Why 1976 Should Be Renamed ‘The Mean Season’

By Jason Stevens

With the introduction of television in 1975 and the launch of the summer blockbuster Jaws, the
1976 media exaggerated a series of aggressive great white encounters in False Bay that were attributed to a suspension in sealing operations – the first in a decade.

When a ‘bite’ finally took place it was on the wrong side of the mountain, in cold water, dispelling many of the myths that South Africans had built up of great white behavior over the years while living on the tip of Africa.

The Coldwater Theory

No shark bite, or attack, had occurred between Table Bay and Llandudno in over 30 years. There was a theory for this, albeit a very shaky one.

It was called the “coldwater theory” and it was one Capetonians, including the author growing up, willing subscribed to, suggesting that great whites found cold water uncomfortable and preferred the warmer waters of False Bay and its teeming sea-life, especially seals.

Even today, many surfers, swimmers and kayakers may be switching their activities away from False Bay to the Atlantic side, due to a spate of recent attacks and an internalized belief that colder water is “safer.”

While False Bay has warm waters, historical architecture, fun waves and long coastlines — very popular with tourists from Durban and Johannesburg — they are perhaps not regarded as Cape Town’s “signature” beaches.

Instead, beaches like Llandudno, Camps Bay and Clifton, especially, were considered the iconic calfornia-esque playgrounds of the young, beautiful and rich during the 1970s, and especially today.

This is despite the fact that the deep blue waters of the Atlantic are freezing cold often falling below 14°C . The “ice-cream headache could well have been invented on any of the three beaches previously mentioned.

The freezing waters were great for curing hangovers, throwing in screaming girlfriends, and, for the welcome relief it briefly offered to the sizzling summer heat that often reached 30°C between November and February.

For many surfers, Llandudno and Glen Beach (part of Camp’s Bay), also offered powerful waves generated by southwesterly swells.

Inch-perfect barrels were held up by the powerful and relentless southeasterly wind, nicknamed the “Cape Doctor.”

Others, like Peter Basford mentioned later, earned strong reputations as fearless wave riders further south at lonelier and more powerful breaks such as the Outer Kom and very occasionally, Sunset Reef.

Even with a wetsuit, your fingers, face and toes would become arthritic with cold.

When there were no waves or Capetonians merely wished to escape the relentless South Easter, they flocked to Clifton, protected by steep cliffs.

Of course, parking was a nightmare, especially during the summer months. However, this was a small price to pay for the scene that greeted beachgoers after they descended the long winding concrete steps to arrive on Clifton beaches.

Composed of four beaches, each had its own appeal and geographic advantages. But, none equaled Fourth Beach in terms of setting, status and “rock star” attraction.

If you looked up, you would see luxurious multi-level homes, bungalows and cottages clinging to steep inclines, littered with granite boulders.

Looking west, a cove of blue water met your eye, flanked by boulders on either side. This picturesque bay was usually chocker-block full of sailing yachts, mega yachts and maybe one or two catamarans.

No beach goers had reportedly seen a shark in the bay since 1942 when a 5-meter great white dragged a 19-year old swimmer out to sea. Only older residents recalled this incident, which has never been fully researched.

However, there was a general consensus that great whites were present in Atlantic waters, confirmed by fisherman who made their living fishing and diving off the cold Cape Town waters.

They were rarely seen by beachgoers and the 1942 attack, while gruesome, was considered an aberration.

In fact, besides the 1942 attack, there had only been one other incident off Table Bay in 1920, when a swimmer fatally succumbed to a great white attack.

When reviewing the 20th Century in totality, for Atlantic-side shark bites, or attacks, there have been amazingly few, as notarized by the International Shark Attack Files.

Generally, it was felt great whites or “blue pointers” as they were called in 1976, were especially sensitive to cold water and found greater utility hunting seals and catching fish in False Bay on the other side of Table Mountain.

The historical scarcity of incidents in colder waters, such as those of the Western Cape, lead some scientists in the 20th Century to conclude that there may be a close relationship between sea temperature and shark attacks, with 70°F (21°C) being the critical temperature.

However, the conclusions above may not necessarily be specific to the great white shark and were more focused on the warmer waters near Durban on the east coast of South Africa

Coincidentally, the 1942 and 1976 shark incidents both occurred in unusually warm water temperatures.

According to Tim Wallett in his book “Shark Attacks in Southern African Waters” the sea temperature at Clifton on 27 November 1976 was unusually warm, being measured at about I7°C by the lifesavers on duty. (However, media reports conflict on the exact temperature.)

The 1942 attack sea temperature was approximately the same, leading him to conclude that “both these attacks took place in water normally cooler than 18°C.”

In his “Review of shark attacks in False Bay and Cape Peninsula between 1960 and 2005,” Geremy Cliff asserted that “cold tolerance in swimmers is rapidly lowered as water temperature drops below 21°C and time spent in the water is reduced accordingly.”

Further, since the 1970s there has been an increase in the number of shark attacks in colder waters of the Eastern and Western Cape, as well as Australia.

