BY STEVE PIKE
Much of our mortal fear
about sharks is without substance, although certain precautions should be taken. After all, the ocean is suited more for fish
However, surfers, unlike
your regular landlubber, tend to take chances. They push their luck. They surf when there are shoals of fish around, such
as sardines or mullet, or when floodwater from rivers deposits organic material in the sea, making the water brown and murky.
This happens in the Transkei and KwaZulu Natal, when summer rains swell the rivers.
Some South African surfers
ignore bleeding cuts, and continue surfing. The author has been guilty of this when surfing in the Transkei. Also, twice I have continued surfing after seeing a shark, once in the
Transkei when a large hammerhead cruised
past, and another in Port Alfred, when a 2 metre ragged tooth was caught off the West Pier during a heat in a university surfing
Some sharks, particularly
the beautiful Great White, are seen as killing machines blindly and constantly on the hunt for blood. This is not necessarily
true. They are generally elusive, wary and selective in their hunting habits.
When they attack people,
it is often a mistake, although there have been cases of Great Whites coming back for seconds.
South Africa is home to a number of species that have been known to attack people. The bulk of attacks come from the Ragged Tooth,
Tiger, Zambezi, Hammerhead and Great White sharks. However, it is the 'unholy trinity' of
the Tiger, Zambezi (Bull) and Great White that make up the majority of attacks on humans.
However, it must be stressed
that surfing is a safe sport in South Africa,
especially if the right precautions are taken.
For the Great White,
perhaps the most maligned of the shark species, contributing to the most hype and hysteria, there is plenty of prey. The Great
White feeds mostly off huge colonies of Cape fur seals, which numbers in the hundreds of thousands off the Cape.
Remember, the number
of shark attacks are relatively rare. You have far more chance of being killed by a falling coconut in Thailand than being
killed by a shark in South Africa, so don't get all woesie about going surfing. For more information about sharks, check out
this web site http://www.oceanstar.com/shark, a fascinating shark resource.
South Africa recognises the value that Great Whites play in our eco-system. The species, which came close to being endangered
a few years ago, is protected by law. South Africa
pioneered an international convention to protect Great Whites from attack by humans.
There are a number of
myths about sharks that need to be straightened out. Sharks don't especially like humans. In fact, they try and avoid them
where possible. People are not their normal prey. Most Great White attacks on surfers occur as a result of mistaken identity
In most cases, a shark
will back off after realising it's mistake. Sadly, the damage done to the victim during the initial hit can - in rare cases
- be enough to end their life.
A common perception is
that sharks are stupid. However, it has been proved that they are complex creatures that can even be trained.
Many people think sharks
are virtually blind, but have sensitive hearing and sonar capabilities to detect prey. While sharks are sensitive to noise
- they can detect potential prey thrashing about in the water - this is a fallacy. Sharks see different colours, and have
good eyesight, often many times more sensitive to light than human eyes.
The Great White uses
sight as the primary means to "lock on" for an attack.
Neither are sharks scavengers
or feeding machines constantly hunting for food. Most sharks have specific diets. Great Whites, for instance, mostly prefer
seals. Some sharks eat plankton. Others snack on fish.
In the False Bay area
of South Africa, Great White sharks have
been known to exhibit similar patterns to Killer Whales. When attacking a seal, they have been known to strike their victim
from beneath, hitting the hapless mammal into the air.
On it's way down, the
seal is caught in the convulsing jaws of the shark. The Great White has the ability of making it's jaws protude, giving it
more elasticity when devouring prey. During the chase, Great Whites often leap into the air. So does the Mako shark.
There have been shark
attacks in South African waters. With the introduction of nets, the number of attacks decreased dramatically in KwaZulu Natal,
a traditional hunting ground for the Zambesi and Tiger sharks, two lively predators. The most sharky spots, where at least
one attack has been recorded in the last 10 years, are Ntlonyane (Transkei), Nahoon Reef (East London), Igoda Mouth (East
London), Fish Boma (Knysna), Amanzimtoti (KwaZulu Natal), Gonubie Point (East London), Gansbaai (near Hermanus) and Keurboomsstrand
PLAY IT SAFE
To reduce the rare chance
of attack, follow these simple rules:
don't surf at dawn or dusk;
don't surf near river mouths in flood;
don't piss in your wetsuit;
don't surf with a bleeding wound.
The author lived and
surfed in the Transkei - traditionally
viewed as a sharky spot - for 10 years and only saw a shark once while surfing (see above reference to hammerhead shark).
Timing is another factor when surfing the East Coast of the country. The best times of the year are autumn, winter and early
spring, between March and October. The summer months are hot and humid, with a lot of rain, which makes the water more sharky
Bull or Zambezi
It's much smaller than
the Great White or Tiger - up to 3 metres. It's a heavy looking fish - hence the name Bull - and accounts for many attacks
in KwaZulu Natal and Transkei. Common
in warm seas, especially around river mouths, it travels up rivers looking for food. When the Transkei rivers are in flood, cows and other animals drown and are washed downstream.
Apparently, some Zambezi sharks have been found 3700 km from the sea in the Amazon! Known
as an opportunistic feeder, the Zambezi often attacks without reason.
Perhaps the most dangerous
shark. Lives in tropical waters. Common off the coast of KwaZulu Natal. Grows big, up to
6m. Not as discerning as the Great White. When it attacks, it keeps going with particular voracity. Has been known to bite
or bump boats.
Great White Shark
Grows to 6 metres. Second
to the killer whale as a marine predator. Feeds on seals. Found off the waters of the Cape.
Nomadic, elusive and wary fish. Known to breach while chasing prey. A beautiful prehistoric beast.