THERE are two animals in the wild that inspire more dread than most – sharks and crocodiles. Perhaps it is because they are so prehistoric, so other. Perhaps it is because both attack from below, from the water, there’s no warning, unlike a lion, a buffalo, an elephant.
I frequently walk unarmed in the bush where there are lions, elephants, buffalo. I do so well aware of the risks, and constantly on the alert for any sign of danger. It is a process that makes one feel a heightened sense of being alive, of every sense being awake and in tune with the environment.
I also frequently find myself close to bodies of water that teem with hippos and crocodiles. With hippos, you make damn sure that you never get between them and the water, or them and their young, and you steer your boats carefully. With crocodiles, you never stand close to the water’s edge, and if you’re fishing, find an elevated perch well back from the attack zone.
But I am also a regular user of the oceans: I surf, I dive, I fish.
Yesterday, one of Cape Town and South Africa’s brightest young surfing talents, David Lilienfeld, was taken by a great white shark at one of my long time “local” breaks, Dappat se Gat, or Caves, at Kogel Bay. I didn’t know David personally, but I knew him by reputation, and I have probably surfed with him in that friendly anonymity of the backline. The Boland surf spots are like that, they don’t generally have that aggro edge that the more urban spots around Cape Town, and some of the crowded spots out toward Cape Point take on on a firing day.
Caves can get very crowded on a good day – there’s often a couple of good peaks breaking left and right to surf, hard breaking wedges that are often more suited to body boarders than stand up surfers. A few hundred metres up the beach is a gnarly point called Paranoia Point that only breaks on a very big swell. It has a sharp rock in the middle of it called Full Stop that you have to dodge around.
The stretch from Caves to Paranoia Point is one of the most sublime spots on earth to surf on a quiet day: the water is often crystal clear, so clear you can see the shifting swirls of sand below you. Around you is the magnificent sweep of the Kogelberg as it embraces Kogel Bay, with the Rooi Els point in the distance.
There are often whales or dolphins around. It is not a place one associates with sharks, although my old school friend from when I was growing up in Somerset West, Sergio Capri, was badly injured in an attack here some 25 years ago.
My brothers and I have been surfing, diving and fishing that stretch of coast for over 50 years now. Like all the other watermen and women out there, we know the dangers, we accept that there is always the risk of a shark attack, of being dumped head first into the sand and becoming paralysed, of a catastrophic event while diving.
But you manage those risks, you use the rip tides as a tool to get to the backline rather than as a dangerous enemy to be fought against. You don’t surf in river mouths when they are in flood. You surf with caution when the yellowtail are massing in the bay because there is always heightened shark activity. You dive with a buddy.
These are all things that we can control, to some extent. The same as not standing too close to the water’s edge on the Zambezi, because of the crocs. Or not allowing small children to wander freely around a camp site when there are lions or hyenas about. Or not approaching an elephant cow with calf on foot.
Until now, I have been sceptical about the water users who have campaigned against chumming for sharks, claiming that it makes them more habituated to human beings, and makes them associate humans with food. I have always been philosophical about sharks – I’m swimming in their habitat, so I’ll take my chances, I know the dangers.
But yesterday’s horrible attack on David has left me asking many questions. Could there indeed be a link between chumming and shark attacks? Does chumming bring sharks closer inshore? Does it make sharks go in search of easier prey, in the same way that it is far easier for a baboon to raid a dustbin or a house, than it is to scavenge for veld food, or for an old lion to kill a human than to chase down an impala?
And the answer is that we don’t know the answers, because there is no way of proving either point of the debate. So until we have a scientific answer, chumming in False Bay must be banned.
My heartfelt condolences to the Lilienfeld family in this time of grief. David’s spirit will surf on.