Cliff attributes this to the increasing popularity of water sports such as board riding and diving through the development of neoprene wetsuits, glass fibre surfboards and other personal watercraft and a variety of diving equipment.

In reviewing the 1976 bite it is interesting to note that the water temperature recorded for both the 1942 and 1976 incidents (17-18°C), still measured below the human cold water tolerance of 21°C put forward by Cliff.

The International Shark Attack Files based in Florida, United States has collected data which suggests that most great white bites (and/or attacks), the world over, have occurred in the water temperature range of 16-17.9°C.

Twelve attacks and/or bites have occurred in this temperature range.

However, the unusually warm water on November 27th, 1976, allowed bathers to stay in the water longer and endure swims further out into the bay.

When Geoffrey Spence was finally bitten by the great white it would occur about 250 meters away from the shore.

Alison Kock, Principal scientist (PhD candidate), at the Save Our Seas Shark Center in Kalk Bay, South Africa, also told Clifton Shark Files that the coincidental conditions for both the 1942 and 1976 incidents do necessarily establish unconditional support for the coldwater theory.

“It’s possible warmer temperatures had something to do with it, but what about all the other times the water was unusually warmer with no incident? A ‘sample size’ of two really isn’t much information to draw conclusions from,” she said.

“We know that they can tolerate very low (less than 4 °C to very high temperatures, more than 30 °C), but perhaps their activity levels are affected by the temperature.”

“However, Most white shark attacks have been recorded in California, US, where water temperatures are very similar to the Clifton area, so once again coldwater doesn’t necessarily mean fewer attacks.“

“It’s important to remember that even today we are unsure what leads to a shark attack,” she said.

“Each attack is a combination of unique circumstances (area, conditions, species of shark, activity of person and activity of shark) and generalizations are often not appropriate.”

“Trends in shark attack often reflect trends in human behavior rather than that of shark behavior. e.g. most attacks take place during the day because that’s when most people use the water, most attacks take place close to shore, because that’s where most people are.”

“White sharks are more common in the cold-temperate waters of the Western Cape, and thus one has more opportunity of encountering one there than in warmer waters e.g. KwaZulu Natal.”

“A few decades ago, wetsuits were not common, but since they have become common, more people are able to spend longer periods of time in colder water, thus increasing any chances of encountering white sharks.”

“The first recorded attacks in Cape Town were in 1900 and 1901 (both fatal) and both in False Bay,” she said.

The Cape Town Media in 1976

Two media milestones in apartheid South Africa distorted what little scientists knew of great white behavior and amplified public misconceptions in 1976:

The introduction of television in 1975. This visual medium helped elevate the shark ‘fear index’ and fast track the dissemination of shark bites and sightings. With each incident, the media could not help sensationalizing the details.

• Sometime in late 1975, the movie “Jaws” found its way onto Ster Kinekor theatre screens fueling an obsession with shark attacks and great whites in particular. The movie remained in theatres throughout 1976 such was the demand. Its affects are still being felt today.

Ironically, Spielberg’s thriller would become an indirect agent in precipitating the “bite” that would take place on November 27, 1976 involving a young submariner called Geoffrey Kirkham Spence.

Spence had seen the movie the day before the bite. The next day, he would re-enact one of the opening scenes in the water. His violent thrashing 250 meters offshore is considered a contributory factor for attracting the attention of a great white.

In another coincidence, it just so happened that by November 1976, great whites were behaving oddly, displaying aggressive behavior, which appeared to mirror the picture painted of great whites in “Jaws.”

Between November 1 and November 27, 1976, there were several reported (and unreported) shark encounters on both the False Bay and Clifton sides of Table Mountain.

On November 6, 1976, The Weekend Argus reported “a solidly constructed sea six metre skiboat belonging to Dr. Danie Visser and Mr. Herbie Wessels of The Strand was badly damaged by a great white off Gordon’s Bay last weekend.”

“A week before this, four skiboat fisherman had a terrifying experience off Macassar Beach when a four metre Great White leapt out of the water and landed on the bow section of their seven metre craft, smashing the steel guard rail to dock level before sliding off into the water.”

English newspapers such as the Cape Times and Argus grasped at straws fueled by the public clamor for more stories on great whites in the wake of “Jaws.”

The movie may have been a catalyst in stimulating the so-called “Jaws Affect” put forward by researchers such as Kock who argue that had it not been for the mania generated by the movie, the incidents in False Bay may not have been picked up (or amplified) by the media.

In other words, the movie became a self-fulfilling prophecy and influenced the way the media tracked and reported shark sightings, bites and attacks.

Alison Kock said, “I have a hypothesis – that shark sightings, reports of shark encounters and the like, increase after there has been a shark attack or bite (whether or not close by) or even when we issue press releases warning people of sharks, called the “Jaws Effect.”

“After Shark Week shows on TV we seem to get more reports of sharks. Of course some of these are real sightings, but many turn out to be kelp, dolphins or sometimes even just dark patches of water. “

Back in 1976 a Cape Town Media, hungry for answers, turned to sources high up in the Department of Fisheries, who, apparently, refused to disclose their names.

