Testing the Water

Reunion Island experiments with new anti-shark measures

Jeremy Flores commits in Reunion Island shorebreak, the site of many recent shark attacks. Photo: Maassen

Jeremy Flores commits in Reunion Island shorebreak, the site of many recent shark attacks. Photo: Maassen

Two years after Reunion enacted a controversial ban on swimming and surfing following a string of shark attacks, a small group of surfers on the island are cautiously wading back into the water. This time, however, they'll be doing so surrounded by both people and equipment meant to deter attacks. The initiative, which is broadly tied in with the island's Shark Risk Reduction Program, will see a host of measures—drum lines, nets, shark spotters, and even underwater cameras streaming video back to the shore—set in place to test their effectiveness.

“I think these new measures they’re putting in place on the island are going to be a big step forward for Reunion,” said World Tour surfer Jeremy Flores, who once called the island home. “We’ve finally found a way to pay for them and can hopefully protect our surfers, swimmers, and tourists. Between the nets and the safety teams, I think it’s going to really help…I’ve lost a lot of brothers and this whole situation has been a nightmare, but I’m happy that we’re finally finding a way to move forward.”

As you'll recall, in July of 2013, the island enacted a law banning surfing—they also introduced a shark cull—following more than a dozen attacks that killed five people. Renowned for its warm waters and perfect setups, Reunion, a French territory located off the eastern coast of Africa, is home to thousands of surfers and drew thousands more to its shores every year.

However, the economic impact of the attacks has left its mark on the island. The ban on surfing has all but killed the island's ability to attract traveling surfers and according to Chantal Ambroise, who works for the island's government, there is typically a 60 percent tourist cancellation rate following an attack. Further, while some local surfers defy the ban, others have simply opted to move away. It’s been reported that the cost of these anti-shark measures is near $10,000,000.

If these latest tests and training runs are proven to be effective, the government hopes to make 2015 a year of transition before they lift the ban in February of 2016. However, there's still a lot of road ahead for Reunion as they attempt to reassert themselves as a safe travel destination for visiting surfers.