Gansbaai shark attack: Did the Telegraph get it wrong?

The British Telegraph newspaper, like many others, suggested that the fatal great white attack on a perlemoen diver in Gansbaai recently might be the result of commercial shark cage diving that assists in attracting great whites closer to shore.

“In recent years some experts have warned the increase in commercial “shark dive tourism” has encouraged great whites to inhabit shallower waters,” said The Telegraph.

Using the 1976 ‘Mean Season’ as a lens in which to explore this common refrain, it is interesting to note that 30 years later scientists cannot fully explain why a great white attacks or “bites” a human. Further, the media continues to over-simplify the reasons or environment for an ‘attack’ or ‘bite.’

That does not mean, however, the scientific community has not made great strides in moving closer to a concrete understanding of what motivates a great white to attack people.

In 1976, similar misconceptions to the ones published by Telegraph prevailed including the “food stock theory” which suggested great whites were turning to a humans as a source of food since sealing operations has been suspended.

The theory suggested that since seal carcasses were no longer being thrown back into the ocean, great whites were “starving” and turning ‘mean.’

Please read “The introduction” on Clifton Shark files to see the main points covered.

Today, this theory has been replaced by a popular belief that maybe shark cage diving conditions sharks to associate humans with food.

However, new data collected over the last several years suggests that the “shark cage diving theory” may be fundamentally flowed.

Further, it appears most of the media seem to be ignoring the strength of the “seasonal shift theory” which was highlighted by Alison Kock in both “The Introduction” and “The Bite” articles on this site.

Shark Cage Diving

Kock told Clifton shark files that “a study I co-authored showed that contrary to our hypothesis that white sharks were being positively conditioned to associate cage diving boats with food, the animals in our experiment all stopped responding to the chumming and baiting activities over the season.”

“Our conclusion was that we saw these results because the food presented to the sharks was not reliable, nor enough to cause white sharks to change their natural feeding habits, and stop predating on seals and other sharks and fish,” said Kock.

Seasonal Shift Theory

Intriguingly, a number of international publications appear to be ignoring new data that suggests great whites start to hunt for food closer to shore as the summer months approach.

Since people tend to flock to beaches during this period, there is a greater chance of an interaction with a great white.

Further, this theory may also offer some clues as to why a great white swam into the Fourth Bay cove at Clifton in 1976.

“It has become generally accepted that white sharks are common close to the shore over the summer periods in Cape Town,” said Kock.

The above may not fully explain the attack on the perlemoen diver but it does help answer the question that the Telegraph obliquely raised as to why great whites are visiting shallower waters.

It also points out flaws in the “shark cage diving theory” which like the “food stock theory” of the 1970s has several shortcomings.

It will be very interesting to see the results of Alison Kock’s shark tagging program, which will offer clues as to exactly what great whites are up to in False Bay. She expects to release the results around mid-2011.

“I have a long-term photo-ID, tagging and genetics project on the go with white sharks in cape Town, and now we are getting ready to attach small animal borne cameras to try and better understand their predatory behavior and social behavior,” Kock told Clifton Shark Files on August 16, 2010.

“I am currently in the last few months of my thesis. I have tagged 78 white sharks with acoustic tags, which forms the foundation of my thesis on white shark ecology in False Bay (I also used photo-ID, small animal-bourne cameras and direct observation of predation events). “

But what about great white activity in the Altantic zone between Table Bay and Llandudno?

“ We did have two acoustic receivers in Noordhoek, with a little data (really not much) and this will form part of my thesis,” said Kock.

In conclusion, the 1976 shark bite at Clifton Fourth Beach continues to offer a powerful lens in which to examine popular theories, scientific advances and misconceptions that continue to exist in the public mindset and a number of media articles on the subject.

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One Response to “Gansbaai shark attack: Did the Telegraph get it wrong?”
  1. 01.27.2011

    We don’t throw pieces of meat off of 4×4’s on safari to attract the lions close enough for good tourist photos…

    We don’t encourage tourists to feed the baboons at Cape Point…

    Why is it still OK to feed/taunt with food, the Great White Sharks of the Cape?
    Is it just because they put alot of money back into research/conservation? Does shark-tourism donation money justify the possibility of increased attacks?

    Surfers and spearfishermen are those feeling the increase, and it seems no-one is prepared to address the chum issue, just deny it. Why cant the operators do the dives without the chum? If you dont see a big cat on a game drive, its just tough luck, there are no guarantees in nature. But with GWS it’s a different story, Why?

    Justin Othersurfa


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