ri­tory, and when the tax­man comes we must cough up and pay their dues. It’s also known as ‘the brav­ery of be­ing out of range’ the­ory.

The most ap­palling at­tack, that saw the death of 13-year-old surfer Elio Canestri, at a beach called Les Agri­ettes, was ac­com­pa­nied by un­sub­stan­ti­ated ru­mours that the shark net, that was sup­posed to keep the beach safe, had been tam­pered with and had a hole in it. Some peo­ple said that it was pos­si­ble that shark con­ser­va­tion­ists were to blame. This was never proven. Let’s not for­get, too, that 11x world cham­pion Kelly Slater re­ceived death threats for sug­gest­ing there were too many sharks around Re­u­nion Is­land. The back­lash was so in­tense he is­sued a re­trac­tion. It is di­choto­mous. The is­land has lost what it’s big­gest at­trac­tions were – the beau­ti­ful beaches, for swim­ming, for fish­ing, for surf­ing. Surf and beach tourism has been scup­pered, ho­tels have closed down, surf shops are gone, surf schools erad­i­cated. You can­not swim in the ocean, and you’re risk­ing life if you swim in a la­goon.

Right now, the world over, there are very in­tel­li­gent and in­formed peo­ple work­ing on anti-shark de­vices. Much like the re­new­able en­ergy projects – so­lar en­ergy, wind en­ergy, re­cy­cling, and up­cy­cling – it is an in­dus­try seg­ment that is show­ing in­cred­i­ble growth. The prob­lem is that noth­ing has proven to be to­tally fool­proof, and many have proven to have no value what­so­ever and are just mark­ing spoofs. The most fa­mous an­ti­shark de­vice was the one in­vented by the Natal Sharks Board in South Africa, but that tech­nol­ogy was even­tu­ally sold and be­came Shark Shield.

On the Shark Shield web­site, the prod­uct is de­scribed as thus, “Shark Shield con­sists of two elec­trodes which, when both are sub­merged, emit a three-di­men­sional elec­tronic field that sur­rounds the user. When a shark comes within a few me­ters of the Shark Shield, the strong elec­tronic pulses emit­ted by the de­vice cause the shark to ex­pe­ri­ence mus­cle spasms. This does not harm the shark in any way, but merely causes it to ex­pe­ri­ence a high level of dis­com­fort. From test­ing, the closer the shark is to the Shark Shield field, the more spasms oc­cur in the sharks’ snouts, which re­sults in it turn­ing away from the elec­tronic field, thereby pro­tect­ing the user.”

Is it ef­fec­tive though? It’s not a sure thing. Some­times, in test­ing, the sharks do not seem too ha­rassed by the de­vice, while at other times they seem quite dis­tressed. Still, the elec­tronic field de­vices have a bet­ter record than the mag­netic de­vices. There was a much-pub­li­cised ac­count of a young surfer re­ceiv­ing such a de­vice – an anti-shark mag­netic bracelet – for Christmas from his mom. He headed out for a surf with the de­vice a day or two after Christmas, and was im­me­di­ately at­tacked by a shark, that bit him on his arm. It wasn't a se­ri­ous at­tack, the 16-year old Florid­ian surfer, Zack Davis, re­ceived 42 stitches to the arm – but it put into per­spec­tive in in­ad­e­quate re­search be­hind th­ese de­vices, even if they are be­ing sold on the open mar­ket.

The most es­tab­lished prod­uct the Shark Shield, but de­trac­tors say it’s too pricey, too cum­ber­some, and un­re­li­able. Then there’s Noshark, a surf leash that sends out an elec­tri­cal sig­nal that is said to af­fect sharks’ sense or­gans. Mean­while, a com­pany called Shark Mit­i­ga­tion Sys­tems makes a wet­suit with a “cryp­tic” pat­tern that it claims can “hide the wearer in the wa­ter col­umn.” And Shark Shocker sells four-foot-long stick­ers that look like ze­bra stripes and are sup­posed to be recog­nised by an­i­mals through evo­lu­tion to pro­vide a warn­ing to preda­tors. There is also a break through study us­ing com­pounds that only ex­ist after aer­o­bic de­cay of dead shark ma­te­rial. Known as ‘death sig­nals’, ap­par­ently sharks will avoid the taste or smell, as an evo­lu­tion­ary cue. There are surf leashes that are striped to re­sem­ble poi­sonous sea snakes. There is also an anti-shark surf­board wax called Chillax in de­vel­op­ment that shows po­ten­tial.

