Tuesday, December 18, 2012

The Great White Sharks of False Bay




Anyone who has watched any television special about sharks has seen footage of great white sharks on False Bay just south of Cape Town South Africa.  For whatever ecological reason, great whites have chosen this bay to be their training area for juvenile sharks.  Think of a place in your downtown area where teenagers go to hang out.  False Bay is that for great white sharks.  It is here in these frosty waters that young sharks hone their predatory skills.  The deep ocean beyond False Bay teems with fish and a robust fishing industry is based on their abundance.  However the great white sharks don’t learn how to be great white sharks in the deep ocean. That they learn in False Bay.

Most young great whites prey on cape fur seals that are abundant and wide spread in the bay.  They also seek out and consume African penguins that are also here in large numbers.  Other seabirds, especially cormorants, occur in fantastic numbers and accordingly if you want to see a great white shark this is the place to search. 

Most people who see a shark do so from a tour boat that circumnavigates Bird Island a tiny speck of rock in the bay that is overrun with fur seals.  An attractive and exciting way to potentially see one is to be on a boat that is dragging behind it a plastic replica of a young fur seal.  Use of these decoys is frequently successful and tour boat participants are often treated to spectacular views of great whites as they rocket out of the water with a fake fur seal in their jaws.  Located just minutes south of the Cape Town airport, False Bay is probably the most easily accessible place in the world to see these magnificent sharks.  My trip to False Bay was to see African penguins and several species of cormorants.  With luck I might also see a shark.

South Africa wisely markets itself as an excellent place to see the “Big 5” – African buffalo, African elephant, leopard, lion and rhinoceros. These are all regularly and easily found in Kruger National Park.  In the Port Elizabeth airport you are greeted with a huge sign on the wall announcing the “Big 7” – the Big 5 plus southern right whale and great white shark. I had no luck seeing a shark near Cape Recife at Port Elizabeth or at any of a dozen ocean overlooks I viewed.  Perhaps a trip to Cape Town and nearby False Bay would be the answer.

All nine passengers on South African Airways flight 1808 were supposed to leave Port Elizabeth at 9:00 a.m. for Cape Town.   At 8:30 the departure gate status signed switched from “on time” to “boarding” but nobody from the airline moved.  Information on everyone’s boarding passes said we would start to board now however with only nine passengers on the flight South African Airways took its time letting everyone on board.   

This sat well with eight of the nine passengers including myself.  Once in Thailand I watched Thai Airways unload a 747 and re-board it completely full with me and 249 other new passengers in 25 minutes.  If 250 people could board a 747 in that amount of time we had nothing to worry putting nine people on our flight before departure time.  Dave, a Port Elizabeth golf course developer, did not see the logic of South African Airways’ logic.  Dave thought that people should be boarding because the sign said people were supposed to be boarding and he became incensed when they were not.  More specifically Dave became incensed when he was not boarded.

“Why are you people (there’s that South African code for blacks again) fucking off and not boarding the flight,” he barked at a gate agent who was typing something into her computer.

“Sir, we will be boarding in a few minutes.  Please take a seat and be patient.”  It was now 8:35.

“Patient,” Dave screamed.  “You want me to be patient?  I was in your lounge drinking a final cup of coffee when your fucking sign flashed a message saying that the fucking flight was boarding.  I dropped everything I was doing, gulped down my coffee, and ran to the gate to board the fucking plane.  When I got here you were filing your fucking nails instead of boarding the fucking flight!”  Dave was upset.  If you have ever seen the hilarious scene in the movie Planes Trains and Automobiles where Steve Martin uncorks on a rental car agent, then you can imagine what this scene was like in the Port Elizabeth airport. The only thing missing from it was Steve Martin.

“Sir, as I just said, the flight will be boarding shortly.  We have only nine passengers so it will take no time at all to board the flight.  Now please go take a seat and wait patiently like the other eight passengers. We will be boarded and way from the gate before the 9:00 departure time.  Just trust me on this.”

“Wait?  You want me to fucking wait?  If you wanted me to fucking wait why does your fucking sign say we are boarding?”  It was now 8:38.

The gate agent was becoming less and less hospitable but she kept her cool.  “Sir, our system is programmed to flash a sign saying the flight is boarding exactly thirty minutes before departure time.  It’s programmed like that for every flight we operate out of Port Elizabeth.  Now would you please go take a seat!  We will be boarding very shortly.”

Dave had no intention of taking a seat or of doing so quietly.  He was determined to let everyone everywhere know just how important he was in his mind and he was going to begin with this gate agent.

