Great whites -biting the hands that feed?
GRAHAMSTOWN, South Africa, May 15 -- Two musical notes were all it took to get audiences around the world to cringe in their seats at the thought of this underwater ‘demon’. The Great White shark has been globally feared since Spielberg and his blockbuster Jaws hit the big-screen in 1975. However, there are many individuals who still hold different feelings toward them.
Dr Matthew Dicken (Phd in Marine Biology– Rhodes University), who has dedicated his life to researching sharks and their living patterns. In March earlier this year, he collaborated with SciFest Africa with the hopes of encouraging the decriminalisation of the Great White Sharks amongst school learners.
Significant debate has ignited over the past two months’ events, where National Geographic were granted a permit issued by Alan Boyd from the Department of Environmental Affairs in South Africa (despite public disapproval), which was subsequently followed by a recent fatality.
The grant legalised the active dumping of 5,000kgs of chum (fish guts and fleshy meat which is released into the ocean) into False Bay and Gaansbaai waters in order to attract sharks to their station to be tagged and logged. Chris Fischer, a US documentary film-maker, had been busy working with National Geographic on the documentary series Shark Men.
David Lilienfield (20), South African bodyboarding champion, fell victim to a fatal shark attack at the Caves (a hot surf-spot situated in Kogel Bay, Cape Town, South Africa), on 19 April 2012. This sparked monumental controversy regarding the danger posed by the Great White Shark along Cape Town’s coastline. The attack happened only three days after National Geographic’s chumming had occurred in the nearby waters.
Similar aggressive attention was experienced only a month prior to the fatal incident, where Cape Town locals responded disapprovingly to the shark-research permit having been granted to Fischer.
Local public disapproval spawned from the warning of the further fuelling of the shark attack patterns which have already plagued Cape Town and its surrounding waters over the recent years.
History of attacks
Great White fatal attacks on humans maintain a history in local Cape Town waters.
In 2010, a Zimbabwean tourist was attacked in chest-high water; in 2005 a spear-fisherman was taken; as well as a female swimmer (77), all happening within the surrounding areas of False Bay.
“From what we understand, sharks attack humans for three primary reasons,” Explains Dicken. “These include the shark mistaking you for food, as they have poor eyesight, or it might become aggressive as it feels threatened by the invasion of someone or something entering its territory, or it is hungry and there is no food at its disposal”.
When asked whether he is pro-ecotourism (shark-cage diving), Dicken agreed that it was a contentious issue.
“As far as studies have proved, shark-cage diving cannot be blamed for the increase in shark activity off the coast of South Africa, however, studies are subject to change.” Ecotourism began in the early ‘90’s, and shark activities were on the increase around 2000/2001. The dates don’t collate”.
“Shark-cage tourist centres are not permitted to chum.” Instead they use a mixture of fish oils which are released into the water, which scent attracts the sharks towards the boat.
Great White sharks are known solitary animals who maintain migration patterns every two to three months. Studies lead researchers such as Dicken to believe that with minimal baiting tactics such as the fish oils with the combination of the migrating individuals, it would be highly unlikely for the shark to form the association between humans and food.
“The act of attracting the same individual shark would have to be repeated with the incentive of reward, in this case, the reward of food.”
However, Dicken does provide another angle on the contestation of baiting. “If let us imagine, a lot of chumming does occur within a bay over a lengthy period of time, it is very possible that it could lead them closer to shore”.
Locals name and shame
Although Alan Boyd retracted the permit originally issued to the National Geographic Research Team hours after Lilienfield’s death, the permits were recently re-issued, allowing for the continuation of the five ton chumming until its expiration on 31 May 2012.
So far, National Geographic and the Department of Environmental Affairs reject any possible link between the research being carried out and Lilienfield’s death. This has caused mass upset within the Cape Peninsula’s local community,
Ilan Sheer, a fellow surfer and student (at The Cape Peninsula University of Technology) alongside the late David Lilienfield, speaks up in defence of his friend’s death and the Great White.
“I do think his death had to do with the chumming permit,” Sheer explained. “The reason is that even though the chum had been released into the water during the days prior to the attack, we had very strong South-Easterly winds which as a result blew the chum closer to Kogel Bay. A shark has an incredible sense of smell. Sharks smell blood and therefore follow its scent”.
Despite Lilienfield’s death, Sheer who has been surfing since he was five years old, acknowledges that it is the sharks’ territory.
“It is the danger we take in order to do what we love.”
Sheer who has encountered sharks while surfing the local waters, maintains a deep respect for the animal.
“My view on sharks has not changed. They are creatures of this earth that deserve respect. It is rather my feelings towards National Geographic and the shark tagging teams which have changed.”
People from all over the globe travel half way across the world to witness The Great White Shark phenomenon in Cape Town. One can only hope that this encourages the conservation and a better understanding of the nature of these creatures. It is clear that regardless of whether Lilienfield’s death can or cannot be linked directly to the current research being conducted, one cannot hold the sharks responsible.
For more information and related stories, visit:
• Shark Life Conservation Group
• Keep Feeding the Sharks
• National Geographic Channel – Shark Men
• Marine Dynamics Shark Tours