The Food Shortage Theory

If Spielberg’s “Jaws” never fully explained why the great white had an insatiable lust for human blood, the nameless source at the Department of Fisheries had the answer: A man-made food shortage had turned great whites into potential “man-eaters”.

On November 6, 1976, the Weekend Argus reported the following:

An official of the Division of Sea Fisheries – who may not be identified but who is one of South Africa’s foremost authorities on sea animals – believes this may be partly due to the fact that for the first time in many years, there have no sealing operations in False Bay.

“About 80,000 seals were clubbed to death off the South African coast last year, but following pleas put forward by a team of conservationists, clubbing was thought to have decreased during the last season,” said the Argus.

It was a simple answer, easy to understand and reflected the dearth of scientific data relating to great white feeding patterns and behavior in South Africa.

Thus, was born the “food shortage theory,” which like the “coldwater theory” before it was an overly simplified explanation of what factors influenced great white interactions with humans.

The article did concede that perhaps not everyone agreed with theory, but nevertheless concluded:

It is conceivable that it may be due in part to a shortage of seal carcasses.

During the years of sealing operations in False Bay, carcasses – once the skin and blubber has been removed – has been thrown back in the sea.

This year for the first time in something like a decade there has been no sealing False Bay and – consequently – the sharks may have come a bit short on food.

False Bay sharks, according to the press, were thus turning ‘mean’ and turning towards humans as source of food.

Was it possible, then, that the this food shortage may have also prompted great whites to swim around Cape Point and explore the cooler Atlantic waters of Noordhoek, Houtbay, Llandudno, Table Bay and Clifton – looking for prey — contributing to the November 27, 1976 incident at Fourth Beach?

Alison Kock issued an emphatic “No.”

“This is really stretching! White sharks have probably swum those Atlantic waters for millions of years and still do. Fossil records have shown white sharks were present on west coast millions of years ago and sightings are not uncommon in those waters,” she said.

An article that appeared in the Cape Times a few days after the 1976 shark bite, ”Hundreds of sharks shot at Clifton, says resident,” offers further circumstantial proof to support her view, although these comments have been never been verified by the scientific community.

“SHARKS are not unusual at Clifton and “hundreds” have been shot over the years, including the notorious white death and hammerhead types,” said the Cape Times.

However, Kock highlighted the dangers in blindly accepting these observations, even from local residents.

“We need to remember that positive identification of the species of shark is even today problematic,” she said.

“Many people see a shark and automatically assume it’s a white shark. Other shark species more common in those areas are bronze whaler sharks and sevengill sharks (although bronze whalers are probably more than likely to be the ones mistaken for white as sevengills are not as easily misidentified.

“I would be surprised if it was ‘hundreds’ of white sharks that were being seen, but more than likely other species. “

The article was based on an interview with a local Clifton resident whose father was A.A Smorenburg. He had served as the City Council caretaker at Clifton, and, according to the Cape Times, carried out “more than 200 sea rescues and became an expert at shooting sharks from the beach.”

Two further witnesses to the shark bite, and never interviewed by the press, Peter Basford and Archar Head, both claim to have seen a great white at Fourth Beach in the same month of the attack.

Neither of these two — along with several others –- were interviewed by Tim Wallett in his well known book “Shark Attack in Southern African Waters,” published in 1983.

Wallett’s book is frequently quoted in scientific circles and is a useful, insightful account of the incident.

However, it appears he limited his research to one or two witnesses and made no attempt to situate recent sightings within the body of his analysis.

For instance, Peter van Gysen, one of the witnesses who lifted Spence out of the water on November 27, 1976, after he was bitten, told Clifton Shark Files upon being contacted:

“I still remember it vividly. The other person with me in the dinghy was Peter Kitt. He was rowing and I lifted the casualty out of the water. This has been the first I have heard from anyone about the incident since December 1976.”

This is an important point to consider not only in terms of ensuring there is a complete body of evidence collected around any shark bite but also in acknowledging the limited research being conducted (or historically conducted!) on great white activity in the Atlantic zone of Cape Town.

Of course, Wallett never had the Internet to aid him in his research and track down individuals.

His book was also only published in 1983, seven years after the attack took place.

In the modern area, The International Shark Attack File, the only authoritative scientific source on recording great white attacks, has put together an online questionnaire aimed at collecting information from those involved or present at any bite or attack.

This includes requests for related press clippings and medical reports.

The South African Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism (DEAT), WWF and Save our Seas Foundation recognize the need for more proactive measures in dealing with bites, attacks and the perception of great whites by the South African public.

Recent workshops appear to be putting together action “teams” and “working documents” on how to collect evidence relating to a bite or dealing with a press prone to sensationalism in the 21st Century.

This also includes keeping track of great white activity through the shark spotter programme and new research programs aimed at tagging sharks in False Bay.

However, research being conducted on the Atlantic side is still minimal and Alison Kock recognizes the need to correct this:

“I agree, more research is needed in these areas. Department of Environmental Affairs did three different field expeditions in this area, but yielded no information. Research has been limited by funding,” she said.

