The death of Springbok body boarder David Lilienfeld following a shark attack in False Bay on Thursday has resulted in an outpouring of criticism against the techniques used by a celebrity adventure television crew who have been filming the capture of Great White Sharks.
Lilienfeld, 20, died after having his right leg bitten off by a shark while body boarding with his younger brother Gustav at a surfing spot known as Caves at Kogel Bay on the eastern side of False Bay.
Prior to the fatal attack, the first in the immediate vicinity since Sergio Capri survived a bite to the thigh in 1999, surfing websites were abuzz with concerns over the activities of adventure television celebrity Chris Fischer who, along with a bevy of researchers, had received a permit to catch and tag Great White Sharks off the Cape coast, including in False Bay which is renowned as a favourite habitat of the predator.
Fischer, who heads the non-profit organisation Ocearch and shot the National Geographic series Shark Men, was granted a permit by the Department of Environmental Affair’s Biodiversity and Coastal Research director Alan Boyd to capture and tag sharks between April 10 and 30 and set sail with between 4.5 and 5 tons of chum (shark bait) on board.
The Ocearch research vessel worked in False Bay on Sunday and Monday last week. The attack on Lilienfeld came three days later.
A possible link between chumming and shark activity around humans has been a matter of often heated debate in recent years and the red flag over Ocearch’s activities was raised by wildlife photographer and author Dirk Schmidt.
Schmidt pushed for a shark alert to be issued for False Bay beaches during Ocearch activity and was joined in the call by surfers and shark cage diving operators. However, no official alert was sent out by either provincial or city authorities.
The news of Lilienfeld’s death on Thursday appeared a tragic confirmation of Schmidt’s direst predictions.
However, those at the forefront of calls for a shark alert warning and investigation into the issuing of the permit, including Schmidt, do not believe chumming was related to the attack. It is the research methodology that is being criticised, with Fischer being described as “a cowboy” interested only in audience ratings.
Schmidt said once the sharks are attracted to the boat, the selected shark is hooked and fought until it tires. It is then pulled onto a platform and hoisted out of the water. Holes are drilled into its dorsal fin and a tag bolted on while various samples are extracted from the animal before it is released.
This places the shark under great trauma, says Schmidt, and their behaviour thereafter cannot be predicted.
Kim Maclean, who has operated the Shark Lady Adventures cage diving operation in Gansbaai for 20 years, said Ocearch’s activities there last week had scared off all the sharks.
“The sharks are gone,” said Maclean, adding that shark cage divers in Mossel Bay where Ocearch had also apparently been operating, reported the same phenomena.
Maclean said she had never before observed a period of complete absence of sharks.
Schmidt, supported by international surf writer Paul Botha, said he believed sharks, like all other animals, communicated with one another and the trauma they observed inflicted on other sharks would set off an alarm and lead them to abandon their usual patterns of behaviour.
Botha said disturbing shark activities with “highly invasive” methods resulted in “distressed sharks going to places in the bay they don’t usually go”.
Botha said as a result of Lilienfeld’s death a thorough investigation into the issuing of the permit to Ocearch needed to be initiated and a comprehensive shark conservation plan needed to be developed.
Fischer was not available on cellphone but released a statement on Facebook in which he lamented “tragic news” that a body boarder had been “taken by a white shark”.
“We have two national gov’t (sic) officials on board for our entire trip and two city official on board observed our work in False Bay…We are terribly sorry again for the loss of this family and at this time our thoughts and prayers are with them.”
Fischer’s Facebook page was filled with often vitriolic condemnation of his research and filming activity.
The City of Cape Town issued a press release on Friday with an overview of the incident and stated “there is no evidence or reason to suggest that the tagging of four White Sharks over a period of 24 hours from Sunday 15 April to Monday 16 April, in False Bay, by the Ocearch Programme had any role to play in the tragic events that occurred at Caves.”
Biodiversity and Coastal Research spokesperson Zolile Nqayi said the Ocearch’s permit had been pulled immediately after news of the shark attack, but this was not an admission that Ocearch’s practices were endangering ocean users but rather a response to public concern.
Nqayi said none of the tagged sharks were responsible for the attack on Lilienfeld but in the wake of the incident the department was to review the permit conditions and where permits for controversial activities were requested, more public consultation might be necessary.
– Steve Kretzmann