Humans are not on sharks' menu, says expert

Jo-Anne Smetherham

November 25 2004 at 07:15AM

Large numbers of Great White sharks are swimming just beyond the False Bay breakers, close to swimmers and scores of surfers.

These sharks have daily opportunities to attack people.

That attacks are very rare proves that the sharks have little interest in hunting humans and gives lie to the current hysteria about shark attacks, say experts.

The media and lifesavers have received reports of increasing numbers of sharks off Fish Hoek and other beaches after the fatal attack on Tyna Webb last week.

 

'I don't think that sharks have learnt to associate humans with an easy meal'

 

A veteran swimmer, Webb, 77, of Fish Hoek was repeatedly attacked by a Great White shark on Monday morning, November 15. Webb swam at Jager Walk daily and was about 150m from the shore when the shark attacked.

Webb's body was not recovered. All that was found was her red bathing cap.

On Tuesday when Cape Times photographer Andrew Ingram flew from Strandfontein to Kalk Bay in a Base 4 helicopter he photographed 11 sharks in the four-and-a-half-kilometre distance.

The sharks ranged from an estimated three to six metres. Five were spotted around 150m from the shore at Muizenberg, not far from the popular surfing spot at Muizenberg corner.

Shark experts acknowledge that 11 was "a lot of sharks" - but say it was not necessarily an increase on previous years.

'I'm amazed they are not interested in people. Nobody knows why not' They agreed that the shark population "would not suddenly have exploded". It takes up to 15 years before a female can reproduce.

"It's important that readers are aware the sharks are out there," said Geremy Cliff, head of research for the Natal Sharks Board.

"But I don't think that sharks have learnt to associate humans with an easy meal."

It was "a bit of a thumbsuck", but there were probably fewer than 100 Great Whites in False Bay, he said.

"If a White Shark wanted to eat people, a person is not difficult to target," said marine conservationist Chris Fallows. "I'm amazed they are not interested in people. Nobody knows why not."

"But people have got to be aware that, if we wipe out their natural food sources such as smaller sharks, which are being commercially exploited, then more attacks could occur in future."

The shark experts agreed that it was "highly unlikely" that rogue sharks were responsible for the recent attack on Webb, surfer JP Andrew and Gansbaai poacher Nkosinathi Mayaba.

"If a shark believed people were easy pickings, it could easily have attacked in the months between these attacks," said Cliff.

"People are in the water a lot more often than they used to be, so we are bumping into the sharks more often," said Mark Dotchin, Western Province Lifesaving chairman.

Since 1990, there have been nine fatal shark attacks in Cape waters.

Len Compagno, head of the Shark Research Unit at Iziko SA Museum, said that while around two million people would die of Aids-related illnesses in sub-Saharan Africa in 2004 year, around 29 000 will die of smoking-related diseases and 408 drown, "we are not giving these things the same attention as sharks".

"We have never seen the same behaviours among sharks as the documented stories of man-eating lions and tigers," Compagno said.

"For some reason taking people doesn't work for them. Even the exceptions seem to prove the rule."

Sharks are inquisitive animals, he said.

It was not known whether sharks attack people out of curiosity, aggression or an intention to feed.

"We know the sharks are there," said National Sea Rescue Institute spokesperson Craig Lambinon.

"The NSRI is asking people to be vigilant, preferably not to swim too deep and to obey the lifeguards."

Lifeguards at Fish Hoek and other beaches have put up flags to mark out swimming spots.

Fish Hoek and Muizenberg lifesavers have sirens, which warn people to get out of the water if a shark is seen.

On Tuesday Ian Klopper of the National Sea Rescue Institute warned surfers he had seen a five metre Great White while flying overhead in a helicopter. Many ignored his warning, carrying on surfing.

"If sharks really wanted to attack people, Muizenberg corner would be a yum-yum factory," a source said.

This article was originally published on page 1 of Cape Times on November 25, 2004