“The only source of information for these areas now comes from the Shark Spotting Programme at The Hoek in Noordhoek, which has recorded 33 shark sightings (presumably white shark although basking sharks may be misidentified as white sharks) since 2007.”

Therefore, as of 2010, there is only 6 years of ‘light’ data relating to great white activity in the Cape Atlantic waters and this is largely restricted to Noordhoek.

Virtually no scientific data exists for sightings and/or the habits of great whites in the Atlantic zone near Llandudno, Camps Bay and Clifton.

Thus, if we agree that the media-inspired 1976 food shortage theory is inadequate to explain the migration of great whites to the Atlantic zone does it at least explain why great whites were attacking skiiboats in False Bay?

Alison Kock considers the theory scientifically implausible.

“To my knowledge there is no factual information available to substantiate the claim made above with regards sharks finding fewer fish and suggesting they would turn to humans as an alternate food source. It seems to be speculation,” she said.

“However, the person could also have been misquoted or only a section of his answer actually printed which happens regularly in these cases.”

“White sharks feed on a diversity of prey, including various species of fish, various species of shark, seals, dolphins and dead whales.”

“Also, as far as I am aware the attacks on these ski boats in False Bay involved white sharks following the fish being caught by the fishermen into the boats. Thus, the sharks were feeding on prey we know they regularly feed on.”

“It must be remembered that these boats were probably using lots of bait and chum to attract the sharks to be able to catch them, these situations can cause sharks to be stimulated and more motivated to get the source of food on offer.

“Their movements are more than likely (given what we know about them) related primarily to food and we do know that various prey populations change distribution according to time of year, environmental and biological conditions,” she said.

Thus, she concludes, it’s likely white sharks’ distribution is affected by changes in prey distribution.

“However, I think it’s a big stretch and highly unlikely that white sharks would switch from their normal prey (all the varieties) to predate on humans.”

In 1976, there were others connected to False Bay that did not particular adhere to the food shortage theory.

This decade symbolized the heyday of Cape Town’s gladiatorial shark hunters such as Danie Schoeman and Theo Ferreira.

Their exploits and comments appeared frequently in published articles in the Argus and Cape Times during 1976.

Schoeman, in particular, resembled the fictional character “Quint” played by Robert Shaw in “Jaws.”

Thomas Peschak, author of “South Africa’s Great White Shark,” described the ripple affect caused by the movie “Jaws’ in a paper “Sharks and shark bite in the media” presented at a 2006 workshop co-sponsored by the WWF and The Cape Town City Council:

In the wake of JAWS followed a Great White killing frenzy motivated and driven by an irrational and exaggerated fear of shark bites which was unearthed by this one work of fiction. Anglers and trophy hunters in the USA, Australia and South Africa set out to sea to kill as many Great Whites as possible. Everyone who returned with a dead shark was a celebrated hero. Despite the fact that sharks were already portrayed as dangerous and evil in the early accounts of sailors, shipwreck survivors and the first underwater explorers, most people’s fear or hatred of sharks can be traced back to the time when they first watched JAWS.

Schoeman did not subscribe to the food shortage theory. Or, if he did, he used as a means to an end.

In his view, there were two killer sharks that roamed the bay that needed to be eliminated immediately.

In fact, unlike “Jaws” these two actually had real names (sic) like “The Submarine” and “Spotty.”

“The Submarine” was the bigger of the two, a great white well over 5 meters in length who had given both Schoeman and Ferreira nightmarish difficulty in catching.

It was never ‘officially’ recorded as caught.

On November 6, 1976, Schoeman told the Weekend Argus that he had tussled with “The Submarine” back in January of that year.

“I actually had him on the line but he simply bent back my specially imported hook as if it were a piece of wire and he got away,” he said.

“Spotty,” a smaller great white, was apparently more aggressive.

“Spotty in particular, is a nasty bit of work,” said Mr. Schoeman. “He charges anything in the water, “ said Schoeman.

When fishing, Schoeman carried a homemade spear or “assegai” onboard with him and advised other fishermen to do the same. Some, he mentioned, even brought guns on fishing excursions.

“There’s no question that the sharks have become more aggressive. Nowadays most of the people I know take a weapon with them when they go fishing off Macassar – anyone who does not is simply asking for trouble,” he said.

But, was “The Submarine” real? Many have suggested it’s a hoax.

Alison Kock agrees this is a challenging question to answer.

“While I don’t doubt the existence of a very large white shark in False Bay at that time it’s hard to distinguish between fact and fiction from some of the stories.”

“Many areas well known for white sharks have similar stories. For example, in Plettenberg Bay locals believe there is a large white shark there called the “Blue Train”.”

“There are individual sharks we have known for 8 years and we can easily distinguish from others, and some of them are really large animals. Thus, the existence of a very large white shark known to the shark hunters is certainly possible and quite likely, any more information than that I don’t know.”

Geremy Cliff’s paper, “A review of shark attacks in False Bay and the Cape Peninsula between 1960 and 2005,” confirms that between 1974 and 1977 Schoeman’s fishing boat was “attacked on five occasions, but they hooked and boated 18 white sharks of 3-5 m.”

