Shark Attack in Southern African Waters and Treatment of Victims

The following excerpt is one of the rare scientific accounts of the 1976 Clifton shark attack detailing how Jeff Spence was attacked by a Great White off Fourth Beach on 27 November.

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It was described in the book “Shark attack and treatment of victims in southern African waters
by Tim Wallett, Struik Publishers, 1983.

It was kindly provided by Professor Rudy van der Elst, Director of Ocean Research Institute, Durban, South Africa.

“I do not really recall the attacks adequately but I do have Tim Wallett’s book. He was a good friend of mine but died very young. In his book the attack on Spence is described in detail. I have scanned the relevant sections for you. Hope it helps.”

– Professor van Der Elst, 10 August 2010, Durban, South Africa

What follows is the relevant passage from the Wallett’s book of the 1976 attack. What appears to be unique about Wallett’s book is the tantalizing hint at the end of his discussion which suggests that the Clifton attack pointed to a as yet new unproved theory that great whites attacks may be the result of curiosity, not predatory behavior.

This was during a period when the great white was considered a cold blooded killer exemplified by the symbolic movie of the 1970s, ‘Jaws.’

The other point worth highlighting about this book is that Tim Wallett appears to be one of the first author’s to debunk the so-called “cold water theory” which hinted that Great Whites did not like hunting in cold water. This conventional wisdom was internalized by most South African’s growing up in the 1970s….


There are three known attacks, which have taken place in the Atlantic Ocean off the Cape Peninsula.

Unfortunately in two instances circumstances were not investigated and existing reports are either vague or dramatized.

The first attack took place in 1920, precise date unknown, when a member of the University of Cape Town, swimming from the Cape Town pier was savaged.

The second attack took place at noon 1st November 1942 when 18-year-old Bergh was attacked and killed at Fourth Beach, Clifton.

A Mr. and Mrs. Haselau eyewitnesses of this attack described how they watched two bathers as they swam towards the shore. When they were about 20 metres from the beach a
large shark approached one of them from the side and in one bite removed both his legs.

As the victim attempted to reach shore the shark returned, took him its mouth and disappeared seawards. His body was never recovered. Both these attacks took place in water normally cooler than 18°C.


Site of the attack and prevailing conditions.

Fourth Beach, Clifton, is situated on the Atlantic coast of the Cape Peninsula, South Africa, latitude 33° 55’S, longitude 18° 25’E in a natural cove at the foot of Lion’s Head.

Clifton’s beaches are by far the most popular on the Peninsula, with their sheltered location and beautiful scenery attracting hundreds of people on fine sunny days.

Water from the cold Benguela current washes the Atlantic shores of the Peninsula and so even though the beaches are well populated, bathers seldom spend long periods in the sea.

On the afternoon of the attack a light southeasterly wind was blowing, the sky was clear and the day had been extremely warm.

There was no surf, the sea being calm, no currents, drifts or channels were present before or after the attack. Water visibility was excellent, being in excess of 30 metres.

The sea temperature was unusually warm, being measured at I7°C by the lifesavers on duty.

Normally this temperature is in the region of 14°C.

The attack took place approximately 250 metres offshore. The depth of the water at the site of the attack was not measured but lifesavers report that it exceeds 5,0 metres.

Description of the victim
At the time of the attack the victim, Geoffrey Kirkham Spence, a white male, was 19-years-old with a light, untanned skin, 1,7 m. tall and a body weight of 66kg. He was dressed in a pair of black RT shorts and wore no jewellery.

There was no open wound or injury on the victim’s person prior to the attack.

Description of the attack
Geoffrey Spence and a companion, J. Nel, entered the sea at 15h50 and after spending a short time in the shallows began swimming towards three yachts and a powerboat moored approximately 250 metres from the beach.

They were swimming breaststroke and at a point roughly midway between the boats and the shore Spence, in jest, imitated the struggles of the girl victim in the motion
picture ‘Jaws’.

They then continued swimming seawards for about three
minutes until they reached a position almost level with the yachts where they began to tread water

At this stage about no metres separated the two men.
Spence recommenced swimming and at the completion of his first stroke he described how, ‘I felt a hard thump on my side and I felt a vice clamp on my chest’.

He was pushed sideways through the water; his head remaining above the surface. Turning his head in a reflex motion to look for his attacker he saw only blood in the water behind him. He made no attempt to break free because the incident took place so quickly that he was released before he realised what was actually happening.

Free, he trod water trying to regain his equilibrium. As he
was doing so a shark passed slowly in front of him, ‘so close that I could have put my hand out and touched him.’

The victim states that the shark appeared to be slightly on its side because he was able to see its mouth agape beneath the water surface, as if it was looking at him. The shark’s back and dorsal fin broke the surface and it disappeared from view not to be seen again.

Having now seen his assailant, the full implication of what had just happened struck Spence and he began shouting for help at the top of his voice.

His companion, Nel, who had also seen the shark, began, in no uncertain fashion, to add to the victim’s shouts for help.

This commotion attracted the attention of lifesavers on duty, who radioed through to the duty squad in the club-house to inform them that that they should be prepared for possible trouble.

Occupants of a small dinghy, which had been on its way to the shore from the yachts, heard the shouts for help. Seeing the blood in the water they came immediately to the assistance of Spence.

The bleeding victim was pulled on board and the dinghy rowed to the shore, this journey taking approximately two minutes.

While being transported in the dinghy, Spence experienced difficulty in breathing. When he reached shore, he felt faint it was an effort for him to remain conscious.

While Spence was being rowed ashore Nel swam to the nearest yacht where he climbed onboard. Later he was ferried to the beach in a second dinghy. No fishing of any kind was being practiced from any of the yachts.

