Eye to eye with death

Hanging out with predators.


WORDS ROLAND HANEWALD | PHOTOS UWE JACOBS

It has become customary in recent years to classify sharks as “friendly” creatures, as picturesque ones (which is true), and as harmless ones (which is not always true). In fact, the number of shark attacks on humans has dramatically risen in modern times, from an initial 100-or-so certified assaults per decade in the second half of the last century to 654 in 2000-10. Not accounting for a large dark digit, 70 to 100 attacks presently take place per annum, with five to 15 deaths. “The reason why unprovoked assaults occur on surfers and divers is mainly because sharks tend to mistake humans for prey,” says an apologetic treatise on the subject. Quite heartening news, that. Just don’t let yourself be mistaken for a seal or the like. Moreover, political correctness now demands that one uses the terms “shark incidents” or “accidents” instead of “attacks.”

Whites, Tigers, Bulls — take your choice

The protagonist of such incidents is primarily the Great White, which grows to more than seven meters in length, although Tigers, up to six meters long and weighing three tons, apparently play a leading role, too. People in the know consider Tigers even more dangerous. The difference between the two is that the White seems to be a gourmet, whereas the Tiger is not. The former sometimes spits out its mutilated booty, perhaps because it doesn’t taste like the expected seal, and the victims have a slim chance of survival then. After a successful hunt, Whites can also subsist for a long time without food, unless, of course, a thrill-seeking tourist offers himself as a handy meal. Tigers, by contrast, just gorge everything down, such as in the case of a young US kiter in North Carolina (2014) who had lost his board and was dragged through the water behind his parachute. The Tiger apparently took him for a huge marine bird, its favorite prey. Snap — gone he was. Bull sharks, as their name implies, are similarly inclined. Fifty percent of all human losses are said to be caused by them. Still, worldwide casualties are absolutely diminutive. False alarm, then? Those who didn’t have to perish but donated an arm or a leg will look at the matter from a different angle than the shark-lovers.

Beware the hungry females

The coasts of the USA, mainly those of California, Florida, and Hawaii, are considered the world’s riskiest, as are the waters of Australia and South Africa. The pictures of this article were made in the latter country, whose seas are especially dangerous due to a biological peculiarity. Female Whites cross the entire length of the Indian Ocean to Australia to be fertilized there. The pregnant ladies then return on the same route, desperately hungry, and will attack anything in their path. There is nothing that could be mistaken for a seal on the high seas, since there aren’t any. So anything goes. Better not get in the way of the half-starved women if you value your life.

Are the predators dying out?

All such warnings should be taken seriously because commercial tourism tends to play down, embellish or totally suppress the facts. A dead surfer or diver is bad for business, mainly if pictures of ghastly mutilations make it into the media. What, then, are the actual risks? Are the sharks getting more in number? Rather not, although the Tiger, for one, gives live birth to up to 80 young at a time. Yet the stocks are mercilessly hunted down by the millions, and be it only for their fins, which will end up in the famous soup. On the other hand humans at bathing and surfing beaches are on an unending increase. This seems to have made the rounds in the world of sharks. In view of the excessive supply, one brute or the other will readily risk a bite out of this crowd, without hesitating for long to consider whether the prey is a seal or a surfer.


INCIDENTAL INTELLIGENCE

If you wish to share the excitement of the likes of intrepid Danish lensman Uwe Jacobs and his courageous Chinese spouse and dive buddy Hua just search up the keywords “South Africa” and “shark” in the net, and the addresses of various organizers will pop out and lead you to encounters with the fearful critters. The action starts at the Cape of Good Hope and nearby Simonstown, famous for its large colonies of penguins, and follows the rough and windswept coast all the way to Durban in the distant northeast. Good to know: Whites are mainly found at Gansbaai near Cape Agulhas, Africa’s southernmost point, and therefore called Capital of the Great White Sharks. (There is a slim chance of not running into any Whites, as happened quite recently. A group of orcas attacked one of them, and the dying White released some warning pheromones, which caused all brethren to avoid the area for weeks on end. Wonders of nature!) Blues roam the open ocean 2 ½ to 3 hours out of Good Hope Cape Point. The rare Seven-Gills or Cow Sharks, survivors of prehistoric times, patrol the kelp forests at Miller’s Point south of Simonstown. Note: It will be fun, but no picnic.