“These catches and those of other trophy hunters prior to the declaration of the white sharks as a protected species in 1991 may well have lowered the incidence of shark attacks in False Bay at the time and the several years thereafter,” said Cliff.

The question of how many great whites are present in Cape Town waters (and South Africa) is currently one of the most important research questions that scientists are trying to answer.

Alison Kock confirms there is no hard data available on the subject to draw any airtight conclusions.

The sample data they do have is localized to certain testing areas and may not reflect the true numbers in False Bay and the Atlantic Zone. Since sharks can swim massive distances it is difficult to draw absolute conclusions from the data.

“Estimating the population size of white sharks is full of problems and an estimate of 1279 comes with large caution,” said Kock.

“The lower estimate was 839 and the higher estimate was 1843. This estimate came from a study conducted by Geremy Cliff from KwaZulu Natal Sharks Board and used data from sharks tagged between Struis Bay to Richards Bay (it didn’t incorporate the areas like False Bay and Gansbaai which are most well known for aggregations of white sharks).”

“Thus, scientists use the figure with caution, but it’s the only figure we have to use which is why it’s quoted.”

Why do great whites attack?

According to Cliff there are several possible motives for an attack, including hunger and curiosity.

In 1976, the aggression displayed by great whites may have been due a third factor: Great whites responding to the presence of an intruder

“Much like a dog will attack someone who encroaches his space,” said Cliff.

Said Kock, “I think it still an open question whether white sharks were actually more aggressive in this month than any other time, or whether the combination of other events like the showing of Jaws, or lack of other newsworthy stories, or something else may be involved. Perhaps it is a combination of the two?”

However, the reality is that even 30-plus years after the 1976 False Bay attacks, scientists still really have no idea what the underlying causes are.

“With every shark attack there is a mass of speculation. At that time it was the cessation of sealing,” said Kock.

“Sharks evolved more than 400 million years ago, white sharks have existed in their current form for 20 million years and evolved to feed on various species of animals as mentioned previously.

“I seriously doubt their survival would be at stake because of a sealing operation that ended.”

She also points out further holes in the food shortage theory when comparing it to similar events such as the suspension of whaling operations.

“Whaling stations were renowned for attracting sharks, including white sharks, but these ended at various areas along the coast.”

According to Kock, great whites are opportunistic feeders and would have taken advantage of the disposed seal carcasses.

“A similar scenario exists with cage diving and fishing activities today. White sharks opportunistically get food from these activities.

“However, I still believe it’s highly unlikely they would ‘forget’ millions of years of evolution (predating on various other ocean animals) to depend getting food from activities like these.”
“It’s my opinion that they would supplement their diet with this given the opportunity, but not change their whole way of life.”

She offered a current example to support her explanation: “We are recording anywhere between 3 – 10 successful attacks a day on seals at Seal Island, yet when we attempt to attract the sharks to the boat we are coming up empty handed.”

“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.”

The Change In Seasons

On November 6th, 1976 Danie Schoeman captured a four meter great white in False Bay which spurred further media commentary in the press

On November 10th, John Scott, a well-known columnist for the morning paper, The Cape Times, penned a provocative, albeit tongue-in-cheek piece called “Sharks Should Thin the Mob,” in which he hoped the rising threat of aggressive great whites in False Bay would deter annual vacationers (mainly from Durban and Johannesburg) from visiting False Bay beaches, including the Strand and Muizenburg.

The article was in itself motivated by shark stories, sightings and photographs published in earlier Weekend Argus Editions that month.

Using a Pseudonym, he made a few phone calls and attempted to bait both the Muizenburg Publicity Association and the Cape Peninsula Publicity Association into admitting there was a danger posed by great whites to out-of-town-visitors.

Both dismissed or played down any shark sightings.

“What guarantee can I give my relatives if they won’t be bitten?,” he asked.

“You can’t give them any guarantee. But I should imagine it’s more dangerous for them in Rhodesia at the moment than in False Bay.”

“It is very seldom that sharks come close ashore in False Bay,” said their lady.

This final statement indicates neither association was familiar with the “seasonal shift theory” which suggested that great whites switch their feeding patterns closer to the shore during summer months.

In fact, this theory only became scientifically validated in the last four years via information collected through recent research and collating data from past fishing records.

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

The Shark Spotting Programme in Cape Town has recorded 752 shark sightings at popular Cape Town beaches between November 2004 and 15 August 2010, mostly great whites.

Plus, Kock said, they cover such massive distances that it would be possible for them to travel from False Bay to Clifton within less than a day.

“There are records of white sharks traveling from South Africa to Australia and back again and many records of white sharks traveling up and down the South African coast.”

“We suspect that the inshore behavior is reflective of an increase in prey diversity and abundance over these summer months.

“We warn water users not to swim when they see lots of fish, bird, or dolphin activity as these cues could indicate an abundance of prey in the area which could mean more sharks.”

Mentioned earlier was a reference to A.A Smorenburg, in a the Cape Times article published after the November 27, 1976 bite, entitled “Hundreds of Sharks in Clifton says resident.”