“I have been all around the world and I have flown on many airlines. South African Airways is the worst fucking airline in the world.  It’s the shits.  Next time I’m flying on British Airways. Fuck you, South African!”  He then gave the gate agent the finger while she continued to type on her computer.

I once witnessed a similar irrational scene in the Houston Intercontinental airport. There, because of weather, several Continental Airlines flights including mine were late arriving and that resulted in passengers, including me, missing our connecting flights.  Dutifully the misconnected passengers trundled down to the passenger assistance center where we stood in line waiting for assistance being booked on another flight.  While waiting, I called the special 800 number that Continental Airlines had reserved for its Platinum Elite fliers and was rebooked while standing in line. The mass of travelers slowly crept forward as I was completing my call.  The person ahead of me was asked to step forward to the counter just as I hung up. Because I was rebooked I could have walked away from the line.  Instead, I simply waited to collect my boarding pass for the new flight before proceeding to the departure gate.

As I waited the man who had been standing in front of me went into histrionics screaming at the customer service person who was trying to get him on another flight.  The passenger wanted none of this standing around stuff and continued to sling insults and invective at this woman who was trying to help him.  The passenger assistance person eventually grew tired of the now-very-agitated passenger and very calmly said, “Sir, there are only two people on this entire planet who are interested in getting on the next flight out of Houston.  I am one of those two people and you are the other.  However, sir, one of us is very quickly losing interest in you getting on that flight.”

The gate agent calmly returned to the computer while the passenger was quietly surmising how thoroughly screwed he was quickly becoming.  His demeanor changed almost instantly from being the alpha dominant to the beta submissive and he began asking the gate agent, in a very calm voice, if there was anything he could do to help her.

As the last person to leave the gate area for the flight now that we were boarding (it was 8:44) I told the South African gate agent that story.  She broke into laughter telling me it was a good line and that she would have to use it one day.  She then pointed at Dave and said with a smile, “Some people, like that man, are just total assholes and they will never figure things out.”

Despite Dave and his childish behavior the flight was pushed back from the gate at 8:52 and because there were no flights ahead of us we were airborne at 8:56, four minutes before we were scheduled to even leave the gate.  As luck would have it Dave was sitting in the row of seats in front of me and he turned around shortly after we became airborne to strike up a conversation asking first where I lived. “My daughter lives in Boston.  She is married to an American, and I travel there all the time to see her.  I have flown on several of your airlines in the States.  US Airways sucks.  It’s worse than South African.”

Dave’s demeanor changed completely once we were in the air.  Where twenty minutes earlier he was in attack mode, now he was quite conciliatory. Instead of being aggressive and obnoxious he became my personal geography teacher for the ride to Cape Town.   “That’s George down there.  A lot of tourists and South Africans (read: white) go there to ride on the steam train to Mossel Bay.  It might be closing though.  I don’t know for sure but they used to run it.”

 Mossel Bay South Africa

A minute or two later Dave said, “That’s Mossel Bay below us.”  “There is a big fur seal colony offshore on one of those islands and a lot of people go there to see them.”

And a few minutes later it was, “That’s Cape Agulhas, the southernmost point on the African continent.  No, wait, that’s Cape Agulhas over there,” he said pointing to the right. “The Indian and the Atlantic Oceans meet at the Cape but you couldn’t prove it by me.”

Our route now took us inland over endless agricultural fields reminding me of the wheat deserts of eastern Montana, until we approached a massive escarpment.  Near it the land use changed from fields of wheat and other grasses to vineyards.  For as far as I could see there were vineyards.

Dave now became animated.  “That is the Stellenbosch region.  It is not the only wine producing region in South Africa but it is most definitely the best wine producing region.  If you have the opportunity, take a tour of one of our vineyards. South African wine is the best in the world!”

“Do you have any special labels you recommend or any special wines,” I asked

“If you can find Fleur du Cap and sample their pinotage you will be a changed man.”

Later in the trip I found the vineyard and toured it. I also tried their pinotage and loved it.  On my return to Florida I found that label in a local wine store that also carried their pinotage.  Other than a special Spanish red wine I discovered while in Spain about the only wine I drink any longer is Fleur du Cap’s pinotage.  Dave may have been an obnoxious person but his taste in wine was impeccable.

The plane began to rapidly lose altitude and speed as Dave finished his wine lesson.  Then excitedly he pointed to the west and said, “Now that, my friend, is Table Mountain and that in front of it is Cape Town, the most beautiful city in the world.”

