Experts say it may have been ‘fright and flight’ incident

KEEP COOL: Mick Fanning, of Australia, in blue, is calmed by surfing icon Kelly Slater after being attacked by a shark at the J-Bay Open
KEEP COOL: Mick Fanning, of Australia, in blue, is calmed by surfing icon Kelly Slater after being attacked by a shark at the J-Bay Open

EXPERTS said yesterday that Australian pro-surfer Mick Fanning’s shark encounter during the Jeffreys Bay Open on Sunday afternoon was not an attack but more of a “fright and flight” response on the part of the shark.

They said the sharks thrashing movements, caught on camera during the event, was more likely an attempt to flee than to attack.

Bayworld Centre for Research and Education marine biologist Dr Matt Dicken, who has conducted research in Algoa Bay for the past five years, confirmed that the shark was a great white.

“Since 2009, there has been a dramatic increase in great white activity in Algoa Bay.

“There is no reason to suspect why this would not be the case in Jeffreys Bay,” he said.

“Research data shows that during spring and summer the great white sharks are found closer inshore while in winter they are found predominantly around seal colonies.”

The white shark project in Algoa Bay is in jeopardy of being suspended due to the municipality failing to pay researchers.

Dicken said that since 2012, about 72 great white sharks had been tagged along the South African coastline.

“The increase is even evident after talking to fishermen, divers and surfers,” he says

Cape Town-based Dyer Island Conservation Trust marine biologist and shark researcher Alison Towner said the great white shark, estimated as being three metres long, was likely trying to flee rather than attack Fanning.

“I have heard reports of it being more than one shark, but the evidence I have seen is of only one shark,” she said.

“It looks like the shark went to investigate as there were quite a few jet skis and boats buzzing around. The thrashing around by the shark is not an attack.

“There are reports the shark was caught in the foot rope so its likely to be a startled attempt by the shark to get away.

“Sharks have always been in and around the coastline. Perhaps the shark was there foraging for prey as bait balls are common there at this time of year.

“Or maybe it went into the shallows to rest and digest its food – both of which are possible explanations for its presence,” Towner said.

“It is not unusual to see great whites in the Eastern Cape. The tracking data we have shows that they are regularly in Eastern Cape waters.

“Sharks are predators and used as an indicator species. Their presence in an area generally indicates the ecosystem is productive – which in fact is a good sign.” Last month University of Cape Town student Caleb Swanepoel, 19, lost his right leg above the knee after being attacked in Buffels Bay, between Knysna and Sedgefield.

The day before, surfer Dylan Reddering was bitten and taken to hospital after an encounter with a shark at Lookout Beach in Plettenberg Bay.

In an attack in October 2013, near to the same spot where Fanning had his close encounter, Burgert van der Westhuizen, 73, was killed.

Witnesses said the incident happened about 200m offshore and Van der Westhuizen was tossed into the air by a shark – believed to be a great white, about 5.5m long.

With regard to the recent attacks, all reports indicate they were possibly by great whites.

Shark Spotters research manager Dr Alison Kock said while the shark’s intentions were not clear, it appeared to get a fright and attempt to flee.

“I think it is difficult to know what the intention was but it does look like the shark got a fright, probably from being caught in the leash,” she said.

According to Ocearch Global Shark Tracker, data history shows that about 26 tagged great white sharks are in and around the coastline at any given time.

The tracking devices are attached to the sharks’ dorsal fins and send GPS coordinates to a satellite. But the signals are sent only when the shark gets close to the surface.

Data dating back to 2013 shows that several great whites move between the Cape Town area and Mozambique, passing the Eastern Cape, each year.

In 2013, a 5.1m female great white shark, called Success, was spotted via the tracking device off Jeffreys Bay.

It appeared to be travelling west along the coast towards Plettenberg Bay and Knysna.

Success, weighing about 1.6 tons, was tagged in the Western Cape in May 2012.

The tagging programme was part of a research programme on the biology, health, life history and migration of sharks.

-Gareth Wilson

 

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