A BRAVE Jeffreys Bay paddler yesterday told how he tried to fight off a “monster-sized shark” after it fatally attacked a swimmer off popular surf spot Point Beach.
The victim is believed to be local resident Burgert van der Westhuizen, 73, who witnesses said was 200m offshore when he was tossed into the air by a great white shark believed to be 5.5m in length.
“I was paddling back from Kabeljous when I passed Point [Beach] and I heard people yelling from the beach,” Terry Olivier, 64, said.
“I paddled to the rocks and one of the women ran on to the rocks and yelled that there was a shark behind me. I only heard later that one of the people on the beach saw the shark fling the swimmer out the water seconds after I paddled past him.
“After they yelled to me I turned around and saw all the birds diving into the water.
“I did not even think. I just started paddling towards the swimmer to see if I could help him.
“As I got closer I saw him bobbing in the water and then realised it was only his upper body floating. I wanted to pull him out of the water but when I was about a metre away the shark swam between myself and him.
“It then started circling us, with two massive fins sticking out of the water. It was a monster-size shark with a 2m [dorsal] fin and a 3m tail.
“It was so big I originally thought there were two sharks, but then realised there was actually one.”
In a panic, Olivier tried to smack the shark with his paddle as it “casually” circled. “I thought I could pull him [the swimmer] on to the craft but the shark was right next to us the whole time.
“I was trying to hit it with the paddle, and it was casually swimming around us, in no rush at all.
“The next thing it grabbed the rest of the body in its jaws and went under the water.
“I knew the swimmer was dead and I also knew that I would never be able to fight a great white shark.
“If it had been another type of shark, like a ragged-tooth shark, I would have tried to fight it off, but when I saw the size of it I realised it was a great white and knew I would be in trouble.”
After realising that nothing could be done, Olivier started to paddle frantically back to shore.
“People were on the beach yelling that the shark was following me. “I just started paddling faster and faster and thought that it was coming for me as well.
“It was an experience and I am not going to be in the water again for a good while now.”
After the attack, which happened at about 11am, police closed most of the beaches at Jeffreys Bay, warning swimmers not to enter the water.
A police helicopter flew from Port Elizabeth to help members of the National Sea Rescue Institute search for any human remains.
Although police were unable to formally identify the body because only some body parts were recovered, colleagues of Van der Westhuizen’s wife, Mariette, who works for a property company, said the traumatised woman had been “taken to the doctor and given sedatives”.
“It is her husband and she is really traumatised,” one of her colleagues said.
“She does not want to talk to anyone. We are all shocked and devastated.”
Police spokeswoman Warrant Officer Marianette Olivier said the remains would be taken to a forensic laboratory “to establish the person’s identity”.
After news circulated about the attack, alarmed surfers and residents flocked to the popular surf spot. Residents described the attack as “horrific” and “unbelievable”.
Bayworld Centre for Research education director Matt Dicken, who is also a senior scientist for the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board, said: “Our research in Algoa Bay and False Bay shows during October and November there is an abundance of great white sharks coming closer to shore to feed on smaller prey like fish, blue rays or smaller sharks.”
Dicken said it was “very uncommon” to see a great white larger than 3m close to the shore in the Algoa Bay region. “Great white sharks as big as 5m are rarely observed, even at seal colonies.” Dicken said great whites could theoretically grow up to seven metres in length, but the largest one ever caught and reliably measured was 6.1m.
That shark was caught off the coast of Canada.
Bayworld marine biologist and shark expert Dr Malcolm Smale said although shark attacks seldom occurred in the Eastern Cape, Port St Johns in Transkei was the exception.
“Sharks inquisitively ‘mouth’ unusual objects to investigate them, including surfboards or people.
“With more people using the sea for swimming, or people surfing for longer periods, the likelihood of an interaction increases.
“It is very rare for sharks to bite people and even more rare for an attack to be fatal. Usually, if a victim is being rescued, the shark will swim away.”
Cape Town-based Shark Spotters research manager Alison Kock said data from the South African Shark Attack File, which is maintained by the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board, showed that “in the stretch of coast from Wilderness to Port Alfred there have been 35 shark incidents since 1990, including the fatal incident of today [yesterday]”.
“Three of these have been fatal, five serious, and the rest minor.”
This is a version of an article that appeared in the print edition of the Weekend Post on Saturday, October 12, 2013.