Cape Town - “A classic case of mistaken identity.” This is how shark conservation authorities are seeing Friday’s shark attack off Muizenberg beach, from which UCT student Matthew Smithers escaped with his life.
The 20 year old was rescued by fellow surfers after his legs were severely gashed by a great white.
Gregg Oelofse, the City of Cape Town’s Head of Environmental Policy and Strategy at the Environmental Resource Management Department (ERMD), reported: “We’re now pretty certain the shark hit him just once. There was only one bite - the bottom teeth “grabbed” his board, while the top cutter teeth came down on his legs. It then circled him once and then swam away.”
The shark may have mistaken him for a seal. The attack took place 300m to 400m from shore.
“There was quite a lot of swell, so Matthew was quite far out. He was part of the line-up on the back line,” Oelofse explained. “Obviously we prefer people surfing closer to Boyes’ Drive, to Surfers’ Corner, but it was a busy day out on the water.”
“From the measurement of the bite marks we’re pretty sure it was around 3.8m long, he said of the shark.
“The animal’s presence so far in-shore was a bit out of season for us. We haven’t had any sightings inshore for a long time - we only expect them towards the end of August,” Oelofse said.
Shark expert Dr Alison Kock explained: “Shark sightings recorded by the Shark Spotters have consistently shown a seasonal peak in shark sightings from September to April, peaking in mid-summer. Typically shark sightings start in late August.
“Research has revealed that most white sharks in False Bay are juveniles and sub-adults, and that while males and females aggregate around the seal colony over winter months - female white sharks come inshore during spring and summer months.
“Furthermore, the research has shown that one’s chances of encountering a white shark on the inshore in False Bay significantly increases when the water is warmer, around 18°C and over, and during new moon, due to increased feeding opportunities on fish and smaller shark species,” Kock said.
Oelofse said: “It’s possible that the Indian Summer we had over the past week, with gentle south-easters and warm weather - more like spring conditions than winter - was responsible for the animal being close-in.
“There are patterns to these animals, but we still know so little that there’s also possibility for variability. In this particular case, I would argue that this was a classic case of mistaken identity - some sort of seal or prey.
“Matthew had severe puncture injuries, but not a proper bite if it was a proper predation. It was probably more of an exploratory bite. If that shark had bitten with its full strength, Matthew’s legs would have been off - and it would most likely have been fatal.
“Matthew was very lucky that he wasn’t bitten with major force. The shark would also have moved between a lot of surfers on its way in and out - and yet there were no other incidents.
“So we suspect the shark recognised, after one bite, that Matthew wasn’t what it thought he was.
“This reinforces our view that sharks extremely seldom deliberately predate on humans. Globally and in Cape Town waters you’ll have just one bite. Unfortunately, that’s sometimes severe enough to take a life, though.”
In an interview with the Weekend Argus from his bed in Vincent Pallotti Hospital, Smithers said he had “no hard feelings against Mother Nature”.
“I just want to thank everyone, the other surfers, the City of Cape Town, the paramedics, they were awesome,” said Smithers.
And as for heading back into the sea? “Most definitely I’ll be back, as soon as I’m ready to go.”
The UCT construction studies student, who hails from Durban where he attended Westville Boys’ High, said he had been in the water for about half-an-hour when the shark attacked.
“It was just another day surfing,” he said. “Not the best day, not the worst.”