According to the article, Smorenburg reportedly believed that “sharks followed periodic warm currents into Table Bay. When these disappeared, taking the fish with them, the sharks began to forage for food close inshore. The temperature at Clifton at the time of the latest attack was 18 C.”

This ‘personal’ viewpoint of a Clifton resident dovetails with the accepted seasonal shift theory put forward by Kock and other researchers.

It thus conceivable that a great white was present at Fourth Beach partly due to its evolutionary programming which pushed it to look for prey closer to shore during the hot summer month of November 1976.

On 23 November, 1976, C. Davdison, Director of the Cape Peninsula Publicity Association wrote a letter to the Cape Times responding to John Scott’s column P.S.: “Sharks Should Thin The Mob.”

After initially jibing Scott for his failed attempt to trick his employees into believing his story about his ‘Rhodesian relative,’ Scott appeared to acknowledge that the association was concerned about great white shark behavior in False Bay and the potential consequences for beachgoers.

“Seriously though – we are concerned and feel investigation and action, by provincial as well as local authorities is now required,” he said.

In 1976 the City of Cape Town had no coordinated shark education or bite response apparatus to deal with media queries such as those coming from Scott and other daily newspapers.

Since shark research was still in its infancy, reporters appeared to mostly rely on nameless sources at the Department of Sea Fisheries.

Further, the ‘City’ had no proactive approach to addressing areas in white shark management and recreational safety.

In fact, nearly four decades later this challenge still persists.

Following a series of scientific shark research workshops in 2006, an edited paper emerged called “Finding The Balance” which stated:

There is a lack of clarity on the roles and responsibilities between local, provincial and national authorities, and a large number of unsubstantiated theories on the cause of shark incidents have found their way into the media and public domain.

The 2006 workshops were not open to the public and were termed a “specialist input process.”

The paper concluded that “although the incidence of shark attacks is still very low, there has been a gradual long term increase in the incidence of attacks in Cape Town and the Western Cape during the past 50 years.”

This was largely attributed to the increasing recreational use of the ocean in sports such as surfing, spearfishing and kitesurfing, amongst others.

It also specifically mentioned the media and the challenges in communicating with them:

• Large amounts of misconceptions and media hype around shark attack risk poses a significant communications challenge and continue to shape public perceptions.

• There is currently no co-coordinated communication strategy or clarity on the roles of different institutions and levels of government.

• Little funding is committed to proactive communications.

Alison Kock had a more personal viewpoint to share with regards her experience in dealing with the modern media after shark incidents.

“People want a reason for the attack, and are not happy with inconclusive statements from scientists (particularly the journalist doing the interview),” she said

“Thus, in my experience they interview someone (anybody) who is willing to give a conclusive statement (not based on any proof or fact) simply to put it in the article.”

A few of the immediate follow up actions suggested by the workshop included:

Alison Kock will use her acoustic tagging data to assess the efficacy of the shark spotter program.
• Key sites for trauma kits to be identified by the White Shark Working Group.
• Constitute a media task team under the White Shark Working Group with representation from City of Cape Town, DEAT and contributing NGOs.
• Develop a media pack that includes: A selection of appropriate images
• Contact numbers of people responsible to speak on behalf of various organizations
• Contact numbers of appropriate experts on shark biology and behavior. Lists of websites; credible sources of information.
• Hold a media briefing on the outcomes of the expert workshop. Media packs to be distributed at this briefing.

Thus, it is likely in the next decade Cape Town may emerge as one of the more ‘enlightened’ locales for dealing with great white media queries and implementing media damage control when a ‘rare’ fatal attack or bite occurs.

It also worth reminding readers that South Africa is a pioneer in great white research, becoming the first country in 1991 to fully protect this endangered species.

However, back in 1976, misinformation was rampant and what little the shark community (and media) knew of great white behavior indicated that if a ‘bite’ or ‘attack’ took place that Summer, there was a 99% probability that it would occur somewhere along False Bay; not the Atlantic seaboard.

Further, the media were unaware of an unreported incident involving underground big wave rider, Peter Basford, who happened to be spearfishing off Clifton Fourth Beach around November 2, 1976.

Without going to into too much detail (read related article & podcast), Basford described an encounter with an aggressive great white. After several probing jibes by the great white, Basford, shaken, made it to back to shore, unharmed.

Then, on 26 November 1976, one day before the bite took place, Archar Head, a local resident, then eight-years old claimed to have seen a great white swim under him while playing on a rubber tire with friends.

According to Head, the Argus arrived later that day and published a photograph of him pointing to the spot where he saw the shark.

If these reports are true — two great white shark sightings a few weeks apart in one of Cape Town’s most popular beaches – there may have been some cause for alarm or at the very least, vigilant monitoring.

However, even today, it is not clear-cut how authorities would make the best use of this information to exercise measures to protect the public from a possible bite.

One of the main problems with a great white sighting, as mentioned before, is the fact that they can swim massive distances in one day. Thus, one day there, gone the next!

Additionally, all the suggestions put forward by researchers appear biased towards the False Bay and Noordhoek areas where shark spotting programs prevail and most sightings occur.

