Facts about men in grey suits... Surfing in Africa


Even before Mick Fanning had that extraordinary encounter with a great white shark during the Jeffries Bay Pro Competition in July 2015, it seems that whenever surfing in Africa in mentioned, the next line is inevitably a comment about sharks.

But is this really a fair and logical association?

I got curious and tracked down some long term statistics on shark attacks around the world. Fascinating reading.

According to the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) between 1958 to 2014, there have been 2,778 confirmed, unprovoked shark attacks in the world. Of these 2,778 attacks, 497 were fatal (17.9%).

You may be surprised to learn that the country with the most attacks in the world is Continental USA (America itself). In those 56 years between 1958 & 2014, there were 1,104 recorded attacks with 35 fatalities. Florida experienced some 65% of the total attacks in the USA and nearly a third of the fatal ones.

You won’t be surprised to discover that Australia is next on the “most attacks” list with 572 attacks & 153 fatalities (26.7%). Indeed, Australia has the most fatalities from shark attacks in the world. And with the unusually high level of attacks in Australia in the last couple of years, there is no chance that Australia will lose its “most fatal shark attacks in the world” crown in the immediate term.

So with America having the most overall attacks and Australia having the most fatalities, why does Africa have this “association” with sharks?

There is no doubt that Africa does play host to a significant shark population and always has. However, I think the association could be partly based on a lingering perception that dates back many decades. “Black December” refers to 9 shark attacks that caused 6 deaths along the coast of KwaZulu-Natal Province, South Africa (which includes all of the greater Durban coastline to the border with Mozambique), starting from 18 December 1957 to 5 April 1958.

It must be noted that several key factors occurred simultaneously to attract sharks to the area during that time, including

  • whaling ships were operating in the area;  
  • rivers had flooded and had washed livestock into the ocean
  • the river delta had become quite murky as a consequence of the flooding
  • recent resort development had increased the number of tourists swimming at the beaches 

It must also be recognised that in 1957/8, there was a lack of adequate shark research and the requisite knowledge to prevent shark attacks. Indeed, when tourists fled the Durban area as “Black December” unfolded over the ensuing months, causing a significant downturn in the local economy, the local authorities desperately made attempts to protect swimmers and surfers from sharks, one of which included a South African Navy frigate dropping depth charges! This action caused few shark fatalities and actually attracted many more sharks into the area to feast on the dead fish.

Despite such well-meaning but ill-conceived protective tactics, the authorities did learn from their experience. By 1962, the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board (KZNSB) had been created (originally it was called the Natal Anti-Shark Measures Board) & subsequently mandated to be a global leader in the protection of humans from shark attacks, while minimising the environmental impact. Today, the KwaZulu-Natal coastline has some 37 beaches equipped with bather safety gear, a combination of nets & drumlines, all owned and maintained by the KZNSB.

And the resultant statistics speak for themselves – there have been only 2 serious attacks at protected beaches in the last 30 years, with the last fatality from a shark attack in the KwaZulu-Natal Province being in 1999.

Returning to the greater African area shark statistics, during that 1958 to 2014 period, the ISAF records South Africa as having a total of 241 attacks with 54 fatalities (22.4%). In all of Mozambique, there have only been 41 attacks of which 17 were fatal. The last shark attack in Mozambique, which was non-fatal, was in 2009.

There is no doubt that the sensationalism with which the media portray incidents such as shark attacks, together with the horror that movies such as “Jaws” create, contribute to the great unease with which some people view sharks. While a degree of caution is clearly justified when surfing in known shark habitat areas, the truth of the matter is that there are many, many more common ways in which people are likely to be injured or die from than a shark attack.

According to the National Geographic website, during your lifetime “you have a 1 in 63 chance of dying from the flu and a 1 in 3,700,000 chance of being killed by a shark”. But getting taken by the flu just doesn’t have anywhere near the sensationalistic zing that the media so desperately need in a headline. Enough said – I’m heading out to get a flu shot.

Happy Surfing.

John Finlay

References:    https://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sharks/isaf/graphs.htm



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