Scottburgh 1

One of man’s greatest fears is being attacked, ripped apart and eaten by a wild animal. It’s a primal terror, residing deep in our psyche from the days when we were far more exposed to predators. These days we rarely come into contact with ferocious carnivores living, as we do, in the relative safety of modern society. Surfers, however, find themselves paddling around on the edge of the ocean where wildlife is abundant and, in some parts of the world, rife with sharks.

Should you surf South Africa for two months, all along it’s rugged coast, you’ll become acquainted with that psychological fear, all day every day. The locals say, amongst other things, that you’ll never see the shark that gets you as it will hit you from below, behind and from out of the depths. They’ll also tell you that, if you spot a fin get out of the water. It makes sense, but it also poses a conundrum: if I see a shark fin then I’ve got time to get back to shore. But if I don’t see anything in the water, life is still far from being ok. The conclusion would be that it’s almost better to see a shark than not, and that’s the insane situation you’re left with.

It’s a truly hideous experience. If you think about it too much you’ll end up sitting there bracing yourself for an almighty impact. Any second now and you’re going to get hit at 60 miles an hour by a Mack truck, lifted out of the water and ragged by a thrashing beast. And you won’t see it coming. The soldier on the battlefield never hears the shot that kills him.

Where as other sea creatures can employ evasive tactics, surfers can only paddle at about 5 miles an hour in any one direction, leaving them effectively stranded. In other words, you’re a sitting duck. A lure begging to be hit. Ironically though, despite it putting the fear of God into you, the immobility of a surfer has actually saved many a life as sharks are used to their prey making a run for it. The apparent heroism or disdain for the threat of a Great White will cause the shark to think twice before attacking an object that is ignoring him. This is the cause of many a bump before a bite, as Whitey tries to resolve his confusion, giving the surfer time to get to land and clean the crap from his wetsuit.

Ultimately, the attack doesn’t happen then. Even so, it’s hard, almost impossible, to relax and go with the flow while this menacing threat is potentially lurking below you. South Africans, socially conditioned to this danger, will tell you not to worry about it. But if you’re some wildlife virgin from England, with no experience of man-eating sharks, you can’t help but freak out. I thought that after South Africa I’d be ready and willing to surf any region of the world where dangerous sharks were in abundance, accustomed as I’d be to their presence and threat. But the reverse is true. Never again would I be willing to go through that gut-churning experience of waiting helplessly to see if something was hungry enough and in the mood for a bit of dumb English tourist.

The laws of probability state that there’s almost no chance you’ll get taken. But I challenge you to tell me what you think of chance when you’re surfing some famously shark infested spot with a recent and impressive record of attack fatalities. Ask yourself how irrational you’re being as panic fights to take control of your mind and throw you into disarray. You’re more likely to be hit by a bus than attacked by a shark, they famously say. Oh, yeah? Paddle out at Nahoon Reef and tell me what you think of statistics. Go on…

In two months, my friend and I experienced seven shark scares of varying danger. No two incidents were remotely the same. Some came close to a disaster and others were farcical, but even the comedy moments belied that same dreadful threat which permeates every moment of each session surfing. What follows are two tales, the first and the last encounter, that are inextricably linked by their very nature and location.

Part one

There’s a town just south of Durban that is an idyllic and exquisitely scenic spot to hang out and surf. My friend Jason and I knew a couple of the local lifeguards from working in London and, instead of staying in Durban, they told us to get ourselves out of the big smoke and down to their beach for some waves. Two very great friends of ours, Kevin, an all-round sports fanatic, and Pikkie, an ex-pro surfer for Island Style, met us, showed us around and introduced Jason and I to all the locals. The hub of social and sporting activity there rotates around the surf and life-saving club, perched on the hilltop that overlooks the bay. We endeared ourselves to this crew by telling them all the outrageous tales of what their lifelong friends were getting up to in London. Gradually, we even began to feel a part of the local scene, such was the hospitality and friendliness of all those who lived there.

Each morning we would surf this amazing wave that broke off the rocky outcrop that marked the south end of the bay. Each afternoon, the wind would blow cross-shore from the south and, wanting to surf all day, Jason and I would go to this sandbank that sat a little protected inside the bay. With the wind chop, the waves were always junky and messy, so there were never any locals in the water, just the two English tourists willing to make fools of themselves, to all who watched, as we tried to wiggle and thrash our way along bumpy crap.

Every weekend, floods of people would make their way down the coast from Durban for a small holiday away from the big city. It was on just such a Sunday that we had our first shark scare. It was a typically windy afternoon at our junky left with just my friend and I in the water and perhaps a thousand people on land. The holiday makers would be on the beach, in the water and all along the grassy knoll that rose up to surround the south side of the bay. A few would be on the outcrop of rocks exploring water pools with their kids and others wading off the beach into the sea. A festival atmosphere permeated the day, with barbecues, picnics and plenty of beer. Just another typically beautiful Sunday afternoon.

