Fishing for Tragedy

Chumming in South Africa lures great whites and sparks feud with local surfers

South African Royden Bryson, pulling in at the same spot where a fatal shark attack occurred just a month ago. Photo: Van Gysen

Last month's fatal shark attack has reignited a long-standing feud between South African surfers, cage-diving operators and local authorities. Central to the issue is the controversial method of chumming, used to coax White sharks closer to shore. Opponents say ongoing chumming and the recent decision to allow documentary filmmakers to drop five tons of chum over a 20 day period in the waters off Cape Town, is at least partially responsible for the recent death of 20-year-old bodyboarder, David Lilienfeld, at the popular surf spot, Caves.

Caves is not what you would call a dangerous break. Nestled inside False Bay, SA, it packs a solid punch, but the slingshot wedges and shallow tubes are more skatepark than slab and have kept the local surfing community sated on a diet of quality waves for decades.

Drive past the spot today though, and you'll be lucky to see a handful of surfers in the water. It's barely been a month since David Lilienfeld's death, and there is a heavy air of foreboding that still hangs over the lineup.

Lilienfeld had been enjoying the overhead wedges with his brother on April 19th, when he was attacked repeatedly by an estimated 14-foot great white. According to an eyewitness, the shark surfaced shortly after a pod of dolphins swam through the lineup. It honed straight in on Lilienfeld who tried to fight it off by pushing his bodyboard between himself and the shark. But the shark kept coming at him.

"It was like someone pushed a button to turn the sea from a clear blue to dark red, that’s how quickly he was losing blood from the wounds," said local Matt Marais, who watched every surfer's worst nightmare unfold from the cliff above. Lilienfeld fought valiantly, but it was useless: the shark had severed his right leg and he bled to death on the beach.

The tragedy devastated the local surf community, and re-ignited a heated standoff between Cape Town ocean users and the thriving shark cage diving industry.

"I’ve been surfing here for 19 years now, and although there was another attack a number of years ago, something just doesn’t feel right here anymore," says Marais. "We are interfering way too much with the great whites, with chumming the waters and cage diving, and I believe this may be causing the sharks to behave unnaturally.”

False Bay and nearby Gansbaai are home to one of the largest great white populations in the world, thanks to the booming seal population there. Currently, there are 11 licensed shark cage diving businesses operating within this 60-mile stretch, with another two operators in Mossel Bay, a small coastal town a couple hundred miles away. Operators use a bloody mixture of sardines, tuna heads and fish oil to lure sharks closer to their boats so tourists can observe them from a cage lowered into the water.

Anti-chummers have long maintained that this encourages an unnatural association between sharks, humans, and the promise of food, altering the behavior of sharks and leading to more shark-human interaction. On the other hand, local shark scientists and operators refute this, claiming the amounts of chum are so small they are negligible and that no significant conditioning takes place.

The same white shark believed to be responsible for David Lilienfeld's death, taken minutes after the attack. Photo: Sven Thorsen

To put these chumming numbers into context, only two of the four licensed operators within the whole of Australia are allowed to use chum. Authorities recently withheld a license for a fifth operator because they were concerned about the impact this would have on shark behavior, according to a report on ABC News Australia.

Contrary to the opinion of South African authorities, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) of Australia believe that chumming does in fact alter great white shark behavior "quite significantly," according to a 2011 study conducted in the Neptune Islands. CSIRO noted that sharks were residing in the area longer and moving closer to the coastline where cage diving took place.

While cage diving in Australia is confined to the remote Neptune Islands, False Bay sits in the middle of Cape Town, the second largest city in South Africa with a population of 3.5 million. A week before the attack on Lilienfeld, authorities granted an additional permit to the reality show Sharkmen, led by the controversial Chris Fischer, to conduct shark-tagging research aboard the Ocearch vessel. The research entailed great whites being hooked, sedated, hauled out of the water, measured and sampled, then tagged with electronic transmitters and released again. Researchers can then monitor and track their behavior and movements.

The Ocearch permit allowed for five tons of chum to be used over a 20-day period between False Bay and Gansbaai. The official daily chum limit is usually 55 pounds per operator. The Ocearch permit sparked public outrage after Dr. Dirk Schmidt, a wildlife photographer and author of the renowned book White Sharks, questioned why the public weren't informed or consulted. Schmidt called for a high shark alert to be issued, saying there was a real risk of increased shark-human interaction and even potential attacks with exponentially more chum being pumped into the water.

The South African Environmental Affairs Department responded by saying a warning was unnecessary and there would be absolutely "no increased risk to the public." But the permit was cancelled immediately after the attack on Lilienfeld, three days into filming. Fischer, authorities, and the cage diving industry came under heavy fire from the public, but denied any link between chumming and the attack. A final report issued by the City of Cape Town concluded that there was no evidence to suggest a link between chumming and the incident.

Ocearch has since been re-issued its permit and had recommenced filming in False Bay at the time of going to press, despite vocal opposition from shark conservationists and the public. Many are now calling for an all-out ban on the practice.

"The reissuing of the permit in light of substantial public concern, and without community involvement, is very disappointing," says Schmidt. "It reflects ignorance and a blatant disregard for the needs and welfare of the ocean-using community. I would certainly be extremely cautious using False Bay waters—sharks are behaving strangely at the moment, with no sharks sighted around Seal Island for the past few weeks and many inshore sightings."

While authorities continue to assure the public their concerns are unfounded (while excluding them from any decision making process), many surfers remain unconvinced. As lifelong False Bay local, Philip Nel says "The question that I will mull over while driving to Caves next time is not if, but to what extent the cage diving industry have already conditioned our shark population's behavior."

—Will Bendix