Cape shark attack – the story and background!

If you haven’t heard the news already – a South African body boarder has been killed in a shark attack at Dappat se Gat – a surf spot between Gordon’s Bay and Kogel bay (also known as ‘Caves’), Cape Town, South Africa.

The attack, it seems, has been blamed by some on the massive amount of chumming going on in the area by shark researcher and documentary filmmaker, Chris Fischer. The US-based filmmaker’s research permit has now been cancelled by Alan Boyd, director of Biodiversity and Coastal Research, saying  “this incident is a tremendous tragedy and I’m very shocked. No more field work will be proceeding from here on out.”

I recently listened to Fischer talk about great whites at the recent TEDxSeaPoint, where I was also fortunate enough to be a speaker. Fischer managed to convince a sceptical audience that his two-million-dollar investment in shark research, and following documentary, Shark Men, would be positive for great white shark conservation and research in South Africa. He was loud, confident and full of bravado for his cause.

His methods are highly, shall we say, unique. If you’ve seen the show already, Fischer and his OCEARCH team invest in a massive ship and winch system, which lifts the great white out of the water. Once they have lured the shark near enough, they then winch the bed up above the water and tag the shark with a remote tracking device – a unique method that allows researchers to follow females to unknown breeding sites.

Here’s a video from one of the Shark Men episodes

In order to attract the sharks in the first place, it’s necessary that Fischer and his team chum the water – which has led to much of the controversy surrounding the awarding of this permit in the first place.

Prior to this attack, a petition was sent around by critics attempting to have the permit revoked. It stated that both the lifting of sharks and tagging them is harmful to the animal. Perhaps the best known shark expert in South Africa – Chris Fallows – signed this petition too.

Fischer, in a telephone interview, said that those against the project were “an emotional, vocal, minority.” The petition, however, made no mention of the issue of chumming.

I’m not sure if the attack is related to recent chumming, although reports of sharks have been higher in False Bay of late. In a statement about the attack, Fischer said the team had moved on from the area since Monday. Either way, this all comes at an unfortunate time for Fischer and his crew, who, ironically, were investing much of their time and money into research and conservation of our great whites.

At the TEDx conference, when I heard him talk about his research and passion for the animals (not to mention the massive amounts of money he invests in this passion), I was quite touched. I’m always happy when wealthy people put their time, energy and money into worthy environmental causes. But, it seems there’s more to the story yet to play out – so I’ll hold my opinion on the matter for the moment.

What are your thoughts?

- Quotes from SAPA

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Paul Steyn spends his days submerged in the world of digital story telling. When coming up for air, he prefers it to be somewhere in the middle of the wilderness. He is obsessed with finding new and interesting waays to distribute content to all those who love and connect with Africa.

  • Marnie_23

     Surely, chumming at this time of year just magnifies the shark activity that naturally happens quite soon with the birth of the seal pups?  Sounds like a no-brainer.

  • Simon Espley

    The cynical and increasing use of wild animals as props in TV shows masquerading as research is worrying.  National Geographic should be ashamed of the role their TV shows play in objectifying and commoditising our wildlife.  The money would be better spent on real conservation strategies.

  • Simon Espley

    The cynical and increasing use of wild animals as props in TV shows masquerading as research is worrying.  National Geographic and their rambo presenters should be ashamed of the role their TV shows play in objectifying and commoditising our wildlife.  The money would be better spent on real conservation strategies.

    • Simon Borchert

      Could not agree more! Let’s also not forget the impact of SPOT tagging itself on sharks who are often left with badly deformed dorsal fins as a result of this “research”.

    • Tom Smith

      Well said! The result of this kind of unethical ‘research’ is usually a lucrative contract with National Geographic or some other wildlife channel, who only want ‘the shots’. This is not the first time National Geographic has entered these muddy waters, so to speak. Well done Alan Boyd!

  • Fiona Ayerst

    of course the attack is not related to the chum, the Ocearch boat was 100′s of kilometers away up the coats,  up to 3 days before the attack. perhaps if we stopped gorging ourselves on the oceans fish the sharks would have enough to eat. furthermore,  5 or more Tiger sharks were killed in the Natal Shark nets the day before which is massive cause for concern on all sorts of levels

  • Bmwatney

    We have for years been concerned with Chumming & contact with Great Whites. Especially in Gaans baai. Its not the area that concerns us as the GW’s travel great distances. Its chumming and contact with them that concerns surfers & Body Boarders, and all sea users. They are associating chum & tuna heads with food availability. They are coming to look whats happening. Chum is especially dangerous. We are not allowed to drag an Impala around Kruger National Park. Why would we be able to Chum for GW’s. Observation from a cage is fine, but no feeding or luring them in. Surfers take their chances in the water, for the love of the sport, but when people are able to alter nature in any way, they stand liable for the consequences. No more Chumming or inducing un-usual behavior without being liable for the consequences. Bruce Watney

    • Desi

      Yes. It seems to me that there is a sort of morality to fishing and hunting. I remember an afternoon spent with an erstwhile US ambassador to SA. Fishing on a Tongaat dam. It made me wonder about the ethics of this important fellow. We went fishing and he hung hooks on a number of 2 liter empty milk bottles, used them as floats and pulled them along behind the boat. That is not allowed by real fisherman.

