A late morning Friday swim ended in tragedy when Jeffreys Bay local Burgert van der Westhuizen was fatally bitten by a large Great White. The attack occurred in the lower Point area, in the small bay where you'd normally kick out after a decent wave.
Initially eyewitnesses had thought there were of 2 sharks involved in the incident. As the shark was so big (~5m) the distance between it's tail and dorsal fins had created the impression of 2 sharks.
A local surfer, Terry Olivier, was paddling back from the Kabeljous on his kayak and when people waved & screamed to him from the rocks. He went nearer shore and was told that there'd just been an attack and could he go out and investigate. He found the victim lying face down in the water. He tried to retrieve the body but the shark would not let go despite him trying to push it away with his paddle. At this stage Olivier realised that the victim was deceased and that the aggravated shark posed a possible threat to him. Olivier said that the shark was bigger than his kayak - which is 5m long.
He turned and paddled back to shore quickly. Eye witnesses report the shark followed Olivier's kayak as he paddled in. The NSRI were quickly on the scene and circled the body with a jetski to keep the shark away so that they could retrieve the remains.
This is the first fatal shark attack in the PE/JBay/St Francis area.
Burgert was a keen long distance swimmer and had been on his regular swim route along the backline from Supers down to the beach after Albatross. Conditions were clean with good visibility.
Local surfer Garth Robinson said that there has been a whale calving in the bay for a week which has been very close to the beach. It has been followed by 2 seals waiting for the afterbirth. This may have drawn the shark into the area.
I spoke with local shark expert Dr Matt Dicken about the incident. Dr Dicken said that whites hunt visually as well as by smell, so it is not unusual for them to attack in clean conditions - as this assists them in locating their prey.
He also pointed out that studies on white shark behaviour in both Algoa Bay and Cape Town have shown that seasonally, more white sharks were recorded inshore during September/October than any other months. Helicopter and shore angling surveys of the beaches also seem to support the observation that they're more common close inshore during spring and summer.
The recent stats released for the 9 month recording period for the 3 listening stations off Kings Beach, Humewood slipway & Something Good shows 9 great whites were detected in the between May 2012 and January 2013. Most of the sharks were detected in September (6 of the 9).
Shark attack statistics for South Africa show that most of the recorded incidents actually occurred during the November/December/January period. Since 1913 there have been 532 recorded human/shark encounters, 96 of these being fatal (18%).
There have been 4 fatal shark attacks in the last 3 years. Two at Port St Johns (one in March this year, the other a year prior), the bodyboarder killed at Caves in Koeel Bay last year, and the surfer at Lookout at Plett in 2011.
Fridays fatal attack is an absolute tragedy, and heartfelt condolences to Burgert's family and friend's.
Let's remember that although shark attacks do happen, thankfully they are rare. The minute our feet leave the sand we are entering a marine world of which we are not the apex. We accept the inherent risks every time we paddle or swim out.
I wrote an article for The Bomb surf magazine two years ago entitled called "Understanding the Shark factor" which takes an in-depth look at Great White shark attacks addressing the perception that these have been increasing in recent years. You can download the article here. It includes full statistics on all shark attacks in SA.
Interview with Terry Olivier - kayaker at the scene