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Eastern Cape - Lifeguards were forced to watch helplessly as a shark repeatedly attacked a 72-year-old Austrian visitor in waist-deep water.
The attack on Saturday was the ninth in as many years at Port St Johns in the Eastern Cape.
An hour later Siphosoxolo Njila, Sizwe Dusubana and William James were able to jump into dangerous waters to extract the mangled body near the rocks at Second Beach.
The man was part of a 15-member group from Austria, which included his wife, with whom he was swimming when the shark attacked.
It was her shrill screams that caught the attention of the off-duty lifeguards, who were enjoying a day on the beach.
Njila said he ran to where the screams were coming from and saw the man being pushed into the air as the shark bit into the lower part of his body from behind. He said it was about 2pm and the tide was just coming in. The man had been waist deep in the water, facing inland.
“He then turned around to face the shark and tried to hit it on the head but its jaws were open and his arm fell right between its teeth and the arm was gone,” he said.
Dusubana said the man then tried to run, but chunks of flesh were already missing from his legs and he fell, turning the muddied water red.
The trio, who are trained lifeguards but are only employed by the local municipality during the festive season, watched helplessly as the man fought for his life.
“He collapsed and the current started dragging him out to sea,” said Njila.
For 20 minutes they watched as his head bobbed in and out of the water as the shark continued to bite him. When the body was recovered, the flesh from his legs, one thigh and his lower abdomen had been devoured. His one hand and forearm were missing.
James said they phoned for help, to get a boat to assist the man, to no avail. “We went out on to the street and stopped cars asking if people had boats or jet skis.”
About an hour later, they were told the body was floating back to shore. They climbed on to the sharp rocks and braved the water to swim about 30m to grab the man.
“We pulled him out of the water trying not to hold him where he was bitten,” said James.
The man’s wife was so traumatised that her companions had to hold her back from going in after him. They took her back to the lodge where they were staying, leaving their tour guide to follow the recovery mission, said Njila.
The tour guide was so shaken, he would not speak to the Daily News.
James said he had seen shark attacks before but never one where the flesh was ripped clean off, revealing the bones.
James said he had not been able to eat.
Dusubana said he could not get the image of the pale body floating in the ocean out of his mind. The water had been dirty and brown, making the man’s white, bloodless body visible even after the current dragged him about 50m out to sea.
Njila said he would for ever be haunted by the man’s eyes.
“He was floating face down when we pulled him in. Then I saw his eyes, they were still open, he was looking at me.”
The body was taken to Lusikisiki and a representative from the KZN Shark’s Boards is expected to examine it today.
The man’s tour group was barricaded in the lodge and the staff said they were given strict instructions not to disturb them.
Neil Clayton and Amanda Weeidenburg, who own a backpackers’ lodge nearby, ran to the beach after being told of the attack.
They passed the man’s hysterical wife as she was being escorted away from the scene.
Clayton covered the body with a sarong as a crowd gathered, some taking photographs. A gruesome photograph has since been posted on social networks much to the ire of some residents.
Although there were two policemen on scene, Clayton said there was very poor crowd management. They asked their staff to bring more blankets from the lodge to cover the body as it lay on the shore for another hour before a mortuary van arrived.
The small town of Port St Johns thrives on tourism, with international and local holidaymakers flocking in most weekends. Second Beach is a favourite, despite the powerful currents which have dragged many people out to sea. The current on the 1km stretch of shore is so notorious, it has come to be known as “Suckers”. The couple had advised their own lodgers not to swim.
The Austrian group had just had lunch at a restaurant owned by Juliet Leslie. Leslie said it was the man who had died who had paid the bill and they had shared a dance when the group had dined there the night before.
“After they ate, his wife asked me if there was a path to the beach, it is so sad that that path led her husband to his death, I can’t imagine what she is going through,” said Leslie.
She believes that had there been lifeguards, they would have known that the conditions at sea were ideal for sharks and warned people not to swim. Lifeguards sit idle until the festive season which is the only time they are employed.
Veteren surfer Michael Gatcke, said although he understood the municipality was cash-strapped, lifeguards for the beach needed to be prioritised due to the number of drownings and shark attacks.
He had witnessed Zama Ndamase, 16, get bitten by a shark three years earlier. Ndamase had learnt to surf under Gatcke’s tutelage and went out even after Gatcke’s surf school closed. Gatcke had just held a memorial service for his surfing protégé on the beach in January.
He lives on a property on which he also runs a lodge with Catherine Yazbek. From their veranda, they have a view of the beach.
“This is an amazing view, but when I look out at it, I want to cry because of all the lives lost there,” said Yazbek
Gatcke said it was not feasible to close the beach as it was the most accessible one along the Wild Coast, but something needed to be done.
He has started a co-operative with some of the lifeguards who are trained but unemployed for most of the year. “We tried to get a contract to guard the beaches all year, but that did not materialise.”
They are now seeking funding to sponsor the R150 a day wage for lifeguards and to print material to warn beachgoers of the dangers of swimming on Second Beach.
“When the sea looks like it did yesterday, dirty and still, we want to put up a black flag to inform people it’s ideal shark conditions and dangerous for them... It may save a lot of lives,” said Gatcke.
John Costello, of the National Sea Rescue Service who arrived after the tourist’s body was ashore, echoed this.
He said awareness campaigns needed to be run on the beach and on radio. He also called on the municipality, police and lifeguards to enforce laws and possibly close the beach on suspect days.
He also urged studies to be done to determine what had changed in the sea conditions or the environment in the area to spur the attacks.
Before 2005, he said there were no shark attacks in the area and research needed to be done to get back to zero shark deaths, he said.