“Each regional authority will function differently and respond differently to a shark sighting,” according to Alison Kock.

“In Cape Town where shark sightings are regular occurrences now if a shark is sighted the beach is closed temporarily while the shark is visible to the shark spotters and people are encouraged to leave the water.”

“After the shark is not sighted an ‘all clear’ message is sent out and people are allowed to get in the water again. However, a red flag will be flown for two hours afterward that indicates that a shark had been sighted that day.”

“ On top of that new signage at these beaches now allows the shark spotters to record the ‘last sighting in the area’ in chalk on the board, which gets updated. “

“It remains up to the individual if they are willing to take the risk or not. In other areas where sharks are not regularly sighted there have been examples of the authorities closing the beaches for the same day or even more.”

“It really depends on the area and the public’s tolerance and experience in dealing with shark sightings. Many local surfers in Cape Town get frustrated when the beaches are closed because of shark sightings, and some even refuse to leave the water.”

“Their attitude is that they know the sharks are around all the time. However, other people do not feel the same way and will immediately leave the water and maybe not even return.”

“The varying degrees of opinions on the issue is staggering and complicates the way authorities respond,” she said.

What went wrong?

At approximately 15h50 on November 27,1976 Geoffrey Spence happened to be at the wrong place, at the wrong time doing the wrong thing. A confluence of events conspired against him.

(For a full account of the bite please review related article entitled “The Bite“)

Wrong Place

Shark experts caution bathers from swimming too far offshore, especially past breakers. Spence, and his companion J. Nel, had swum approximately 250 meters offshore when they began treading water.
They were able to do so because the water was unusually warm that day.

Wrong Time

Spence was swimming during the height of the summer months when great whites switch their feeding locale from deeper waters to areas closer to shore.

Additionally, both Basford and Head, claimed to have seen a great white that month in the Fourth Beach cove.

Further, he was swimming in the late afternoon, a period generally considered to be within the “dinner time” schedule preferred by great whites.

According to Alison Kock, her husband is a ex-spearfisherman turned underwater cameraman that regularly free-dives with white sharks.

“He generally won’t free-dive and never used to spearfish before 10 am or after 3 pm due to the low light conditions, and low visibility in the water. On top of this, he generally won’t free-dive in poor water visibility. “

She also points out new insights into shark feeding times based solely on their interactions with seals in False Bay.

“We actually now know that white sharks hunting seals, prefer to do so in the early morning at Seal Island. “

“It’s generally accepted based on two different studies that this time of day offers a combination of low light conditions which the shark uses to it’s advantage to ambush attack seals, as well as the fact that more juvenile seals are available to the sharks at this time.”

“In Mossel Bay my colleague Ryan Johnson has observed a crepuscular activity pattern. However, this is based on them hunting seals, and no other prey. “

Wrong Thing

Eyewitnesses confirm that Spence spent most of time in the water “crying wolf” about a possible shark.

At one point, around 16h00, while treading water, he mimicked one of the opening scenes in the movie “Jaws” where the woman is gripped by a great white and dragged underwater.

These violent vibrations would have been immediately picked up by any nearby great white and interpreted as ‘prey’.

Further, because he had been previously playing the fool, when the bite did finally occur nobody at first paid much attention to him.

Kock, noting the irony, said “there was another attack on a life guard, Achmat Hassiem in 2006 off Sunrise Beach in False Bay, he was simulating drowning, but this is pretty ironic. “

What Went Right?

Spence was very fortunate that there was a rowing boat nearby in vicinity manned by Peter Van Gysen and Peter Kit.

Upon hearing the screams “Shark, Shark”, Gysen pulled a weak Spence into the boat while Kitt rowed them shore.

Clifton Lifesaving Club may have been one of the few in the Cape Pennisula that had a shark trauma kit handy. The lifesavers acted quickly and professionally and attempted to clear the water as best they could.

Further, there happened to be several doctors on the beach that day that, were able to assist and stabilize his condition before the ambulance arrived.

Finally, if you think the Cape Town public was particularly perturbed in the aftermath of the bite, you may be mistaken.

In fact, a number of people interviewed about the 1976 incident adopted a philosophical view of the bite and still returned to swim in Clifton waters at a later date.

Spence himself told reporters afterward that he knew his chances of being bitten again were ‘statistically nil’ and that he needed to get back in the water ‘soon’.

Jane Allan, one of those present at the beach that day, remembers “I also don’t recall any particular angst over the attack. To be honest, I think in those days we just lived our lives and we were definitely back at Clifton the following weekend.”

There is one dark, slightly humorous moment worth noting that day, recalled by Peter Van Gysen, one of Spence’s rescuers:

“All got out and then one or two idiots went swimming. After I had a cigarette, we washed the dinghy out as there was quite a lot of blood in it. One real palooka (sic) walked straight through the blood stained water and into the sea for a swim. I shouted at him and told him not to be such an idiot. I seem to recall I used a few expletives.”

It is dangerous to generalize, but it appears Capetonians will never be afraid of the water, even with the odd bite or sensationalized media item. After all, they have more chance of being hit by a car.

