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Surface Tension

Reconciling the perfect waves and terrifying truths of Réunion Island’s shark-laden coast

[This feature originally appeared in SURFER 56.9, “At Your Own Risk”]

It was just a few days before our departure to Réunion Island when we heard the news: 13-year-old local surfer Elio Canestri had been fatally attacked by a bull shark on the island’s west coast near Saint-Gilles. Every surfer on the island knew Canestri, and the tragedy struck a painful chord within the local surf community. “Elio was one of our best up-and-coming surfers,” said fellow Réunion native Jeremy Flores. “Words can’t describe how sad and angry I am… It’s heartbreaking news.”

Canestri’s death sent shockwaves throughout the island that were still being felt when I stepped off the plane with California surfer Dillon Perillo and South Africa’s Brendon Gibbens. Outside of Roland Garros Airport near Saint-Denis, we bumped into a Réunion local who eyed our board bags incredulously. “You here for surf?” he asked in his thick Réunion-French accent. “Er…yeah,” replied Gibbens hesitantly. The man put his hands in front of his face, opening and closing them in the universal symbol of a shark bite. I could almost see the blood drain from Gibbens’ face as he turned to me. He was silent, but his eyes spoke volumes: “Why did we come here?”

Perhaps the non-refundable tickets had something to do with it. Most surfers would have reconsidered going on a surf trip to Réunion in light of the recent events, but we knew there would be inherent risk even before we booked our flights. We went against the urging of our families and our own better judgment, tricking ourselves into thinking that Réunion’s world-class waves were worth the risk, the same way the handful of core locals still rationalize paddling into those troubled waters.

If you’ve been following the news in Réunion, you might think that the island is the shark-attack capital of the world. Almost, but not quite. According to the International Shark Attack File, Réunion ranks No. 8 for attack activity between 2005 and 2014. Since 2011, the small Indian Ocean isle has been rocked by 18 shark attacks, almost all involving bull sharks and seven of which have been fatal. That tally doesn’t include the sightings, of which there have been many, or the rumors that have been circulating around the island, like the one about the dog playing fetch and being eaten by a bull shark after his owner threw a stick into the water.

We tried to put those stories out of our minds as we headed to the beach at Saint-Pierre for our first session. The wave we came to surf was supposedly the safest on the island, located on Réunion’s south coast far from the most recent attack. As an extra precaution, Perillo had painted black stripes on the bottom of his board. He had read about this strategy called biomimicry; it’s a kind of pseudo-science that asserts that black stripes on a board will remind sharks of a certain poisonous fish. Perillo didn’t need much convincing, and he arrived on the island with a striped quiver. But while striped surfboards may or may not deter sharks, they certainly don’t do much to quell anxiety.

“I wasn’t really worried about it until we were at the beach about to paddle out,” Perillo says.
“Then it was all I could think about—all the attacks and what the likelihood was of that happening to me.”

In any other context, the break we surfed would have been dreamy—warm, clear water and an inviting right-hand wedge. But it was hard to focus on the moment and just enjoy the waves for what they were. There was a nagging feeling that we weren’t alone in the lineup, and after a short session, we went in.

We were on the lookout for police as we left the beach with surfboards in tow. In July 2013, island authorities enacted a ban on surfing to both protect residents and avoid the negative press and subsequent tourism decline that follow every shark attack. Police will issue a fine of €38 (about $43USD) if you’re caught with a surfboard, even going so far as to close beaches entirely to prevent surfing from taking place. The new laws have contributed to the loss of surf tourism on the island, but they haven’t stopped locals from surfing, and they haven’t stopped the attacks. Most non-surfing residents and government officials see surfing as a reckless act and believe that local surfers should just stay out of the water entirely. But with Réunion’s numerous perfect waves, that has proven to be easier said than done.

Talking with the locals, there is clearly a disconnect between the surfers and the rest of the island’s residents. Surfing is seen as a Zoreil activity—a term given to non-Réunionese people living on the island, traditionally of European descent. Most Réunion residents have no interest in the ocean, and when debates on how to handle the shark situation arise, they can’t rationalize spending government funds to protect activities, like surfing, that they see as expendable—especially when the cost of proposed shark nets, drum lines, shark spotters, and shark-tracking cameras has been estimated at nearly $10 million. But the problem doesn’t just affect surfers. Local businesses are suffering from the drop in tourism, and many residents are mobilizing protests via social media and threatening to riot if a solution isn’t found soon.

Walking down the street near the perfect left of Saint-Leu, the signs of unrest were everywhere. Large red-and-black images of sharks were spray-painted on corners with messages like “Shark City” and “Shark Area.” A nearby billboard displayed a shark’s jaws encircled by a stop sign. In the background, Saint-Leu was head-high and reeling with only two people out: one a paddle skier and the other on a SUP. Neither had their arms or legs in the water.