With the wind blowing at a steady rate, it was only a few snatches of sound that we could hear when the lifeguards began screaming through their public announcement tannoy system. I looked back and saw that there was some commotion as people were leaving the beach for the grassy hill in numbers. Turning to Jason, I said, “hey, there must be a fight or something going on. Look…” (on occasion, fueled with beer, guys from out of town have famously clashed with locals). “Yeah. What’s going on with the lifeguards?” Jason asked because, although we couldn’t make out what they were saying, we could pick up on the extreme stress and severe urgency.

The backdrop to the bay was now a veritable sea of people, as the entire grassy mound was obscured from sight by a throng of holiday makers, all seemingly tense, on-edge and waiting for something of great import. The truly weird thing was that they all appeared to be staring at me and Jason. From a distance it was quite hard to tell, and yet each and every head around the bay was set at an angle whereby the group focus could only be where we were sitting in the sea. It smacked of a Roman amphitheater, filled with a hungry baying mob, demanding the lions to be released so that they could watch the Christians get torn asunder by wild beasts. Except that they were silent. That’s what it looked like to me anyway, and, little did I know, this was almost what was happening.

Only later did we found out that our friends, the lifeguards, were shouting at us at full volume to get out of the water, because two bathers had been bumped in the shallows, at the same time, by two separate Tiger sharks. The bay is split in two by a large river mouth which is where sharks regularly turn up to feed on anything that gets flushed out. The sandbar we were surfing lay just off-shore where the sediment is deposited after exiting the river into the sea. But between the sandbar and land lay a deep channel, almost a lagoon, that ran the length of the beach all the way round to the rocky headland that marked the end of the south side of the bay. So in other words, the Tigers were between us and dry land. And everyone, but Jason and I, knew it.

We figured something was up. This huge crowd, almost 140 degrees around us, was more intimidating than a 200 pound angry Samoan. On top of which, the rocky headland to our right was now swarming with people divided between scouring the ocean and looking straight at us. It felt like ‘Day of the Triffids’. All they needed to do was point and scream and I would have paddled to Madagascar.

As I looked closer, I noticed three young kids on the rocks, about 12 years old, standing in a row and waving their arms above their heads in the classic international distress signal. They reminded me of the three wise monkeys, speak no evil, see no evil and hear no evil. Except they did everything at the same time, mimicking each other exactly. To this day I don’t know how they did it.

“Me?” I yelled at them. All three nodded their heads slowly up and down, all the while smiling (they were so cool). ‘What?’ I shouted, with my arms outstretched. In unison, they swung an arm up and over their heads and repeated it, meaning, “come in to shore”. “Why?” I bellowed back. The three wise monkeys looked at each other and then held one arm horizontally, with the other arm held vertically and wiggled the tips of their fingers, slowly rotating their torsos. The classic shark signal and almost a parody of the fact. “Shark?!!” I replied. And they nodded at a faster rate and quite emphatically. I turned to Jason and said, “we’d better go in. It’s something to do with sharks”.

Jason, bless him, is something of a Doubting Thomas. If he hasn’t see the shark, then it doesn’t exist. He’d have to dip his hands into the shark’s wounds before he’d be persuaded of the danger. He’d always be the last to leave the water, complain that he was having a good time and that I or someone else ruined it simply because we’d seen an 16 foot Tiger 20 meters away. Quite a character, Jason. So he says, “where? I didn’t see one”. “Well, look”, I countered, gesturing to the surreal scene on the beach. “Oh”, he says. “And check these kids out”, I say and point to the rocks, not 30 metres away. And there are the three wise monkeys, jumping up and down, frantically waving their arms over their heads doing their best, “come in to shore” routine. Comical, indeed. And so we head in.

It gets eerie at this point. The lifeguards have stopped shouting as we seem to have got the message and a kind of silence descends on the place. But that doesn’t stop a thousand or so pairs of eyes from watching our every move. We didn’t know about the Tigers bumping the bathers in the shallows, but the crowd did. If a Tiger bumps a supposed prey and is satisfied with the result then it’s quickly followed by a ferocious attack. The only way out is if you’ve got dry land a few quick steps away and you can escape. But this leaves a couple of Tiger sharks, hungry, on edge and ready to commit unadulterated violence, in the lagoon a few yards off the beach. With two tourists about to paddle their surfboards over them, the audience is anticipating witnessing a spectacle of epic proportions.

The crowd is watching, waiting and probably hoping for a scene of apocalyptic destruction as we enter the depths of the lagoon. Meanwhile, Jason and I, as we paddle in, are looking at everyone wondering what on earth they want from us. What’s so entertaining? You guys are freaking me out. Half way back to shore we see three of our lifeguard friends walking down the hill to the beach. They get there to meet us as we walk out of the sea, and they’re furious. Dog yells, “didn’t you hear us shouting at you to get out of the water?” “Uh, no. It was too windy,” I said. “Oh, bru. We thought you were going to get chowed! Everyone did. You see all these people? Just waiting for you to get taken.” And Dog went on to tell us about the Tigers in the shallows. “Fuck”, was all I could say. Rob finally grins from ear to ear, holds his arms out wide and says, “welcome to South Africa, boys”.

Mr I.

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  1. I enjoy browsing your page, always find out random interesting stuff.
    Emily Randall from Husky

  2. Second photo is a dolphin definately not a shark 🙂

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