Many understand and accept that the great white, an apex predator, rules the offshore waters around the Cape Peninsula and have no real desire to see the great white hunted down or killed.

However, this may not be a universal sentiment especially if you live on the False Bay side of the mountain.
“I think there is still quite a large percentage of people in cape Town, particularly Fish Hoek, that don’t necessarily feel that way yet,” said Kock.

The bite in more detail

According to Wallett in his book “Shark Attack in Southern African waters,” approximately three minutes passed between the time of the acted attack and the real attack so it is probable that the shark made a number of passes as the bathers continued swimming breaststrokes towards the yachts.

Geoffrey Spence described the bite in detail to a reporter at the Cape Times: “We had been swimming out to a couple of yachts anchored close by and were resting for a moment, treading water, when I did my imitation of the girl as she was being pushed along the surface – when suddenly I felt a thump on my side.

“The next moment I was being pushed half out of the sea myself at a fast rate,” he said.

“About 10 metres farther on the shark suddenly let me go and I struggled to keep afloat and yelled “Shark! Shark!” at the top of my voice. It was then that I fully realized what had hit me – it all happened so fast – and I stared down at my own blood discoloring the sea as the shark swam around me.”

According to Wallett, It appeared that the shark ‘mouthed’ its victim for a short period and then let him go as if it did not like what it ‘tasted’.”

Thus, in his view, the great white exhibited investigatory rather than predatory behavior, complementing Cliff’s general view that ‘curiosity’ is often a factor in a great white attack.

However, Cliff also stated that any aggression displayed by a great white might sometimes be triggered by the presence of an intruder.

If we consider Peter’s Basford’s testimony that he clashed with an aggressive great white around November 2, 1976 it suggests a possible alternative: A great white protecting his territory.

The Weekend Argus published an article the same day as the bite entitled “Shark Attack at Clifton Beach”.

“Soon after the attack three men took off in a boat armed with a gun to hunt the shark,” said the Argus.

Peter Basford was one of those three men along with Nic de Kock and Baba Joubert, all three seasoned Cape Town anglers.

According to De Kock, Basford shouted a couple of times “It’s the same shark, it’s the same shark!”

He would attempt, unsuccessfully, to bait and kill the shark, which vanished and was never seen again.

Why revisit the 1976 Shark Bite?

In conclusion, the 1976 attack is extremely compelling for a number of overlapping reasons:

Firstly, it occurred during the dawn of the television media age and a watershed moment in history when the movie “Jaws” would define people’s perceptions of great whites for the next four decades.

Secondly, it is ironic that the movie itself inspired Spence to re-enact a scene, which may have attracted the attention of a great white.

Thirdly, the bite happened to take place in the same month that False Bay fishermen were experiencing unusual aggressive interactions with great whites. I refer to this as the ‘mean season’.

Fourthly, it occurred during the epoch of larger-than-life characters involving the ‘The Submarine’ and his gladiatorial counterpart, Danie Schoeman.

Fifthly, it retrospectively draws attention to the myths that persisted around the cold water and food stock theories, and, their flawed foundations.

Sixthly, the ‘mean season’ of November 1976 inspired a wave of daily newspaper reports that appeared to be predicting an ‘attack’. When it took place, the location caught everyone by surprise forcing a reassessment of how great whites behave. Irony, is everywhere in the 1976 bite.

Finally, and most perhaps most importantly, a return to 1976 allows us to uncover the testimony of those not interviewed by Wallett or local newspapers. This evidence allows us to build a richer understanding of the days leading up to the incident and the ‘bite’ itself.

Their stories, if possible, need to be captured since, as Alison Kock eloquently puts it, “great white bites remain unpredictable and rare events,” and their recollections will help build up a greater knowledge of great white behavior in the Atlantic Zone of Cape Town – thus far largely ignored.

While Tim Wallett may not have covered all the ground relating to the 1976 shark bite, his final words on the incident are worth repeating:

“Many factors involved in this attack are contrary to those usually exhibited by an attacking great white. It is probable that behavior displayed by this particular shark hints at many unknown facets of this species’ psychology.”

Indeed, the 1976 shark bite may well suggest a watershed moment in the history of human understanding of what motivates an apex predator like the great white to attack a human being.

Suggested Further Reading:

The BiteA detailed account of the 1976 shark bite at Clifton
Podcast Peter Basford relates his clash with a great white at Clifton
Media AnalysisAn archive of published shark reports by Cape Town Media
Timeline a chronological timeline of ‘The Mean Season’
Were you there?Contact us now!
Blog new information will be posted here

A Special thanks to the following for making this site a reality:

  • Alison Kock, Shark Researcher
  • Nic de Kock, witness
  • Peter Basford, witness
  • Peter Van Gysen, witness
  • Ronel Rogers, South African Libraries
  • Jeremy Swanson, present at Fourth Beach
  • Jane Allan, present at Fourth Beach
  • Archar Head, witness
  • …and many more!

Without their patience, input and feedback the information collected on this site would not have been possible. They gave up much of their time and energy to help me with this project.

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