Ev­ery shark ar­ti­cle ev­ery pub­lished th­ese days how­ever, im­me­di­ately brings forth a plethora of screech­ing, in­dig­nant voices, from both sides of the de­bate. There is out­rage; there are threats of vi­o­lence, the wail­ing of voices, the gnash­ing of teeth and the bray­ing of church or­gans. What about our dear chil­dren? What about the poor sharks? What about our cage div­ing prof­itabil­ity? What about our pro­file among the Gree­nies? We live in a world of rad­i­cal hypocrisy.

The farmer heads out to get some sup­per by killing a chicken, or a young lamb, yet his cat and his two dogs are given beds by the heater.

A celebrity de­cries the eat­ing of meat as cru­elty to an­i­mals, and her­alds a ve­gan life­style, all the while wear­ing im­pec­ca­ble patent-leather shoes on the red car­pet.

Politi­cians sign for the pro­tec­tion of sharks, and sub­se­quently for the ban­ning of swim­ming in pub­lic places when they be­come over run by the preda­tors, re­fus­ing to ac­knowl­edge con­se­quences, re­fus­ing to ac­cept de­bate.

Gov­ern­ments fight for the en­vi­ron­ment and the quelling of cli­mate change, yet sign off nu­clear builds like Hink­ley.

Surfers read about dis­as­trous hap­pen­ings in their world of beaches and waves, yet few of us do any­thing about it ex­cept mut­ter un­der our breaths, or rant about it after a few jars at the pub.

How many of us ac­tu­ally join and get in­volved with a Surfrider Foun­da­tion, a Surfers Against Sewage, Save The Waves, Waves For Wa­ter? How many of us do­nate to a Shark Spot­ter type or­gan­i­sa­tion, or how many of us get to­gether and put up a shark emer­gency kit on our lo­cal beaches, or get to­gether to do CPR cour­ses and First Aid through our lo­cal surf clubs? We are a col­lec­tive ap­a­thy.

Ac­cord­ing to Pawle, the two sides of this de­bate are eas­ily char­ac­terised by their main pri­or­ity: hu­man life or an­i­mals. “Once you look at it this way," says Pawle, “you re­alise how chilling is the en­vi­ron­men­tal­ists' will­ing­ness to dis­miss the hu­man cost of shark con­ser­va­tion. Their in­abil­ity to em­pathise with other peo­ple, some of whom are trau­ma­tised for life, while seem­ingly em­pathis­ing with a dumb preda­tor, is fright­en­ing.”

One of the big­gest ob­sta­cle that is al­ready firmly en­trenched in the de­bate and shows now way of be­ing ex­tri­cated; is the belief that sci­ence can guide ethics. Both are worlds apart. Sci­en­tific re­sults can­not de­cree whether it is morally right to kill a shark so that hu­mans can swim with­out be­ing eaten. The an­swer de­pends en­tirely on what you value.

It is not pos­si­ble to save sharks and hu­mans at the same time, and it is highly un­likely that tech­nol­ogy is go­ing to rec­tify the sit­u­a­tion.

So ei­ther you value hu­mans or you value sharks. It’s left or right, black or white. There is ab­so­lutely noth­ing in be­tween.

As a surfer, you can­not stand back and watch, even if there are very few preda­tors in your wa­ters. The only ways surfers can have a say, what­ever it is, if we have num­bers be­hind. You are re­quired to get in­volved.

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