The sprawl from 3.1 million residents in Cape Town spread out like a cancer in all directions.  Dave pointed out a major highway artery passing beneath us saying it was the N1 freeway that traverses more than 1000 miles of South Africa on its way to Johannesburg.  We then passed over a scenic suburb of Cape Town called Durbanville. With nearly eighty eight percent of its residents white this was one of the most upscale regions of the metropolitan area.  Not far south of Durbanville was one of the larger townships in the Cape Town region. 

“That’s where they keep the blacks,” Dave said. “That’s why all the buildings look so run down and poor because that’s where all the blacks live.  My one word of advice to you is to never stop your car if you find yourself in a township.” 

It’s where they “keep the blacks?”  Dave made it sound like a zoo or something.  The cultural attaché in the United States Embassy in Nassau, Bahamas, once gave me a similar warning about a region on the outskirts of Nassau.  “If you get a flat tire just keep on driving until you are out of there,” he said.  In Nassau the issue was lots and lots of drugs and drug dealers.  In Cape Town apparently the issue was lots and lots of black people.  At least in Dave’s eyes that was the issue.

As we lined up for our final approach, Dave pointed out Robben Island lying north of Table Mountain.  “That island is Robben Island,” Dave said. “It is where they kept Mandela for eighteen years and if you ask me he should still be there.”

I asked why that was and Dave said, “Because this country has gone to hell since they let him out.”  I learned long ago in the Bahamas to be circumspect when discussing politics outside my own country.  I decided to follow that lesson learned during this discussion of Nelson Mandela and Robben Island.

The Cape Town International Airport is spacious, modern, and extremely busy. As we taxied to our gate we were passed by jets recently arrived from Turkey and from the United Arab Emirates.  I said goodbye to Dave as we exited the plane and he told me it was a pleasure chatting with me.  He wished me a safe trip warning me not to give a ride to any black people, and then handed me his business card.  “If you get into any trouble of any kind you call me and I will do what I can to help.”  I bade him farewell and found my duffel bag at the baggage carousel, then walked to Avis to pick up my rental car.  Dave was standing in line there waiting to be helped when he saw me enter the office.  He waved at me and encouraged me to come forward in the line ahead of three black men each dressed in a suit and tie.  I pointed at the men to indicate that I knew they were ahead of me.  Dave just shook his head saying “they won’t mind” without of course asking the black men if they would mind.  I maintained my place in the line.

My late morning arrival was planned to avoid heavy traffic on the unfamiliar roads of Cape Town.  Helpful directions from Avis and from my Simon’s Town hotel guided me quickly through the maze of traffic and I was soon headed south toward False Bay.  As I drove through the city I had a déjà vu sensation like I was in San Francisco or San Jose or maybe Monterey, California.  The lay out of the city, its topography, the trees and forests and even the smell of the flowering plants made me feel like I was back in the Bay Area.  The road wound its way through the city traffic toward the south where I made a left turn in Muizenberg, then a right turn in Fish Hoek and soon I was in Simon’s Town where my friend Ian Duthie had been stationed with the South African military.

When Paul Theroux made his classic trek from Cairo to Cape Town by bus, ferry and train, he ended his journey by taking the light rail train from the central station in Cape Town to the last station on the line in Simon’s Town.  He was then at the southernmost point in Africa that is served by rail.  Theroux recounted this epic journey in his excellent book Dark Star Safari that I finished reading for the fourth time while I was on this trip.  Finding the Simon’s Town station I stopped to obtain a pocket schedule of destinations and then purchased a round trip ticket for tomorrow morning to travel to central Cape Town.  I never have been or will I ever be excited about train travel like Theroux. Still after reading every one of his travel books a minimum of four times I wanted to be able to say that I had traveled on at least one train on which Theroux had traveled.  This short train ride to Cape Town was my last chance to follow in his footsteps in Africa.

Checking into the Boulder’s Beach Hotel overlooking False Bay and within walking distance of a large colony of African penguins, I chose to have a late lunch before heading out to explore.  About 1:00 p.m. on a brilliantly clear afternoon as I sat on the verandah eating lunch and watching armada after armada of cormorants fly by over the bay, I heard a cacophony of sirens to the north.  Then suddenly there were helicopters in the sky as the sirens continued to blare.  The last time I had experienced anything similar to this was the night in the suburbs of Washington DC when the infamous “DC sniper” shot and killed an off-duty FBI agent at a store two blocks from my home.  The helicopter noise and sirens in Simon’s Town soon quieted down, then eventually the sirens stopped blaring and the helicopters flew off to the north.  Nobody thought anything more of it with most people guessing there had been a car accident somewhere.

