I grew up surfing Oregon’s Central Coast. It is part of the “red triangle,” where Great Whites are a regularly seen and sometimes nip. The “white death” accounts for two or three fatalities a decade in the United States. And Great Whites must be scarier than any tropical fish lazily swimming in temperate equatorial waters, yes? No.
Reunion, the French island just a stone’s throw from Madagascar, has had 16 attacks in the last four years and seven of them have been fatal. I once dated a woman with a large family from Reunion. She would regale me with stories of crystal-clear waters that brushed the white sands of her family’s island and the monstrous beasts that patrolled its deep.
“Men get eaten,” she would say. “Men die.”
The most recent victim, 13-year-old Elio Canestri, is particularly heartbreaking. He was surfing with friends, 50 feet out to sea, witnesses say, when he was knocked violently from below. The shark bit his stomach and tore his limbs off before dragging him out to sea. A rescue boat was quickly launched and recovered the body, but it was too late.
Elio was a bright light.
“One of our best up-and-coming surfers,” according to Reunion’s most famous native son, Jeremy Flores.
I have spent much time with Jeremy and he is as handsome as he is brave, a standout on professional surfing’s world tour, but even he won’t surf his home waters anymore. He was there recently visiting his mother and old friends. The sun shone and the surf invited, but Jeremy touched neither board nor water.
“It wasn’t worth it to take the risk,” he told a writer at my website, BeachGrit.com. “It took a long time for people to realize how bad the situation is. People thought it was like everywhere in the world. But right now, we have the world record for attacks for how many people are here. It’s not like everywhere in the world.”
On Reunion, he calls it “a 50-50 proposition.”
And it is not like everywhere in the world because the French government in 2007 established a 10-mile marine reserve on its west coast—the same coast that undid young Elio. It was devastating, Jeremy says. We spoke at length of the days when he himself was 13, surfing all day and thinking about surfing all night.
“It’s all we had. There were no big cities or clubs,” he said. “We had surfing and my dad moved our family there for the surfing. So I would just surf all day every day and that’s it. It’s such a small island.”
Jeremy would surf and surf and surf and watch the people who made a living off the sea.
“From generation to generation there were always fishermen and then people from overseas and environmentalists came and they stopped fishing in a 10-mile area where all the shark attacks are now happening. That was eight years ago. By the time they stopped fishing, the sharks didn’t have anything to fear anymore so they started coming and now it’s dead territory,” he said.
“They ate everything. There is no more life. There are no more turtles. There are no more fish. No more nothing. No more reef sharks. Because the bull sharks have eaten everything. And now, because there’s nothing left to eat, it’s the surfers.”
It is generally accepted in the surf world that sharks own the ocean, but that makes it no less devastating when they steal a life. And it makes the debate surrounding how to keep both men and beast safe no less vigorous. The far left typically think marine preserves with zero human encroachment are the best answer. The far right loves to cull sharks, filling the ocean with their man-eating blood.
“All I can do is put a little perspective on things, at least when it comes to sharks,” Western Australian shark behaviorist Anthony Pancia tells me. “Western Australia has a coastline of 20,871 kilometere. WA’s population? Two-and-a-half million. This year in West Oz, 181 people were killed by or in a motor vehicle. Suicide? About 325. Homicide? In the vicinity of 100. Sharks? Just one.”
But Western Australia ain’t Reunion and Reunion ain’t Coos Bay, Oregon. Both have Great Whites.
Jaws is based, in part, on a bull shark, or bull sharks, who swam up and down the Jersey Coast in 1916 eating three young men and one young boy.
Reunion has bull sharks.