      Are there hunting ethics? And do these extend to fishing, and even into tagging and research? Or is Man master of the universe with dominion over all creatures? We like to think we can control global warming, even that we caused it. Ugh…power rampant?

  • Atkinson Grant

    Thanks for the background write-up Paul.  It is not clear to me from what I have read whether Fischer actually uses a hook to catch the sharks?  If so that would increase the direct impact of the capture event on the sharks tremendously, both in terms of injury, and stress.
    Any more information you have in this regard would be interesting.

    • Paul Steyn

      Hey Grant – from what I know, the animal is lured to the area with chum, hooked, and then brought onto a flat bed that is submerged under water. The bed is then lifted out of the water. The weight of the shark apparently renders is very docile, so the researchers can go about their tagging.

  • Atkinson Grant

    Paul, thanks for your response and clarification.  Your point is equally valuable Simon, as the combined effect of struggle, injury and physical consequences of tagging all seem to be major stresses that Fischer is placing on the sharks themselves.  As I understood it, their goal was to capture and tag a high number of white sharks in this way.
    Personally don’t feel that this is necessarily the best thing for the sharks, perhaps tagging just a few might have less impact.
    I am not unhappy that their activities have been stopped.

  • Jeremy Goss

    This comment is aimed more at the general hype around this issue rather than this specific article or the responses to it…
    Animal attacks are an emotional subject, they tend to bring out the underlying fears in most of us. This is obviously tragic for the people involved and unfortunately for Chris Fischer there is no way that the people outspoken on the issue of chumming will leave him alone on this one. But there will be no way to prove that his activities led to this attack. According to himself (and it would be dangerous for his reputation to lie about these things) his boat released less chum daily than each of the three shark cage diving boats. Why was there not outrage against chumming for shark cage diving after the last shark attack? Why not now? I am not commenting on whether chumming for shark cage diving or research is wrong or right, nor about his Chris Fischer’s methods (although his findings will unarguably assist great white shark conservation ), but more that this is an unfortunate case of timing, which needs slightly less emotional analysis from those not immediately affected by the tragedy.

    • Bmwatney

      There has been for years, outrage at chumming, for as long as cage diving has been going on. Its just that there has been no set forum for sea users to object. Very little public participation and very little scientific proof with the build up of Cage Diving in popularity. It has been years in the making with Cage Diving, and debate has raged over the years, as we as surfers have seen a huge increase in “Close calls” with GW’s coming over and checking us out, and then dissappearing. GW’s are coming over to humans to see if there is food. We have had a  few very close shaves at Buffelo bay. That was unhear of until Cage Divers started Chumming and touching of GW’s. Is this chumming & touching worth the risk of precious water users lives. It endangers our Life Guards, bathers, Surfers etc. It so simple to stop. We not stopping Cage Diving or the money they make, just the chumming which we all know attracts Great Whites. Thats why they chum. Bruce Watney 

  • B M Watney

    It would seem we all agree, All of us, that chumming attracts Great Whites along the chum line. Question is how long does this chum stay in the water, where does it go, does it spark the GW into a search for food, and what does the GW do when it comes in contact with un-suspecting water user. Please may I answer my own questions. Chum can run in the current until expended by smaller fish. Currents run in any direction and close to shore. The Great White is triggered by chum into eating mode. He comes looking. He attacks. Why else would he come looking. Why would they gather in numbers, if it wer’nt for chumming. I have really spoken enough. Chumming & contact with Great Whites is a “No Brainer”. I don’t beleive there is a person on Earth that will defy that Chumming attracts &  stimulates Great Whites into feeding, and that can be devastating to water users & their families. Chumming & contact has to be stopped immediately until further research has been done by the appropriate authorities. Bruce Watney

  • Simon Bloch

    maybe he is selling shark fins to China? just saying…..

  • Celia Dean Williams

    As you do.  I reserve comment on the final outcome.  However good Fischer’s intentions may be I have many reservations about his methods.  Not being anything but a lay person I must consider all viewpoints from those who know what they are talking about.  However I would suggest that Fischer conduct his experiments closer to home and leave the conservation etc. of the oceans of South Africa to those who are already in place.  Throwing money at something may reveal a passion but in everything there needs to be a balance and a discipline which appears to be lacking in favour of passion over delicacy.  Hopefully a full investigation will ensue?  I tend to agree with Simon Espley.

  • Pied Piper

    When humans interfere with normal animal behaviour the result is often a change in the animal’s behaviour.  For example, most Capetonians are familiar with signs around the Peninsula “Don’t feed the Baboons”.  The reasons are well known – when fed by humans, baboons associate people with food, and their behaviour to humans changes, typically becoming more aggressive and less fearful of humans.  The worst offenders have to be shot or put down.  It’s inevitable that chumming of sharks is going to have an effect on sharks’ normal behaviour – probably in a similar way to baboons – making them more aggressive to humans.  Surely by now in the 21st century we should have learnt not to meddle with Nature!

  • Doris Charles

    I read this i cannot understand why they were filming near surfers and using chum which it would attract the sharks, this is bad enough when the shark kills someone without this happening surely the harbour would have told them its a no go area.

  • Lee Bennett

    Attracting predators to areas where people may swim shows a lack of responsibilty, research is needed but researching the area where research will take place is vitally important to all “users”.

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