The remainder of the day was spent along the shores of False Bay watching penguins and searching for great white sharks.  I fantasized about seeing one leap out of the water with a fur seal or a penguin in its mouth.  I met two ocean kayakers and asked them about paddling False Bay. “Oh, it’s a glorious place to paddle,” one of them told me.  “I can’t think of a better place to be.”

“I’m hoping to see a great white shark here,” I said. “Do you guys ever see them?”

“I have lived here for twenty two years and paddled this shore for eighteen of those years and I have yet to see a great white shark.  In fact the only shark I have ever seen was on one of those television specials about sharks,” the other kayaker said.  “If you ask me, all this business about great white sharks in False Bay is just bullshit to help prop up the tourist industry.  You have a better chance of being killed by a nuclear bomb in Simon’s Town than you ever would have of seeing a great white shark in False Bay.”  As much and as long as I searched I did not see a shark.  I was along the coast until sunset when a southern right whale breached.  That was as close as I came to a shark.

I arrived at the Simon’s Town train station for the Cape Metrorail train to Cape Town and was ready to board my 9:28 a.m. departure.  A newspaper stand at the station carried the local Cape Times published in Cape Town.  I purchased a copy of the paper because I am always interested in reading about wherever I travel.  Taking it from the salesperson I saw a two word headline that must have been in 100 Font. It read. “SHARK ATTACK!”

Mid-morning yesterday, shark spotters from the local Disaster Risk Management system were perched on a hillside above Fish Hoek Beach from which they spotted two great white sharks swimming languidly through the waters offshore.  As is their standard practice, the shark spotters put out a notice that sharks had been sighted.  This notification system included special flags like hurricane flags in the United States and the Caribbean, warning sirens that blare like tornado sirens on a Kearney, Nebraska summer afternoon, and person to person contact with beach goers.  Their purpose is to alert people to the presence and potential danger of sharks in the water.

Not long after being sighted, the sharks left the bay and the white warning flags were replaced with red ones indicating that sharks had been seen but were no longer a danger.  Swimmers gradually re-entered the water and did so until almost eleven when the sharks returned and the alarm system was again put into effect.  Having had enough of the shark warnings, many beach goers gave up on the bay for the day and largely abandoned the area. 

That was until 12:25 p.m. when local resident Michael Cohen decided that he knew more about sharks movements and shark behavior than did the shark spotters or the sharks themselves and he entered the water.  Cohen was well known for visiting the beach and for ignoring shark warnings.  At one point his narcissism led him to boast that if he was ever attacked by a shark not to blame the shark.  Because he had frequently swum when warning flags had been in place in the past, Cohen probably figured he was invincible. Many residents of the hurricane-prone regions of the southeast United States view hurricane watches and warnings with derision and they do so until they find themselves wishing they had listened.

Cohen ignored all the warnings and entered the water to begin his swim.  He was promptly spotted by the two great white sharks he had been warned to avoid.  A shark spotter still on the hillside above the beach tried to warn Cohen that he was in the sights of a shark.  However the spotter’s distance from the water made it impossible for their voices to be heard.  Concurrently there was a local power failure that silenced the alarm siren system.  Instead the shark spotters radioed colleagues on the beach who raced to near Cohen’s position in the water.  Two local residents, Douglas Drysdale and Hugh Till were driving by the beach and saw the sharks in the water.  Stopping their vehicle they dashed to the beach screaming a warning.  As they did one of the sharks swimming behind Cohen lunged forward and bit him.  As the shark chomped down it removed Cohen’s right leg below the knee and tore off parts of his left leg.

As the attack happened, Drysdale and Till selflessly endangered their own lives by entering the water, now clouded with Cohen’s blood, and sought to rescue him.  A third person leaped into the water to help and as he did the shark began to swim toward the men.  Just as it appeared to be ominous for the three men dragging Cohen to safety, a cape fur seal appeared out of nowhere and distracted the shark long enough for the rescuers to drag Cohen to shore. 

Tracy Sassen, a former South African surfing champion, watched as Cohen was taken by the shark.  “I saw two swimmers in the sea, even though the beach was closed,” she said. “I saw a burst of water and thought it was a seal taking a fish or something. Then people started rushing into the sea and pulling this guy out of the water. He was moaning and crying and pleading with them, ‘Please help me.  Please help me.”