A few blocks back from the beach, we met Davy Stolk, a local surfer and the owner of Davy’s Surf Company. The surf shop is an institution of the Réunion surf scene, but, like many businesses in the area, it has struggled in recent years. “Within three months of the 2012 attacks, sales dropped by 50 percent,” Stolk said. “It has basically ruined my business. Luckily a friend is helping me out right now, but without his help and my wife’s income, I’d have to close my shop.”

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As we talked in front of his store, Stolk waved to a local carpenter busily working across the street. “He’s one of the best surfers around here, but he doesn’t surf much anymore,” Stolk explained. “That’s true for a lot of us.”

There was a time not long ago when this coastline was packed with surfers, both locals and tourists. Now it can be hard to find people to surf with. “The locals actually seem grateful that we’re here,” noted Gibbens after our first surf. At first, the idea of showing up to the beach hoping for a crowd sounded ludicrous, but as our trip wore on, we found ourselves praying for crowded lineups. Each morning, we would call every Réunion surfer we knew to see if they’d join us in the empty lineup. Every surf session would start innocently enough, with fun waves on tap, but it didn’t take long for shadows in the water to start playing tricks on the mind. Eventually a sort of mental fatigue set in and we’d be relieved to paddle in.

“It just doesn’t feel right out there,” said Perillo, back on the beach after a particularly spooky session with just he and Gibbens at Le Jetty in Saint-Pierre. “It goes from super shallow to super deep in just a few feet and all you see is dark blue. Trying to surf when you’re looking at that is like trying to read a book on an airplane with major turbulence: You just can’t concentrate.”

“Well, on the wave it’s fine,” Gibbens argued. “It’s all the mental bullshit between waves that gets to you.” As we watched perfect waves rolling through an empty lineup, a cameraman and reporter from a local news station showed up and asked to interview the duo. They had heard we were in town and wanted to ask us a few questions: “Why did you come to Réunion? Why have there been so many attacks? What should be done?” We stared at them blankly, thinking that we could have asked them the same thing.

No one can agree on the right way to handle the island’s shark dilemma. After the last incident, many called for culling and pushed for the installation of shark nets and drum lines. Some pointed to the examples set by Australia and South Africa, which have used shark nets to protect beachgoers since the early 1930s and are presently the only two countries still using the highly controversial method. The local government in Réunion is still evaluating nets and drum lines.

Others believe that the shark nets are barbaric. After all, shark nets don’t discriminate between species, and other marine animals are often caught in the crossfire. Globally, it is estimated that shark nets have killed more than 45,000 sharks, 6,200 turtles, and 65,000 other various marine animals over the past 30 years, including dolphins, whales, and rays.

To get a better understanding of the situation, I spoke with Dr. Ryan Daly, a surfer and scientist who studies bull sharks and has kept a close eye on the situation in Réunion. “Everyone wants to know why this is happening,” said Daly. “I’m not sure if it’s a case of increased interactions due to more surfers and more sharks, or a change in shark or ocean-user behavior. It may be due to environmental stress, such as fishing pressure, climate change, pollution, or habitat degradation that has led to a shift in natural habitat and foraging patterns. We can’t be sure.”

Daly believes there should be a managed intervention that takes into account the importance of ocean health and user safety. “I’m not sure what the ultimate solution for the Réunion problem is, but I do know that there are alternatives to killing sharks,” he explained. “A program like Shark Spotters in Cape Town, South Africa, has worked. And the Sharks Board is testing their electrical repellent in Cape Town as well. I think with more creative thinking and science, there is a viable solution out there. It is possible that by culling sharks we are addressing the short-term problem of localized shark attacks, but in the long run we may be jeopardizing the functionality of our marine ecosystems with all kinds of negative feedback.”

Instead of culling, Réunion surfers have invented some creative ways of dealing with their shark problem. Back in 2012, when the situation began to escalate, the Réunion Surf League organized the vigies requin, or shark watch, to patrol local lineups during surf sessions. Armed with spear guns and whistles, the vigies swim just beyond the impact zone and use their whistles to warn the lineup if they see a shark. Through social media, they notify local surfers when the visibility is good and the conditions are conducive to safer spotting, and what break they’ll be patrolling. But when the water is too murky, local surfers are on their own. Such was the case the day Elio Canestri was killed.

Toward the end of our trip, while surfing Le Jetty, Gibbens saw a large shadow move quickly past the nose of his board. In an instant, Gibbens spun around and bolted for shore, likely setting a new record for fastest-ever paddle speed in the process. Back on the beach, he and Perillo debated whether or not Gibbens actually saw what he thought he saw. The ocean is alive in Réunion; it could have been anything. It also could have been nothing. Just then, a three-wave set rolled through the empty lineup, each wave a shimmering image of perfection. Gibbens and Perillo fell silent as they stared out to sea, both wrestling with some very difficult odds.