Lifesavers placed Spence downwards on a towel and radioed for the shark attack pack to b brought from their club-house. The pack reached the victim within 4 minutes of his landing on the beach.

Fortunately there were a number of doctors present in the crowd, who staunched the bleeding and administered an intravenous Ringer-lactate drip.

Usually 50 mls of human albumen is added to one vacolitre of Ringer-lactate solution but in this instance supplies were unavailable, not having been received from the blood transfusion service.

While being kept on the beach for the minimum prescribed period of 30 minutes, the patient was given 1,5 litres of Ringer-lactate.

He was then carried on a stretcher to a waiting ambulance and transported to Groote Schuur Hospital.

Description of the injuries
Spence was lying horizontal in the water facing seawards with arms extended forwards when the shark approached him from the left and took his chest in his mouth.

The teeth in the upper jaw caused a clean-cut lesion 235 mm. in diameter stretching from the region of his shoulder blade to the lower edge of his rib cage.

The wound inflicted by the upper jaw had two noteworthy features; there was bridges of skin across the lesion and deep punctures marked the penetration points.

This wound I characteristic of a shark which has spaces between the teeth bases.

It is evident that no lateral movement of the shark’s head occurred and the shark made a single downward bite utilizing the teeth in its upper jaw. The superficiality of the wounds caused by the lower jaw teeth indicates the victim was not grasped hard by the shark which conflicts with the victim’s description of being held in a vice-like grip.

Description of the attacking shark
Spence saw the shark clearly as it swam in front of him after the attack. He describes its colour as being ‘black’ and its length about 3,0 metres. Estimates of the shark’s size gained form the sweep of the wound and victim’s back indicate a length of about 2,7 metres which is consistent with the observations of the victim.

Identification of the attacking shark
Wide spacing of the punctures caused by teeth in the lower jaw and bridges of skin between the deep cuts caused by teeth in the upper jaw, combine with clean-cut edges of the wound, implicate a shark with widely-spaced cutting teeth.

The great white shark is the only species, which meets these requirements in the Cape region. In addition, the large size, the ‘black’ colour and the positive presence of this species off the Cape coast all support the idea that a great white was responsible for the attack.

Calm sea conditions enabled Spence and Nel to swim a considerable distance from shore, bringing them over relatively deep water. As a bather moves away from shore the probability of an attack increases because the proximity of deep water provides an attacking shark save access to its victim.

When Spence enacted the struggles of the film ‘Jaws’ resulting vibrations could have attracted the shark into the immediate vicinity.

Alternatively, the shark could have been close by and these struggle motions may have attracted attention.

Clear water made it possible for the shark to make a visual inspection of both swimmers from some distance.

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.

This stroke causes minimal surface commotion and as such is less likely to excite a shark.

It is significant that Spence was attacked immediately after treading water. Erratic motions of the arms and legs at the surface combined with the contrast in the colour between his black P.T. shorts and his light, untanned skinned could well have provided a combination of elements which induced investigatory response in the shark.

Selection of the words ‘investigatory response’ is made with intent because the wounds inflicted do not indicate that Spence was attacked in true sense of the word.

Spence did not retaliate in any way and yet he was released after a few seconds, which indicates that the shark’s was merely holding him.

It seems that the shark ‘mouthed’ its victim for a short period and then let him go as if it did not like what it ‘tasted’.

Other factors favouring a non-aggressive approach are:

a) Human blood has been considered a contributory factor in promoting attack behaviour in sharks. In this case, however, Spence’s blood did not excite the shark and cause it to attack a second time.
b) After attacking Spence the shark returned immediately and passed him, swimming slowly, as if it was looking at him. This too is in keeping with investigatory behaviour.

It is not know if the shark left the area immediately after attacking Spence. However, it undoubtedly had ample opportunity to molest Nel as he swam to the yachts in what can be described as a panic-stricken dash.

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

Postscript: Tim Wallett obviously had a deep respect for Professor Rudy van der Elst as both a scientist and a friend. He gave the Professor a copy of his book with these words on the cover:

To Rudy,

Who knows more about the creatures that live in the oceans than any person I know. You are a very special person. Thank you for being my friend.

Best Wishes
Tim Wallet

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2 Responses to “Shark Attack in Southern African Waters and Treatment of Victims”
  1. Berto Labuschagne

    Remember the day well. Remember the bite marks very well (large piece of flesh hanging from the left scapular area and only triangular bite marks on the left anterior side of the chest wall). Was also ‘floating’ in the calm warm waters with three fellow UCT students off fourth beach (throwing a tennis ball to one another). Accurate description. Some reports mentioned that Jeff Spence was 250 m away when he was attacked. Other reports mentioned that the attack happened 100 m from the beach. The two swimmers were midway to the boats (that is correct; actually slightly closer to the boats). I have the impression that the boats were much closer to the beach: approx 200 m (as the sea was extremely calm; waves only formed close to the beach and ‘splashed away’ with no force behind them). The attacked happened approximately 100 m from the beach. The four of us formed the next group closest to the two swimmers (‘floating’ approximately 25 m from the beach but more in the direction of the rocks between third and fourth). My initial thoughts were that a ‘big fish’ only bumped into him as he remained in the same position in the water (keeping his head above the water as he kept on shouting realising the extremely dangerous situation). The water in the boat that rescued him was coulored red by the blood. We received news two days later (or the next day) that things were going well (towards a full recovery).

  1. [...] to Tim Wallett in his book “Shark Attacks in Southern African Waters” the sea temperature at Clifton...

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