“He was very white and in shock. Half of one leg was missing and the ankle on the other leg was badly bitten.” Monwabisi Sikweyiya, one of the shark-spotters who guarded the bay each day, helped drag Cohen from the water and used his own shorts and belt as tourniquets. He said of the victim: “He was very interested in sharks and respected them, but never took any notice of our warnings.  Cohen was bleeding profusely when he was extracted from the water. Both the femoral artery and vein in Cohen’s leg had been severed and he was losing a tremendous amount of blood.  Thirty-five minutes after the shark attack happened, as I was eating lunch at the Boulder’s Beach Hotel, Cohen was air lifted to a hospital in Cape Town.

Three days later the headline in the Cape Times read “Say It Was My Fault – Shark Victim.”  The word “duh” instantly came to mind.  The story that day included an interview with Monwabisi Sikweyiya who told reporters that on “several occasions” he had personally warned Michael Cohen not to go in the water.  Cohen’s right leg had been cleanly amputated by the shark, and doctors were able to save his left leg and left foot.  “He is very, very, very, very lucky to be alive,” trauma surgeon Andrew Nicol told a Cape Times reporter.  Yes, and Cohen was also very, very, very, very stupid.  Nothing in the story mentioned the condition of Cohen’s scrotum, testicles or penis.  However my guess is that he held on to them with all his might when he realized that his right leg was history.

The shark spotters also told reporters that in questioning Cohen before he entered the water he assured them that he had “great respect” for sharks.  Cohen also boasted that if he was ever taken by a shark one day he would “tell people it’s my own fault.”  Ten days after the attack Cohen was out of intensive care.

Yes, Michael, you said it first. It was your fault, and the shark had the last laugh.

As is their nature, great white sharks continued to patrol the area after the attack looking for fish, seals, penguins, and stupid people.  Other swimmers heeded the warnings and luckily there was no retaliation, and nobody went out on the water to try to kill the sharks.  People who live near False Bay accept the presence of great white sharks and they understand that Cohen’s attack, although unfortunate, was entirely preventable.

As the website Sociable Sharks explains, “Any discussion of white sharks must acknowledge their occasional though much-publicized “attacks” on people. The vast majority of them, however, bear no resemblance to shark attacks on prey. The attacks on people are slow and deliberate, and the resulting wounds are relatively minor compared with the wounds inflicted on prey. About 85 percent of the victims survive. Deaths do occur from blood loss, but there are very few verified cases in which a white shark actually consumed a person. Clearly we are not on their menu.”

Shark watching is big business in South Africa and especially in False Bay, and it provides a huge infusion of money into the local economies just as polar bear watching does for Churchill, Manitoba.  International Business Wiki provides this information about shark ecotourism in South Africa:

·         currently 10 white shark operators
§  boats can take out an average of 25 people per day
§  average cost is around $180 USD per day per person 
§  assuming 80% annual operator capacity – 73,000 tourists or 2% of total wildlife tourists were white shark ecotourists
§  $13,140,000 USD in operator revenues per year
§  average tourist length of stay in 2007 16.3 nights 
§  average spend per foreign tourist per day  $55 USD
§  73,000 white shark ecotourists X 16.3 nights X $55 USD average spend per day = $64,444,500 USD per year

Besides organized tours to see sharks attacking fur seal decoys there is a growing business near Hermanus on the east side of False Bay that allows people to cage-dive to look at sharks.  With cage-diving, participants enter a shark-proof cage submerged beneath the ocean’s surface.  Tour operators then spread a “chum” of fish blood and fish guts in the water to attract the sharks that then swim around the frightened participants locked in their shark-proof cages.  My last morning in Simon’s Town, I met a couple from Washington DC returning from two weeks on safari in Zimbabwe. They had traveled to Cape Town where their sole objective before returning home the next evening was to cage dive with great white sharks.  Alan, the husband of this pair and an attorney for the US Department of Justice, smiled and said it would be “the rush of a lifetime” to swim among the great white sharks.  Better you than me, Alan!

Sharks of many species are killed indiscriminately around the world many times because of the fear of attacks on humans. Somewhere between fifty and seventy humans are attacked by sharks each year. At the same time about seventy million sharks are killed by humans each year.  Given the ecotourism boost to local economies brought on by shark watching, that may be enough to ensure the survival of great white sharks, at least on False Bay.  Natural resources should be allowed to exist and persist just because they exist and persist. There is no need to have to put a value or a worth on anything before it should be allowed to continue.

Contemporary society most often sees things only in terms of dollars, however, and if the dollar signs associated with shark watching on False Bay are what it takes to protect the species then so be it.  At least I will know that if I ever really want to see a great white shark, I will be able to travel to False Bay and maybe see one.  Only unlike Michael Cohen I won’t turn myself into shark bait to attract them

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