It was a show of unprecedented aggression in a surfers’ paradise: ten shark attacks in the past two years, three of them fatal. Now the surfers are biting back, calling for a posse to hunt and kill the offending animals. Bucky McMahon paddles straight into the insanely unsafe waters of Réunion island, a little slice of France off the coast of Africa, and reports on a raging turf war between man and beast…
It seemed somehow significant, or maybe particularly unfair, but anyhow a cold, dumb fact: Mathieu Schiller had just paddled out. He hadn’t had a chance to catch a single wave. In a case of bad timing within worse, the 32-year-old bodyboarder, a former French champion and the owner of a local surf school, had launched from the beach as one of the biggest sets of the day humped on the horizon. There’d been a month of solid swell (which may have been significant as well), and though the wave heights were finally beginning to decline, it was still a big day at a surf break renowned for its powerful waves, and negotiating the set would take Schiller a little farther out to sea than the normal lineup. He duck-dived under the last wave, feeling the upward surge of power as the lip of the breaking wave threw out over him. He came up, streaming water, scanning the horizon with his characteristic enthusiasm, his ever present stoke.
Then he burst up out of the sea. The shark stood him up, his legs in its mouth. And while he beat at its snout with the blunt end of his boogie board, another shark leapt from the water and bit into his torso. For one impossible, hopeful instant, while the second shark hung in the air, jaws snapping, the whole thing must’ve seemed like some kind of terrible hoax, or a collective hallucination. Then the momentum of the leaping shark carried man and beasts back down into the water, into a spreading pool of blood.
This primal scene of large wild animals hunting us could’ve been witnessed by any number of locals and tourists sunbathing on the beach or sipping drinks at the cafés along the promenade, for it was three o’clock on a sunny afternoon, September 19, 2011, the tail end of the surf season at Boucan Canot beach and a busy time at this festive resort town on the west coast of Réunion, a French island about 400 miles east of Madagascar. The lifeguards, surfers themselves and friends of the victim, saw it going down right in front of them. Vincent Rzepecki, a powerfully built 31-year-old, was the first guard to hit the water. He couldn’t believe what was happening. He’d grown up with Schiller, had dinner with him the night before last. Now he paddled like mad, hoping for the best.
Of the half dozen surfers in the water, Yves Delaplin had been closest to the accident. He remembers the fear and the shock, and the inner conflict of fight or flight. From about twenty feet away, he saw the slick of blood and heard Schiller call out from the middle of it, “Shit! Yves!” Time seemed to smear into one long panicky moment of hesitation—the sharks visible as fast-moving blurs, everyone yelling “Get out of the water!”—and then Delaplin, on a bodyboard himself, kicked toward the accident. He was holding Schiller in his arms when Rzepecki arrived on the paddleboard.
“Get out of here!” he ordered Delaplin. “Let me do my job!” And with that he took custody of the victim, shifting the stricken surfer up onto the deck of the paddleboard. Rzepecki saw at once that the situation was hopeless. Schiller’s chest was torn open; water washed into the cavity. Still, he was determined to deliver his friend to shore. Then the next set arrived, a series of twelve-foot-tall walls of water. Rzepecki heard the roar of white water behind him, and then he and Schiller were ripped from the paddleboard, driven down, and slammed hard on the bottom. Amid a blizzard of turbulence, still clutching his friend to his chest, Rzepecki was somehow aware of the sharks in the white water with him, gray shapes at the edge of his vision.
He surfaced with Schiller in his arms, gulped air, and the next wave bore down. Now his thoughts flashed back to a previous fatality at a nearby surf break, Ti Boucan. Three months earlier, 31-year-old Eddy Aubert had been killed during a late afternoon surf session. Not a widely popular figure like Schiller, Aubert had been more of a soul surfer, a free spirit living with his girlfriend up in the hills. Aubert’s death had seemed an isolated tragedy rather than part of a pattern. Now the pattern emerged. Same pattern of bites to leg and torso. Maybe the same sharks. Sharks with no fear of men. Rzepecki was suddenly very much afraid and close to panicking. He was hurt and he was drowning. His friend was dead. He had to let him go.
By the time he made it back to shore, the nautical crew from the fire department was already on the beach, equipped with scuba tanks, preparing to take on the recovery of the body. According to Rzepecki and other lifeguards, the divers ran into trouble immediately. Despite employing Shark Shields (devices that emit electronic pulses to repel sharks), they were forced to retreat into caves beneath the spit of rocks that delineates the north end of Boucan Rights, while the sharks, in a highly agitated state, frisked in and out of view in the impact zone. Mathieu Schiller’s body was never found.
The world-famous left point break at St. Leu is the surf spot of my dreams, and of my nightmares, too. In the pre-dawn gloom, I paddle a big red rental longboard through the chilly glass of the tranquil channel. Sanhn-Loo! I know the place from boyhood lore, Endless Summer fantasies, and surf-magazine pics. French and African. So cool. A long and leisurely paddle out, and then a fast fun ride on a perfectly peeling left-hander. Truly one of the world’s great surfing waves.
Normally, on this crowded planet, I’d never get a wave at a famous break like this. I’m not good enough, not aggressive enough. But things are far from normal now on Réunion. The locals here are staying high and dry, staging a kind of informal strike. According to native wisdom, the risk of a shark attack has become intolerable. Since the death of 21-year-old Alexandre Rassiga in July, the third fatality in just over a year, there have been protest marches, a lot of shouting, and a bit of violence, with surfers demanding that the government kill the offending animals. I’ve arrived in the midst of a turf war between man and shark. It’s Saturday morning, August 25, 2012, less than three weeks after yet anotherattack, this one not fatal but nearly so—a mauling right here at St. Leu—and there’s nobody out in the water but me and Mickey Rat.
Mickey—Mick Asprey—is a white-haired 64-year-old Australian shaper who owns a shop in town. Ten years ago, he was blinded in one eye in a collision with his surfboard; that and his irascible demeanor remind me of an Aussie Rooster Cogburn. Mostly I’m watching him surf. He’s catching four waves to my every one, and whenever he disappears behind a glassy wall, I’m left alone in the lineup, wondering if at any moment my on-site reporting, and indeed my life, will be brought to an abrupt and bloody conclusion by a streaking gray blur.
Certainly, on that day three weeks ago here at St. Leu, a shark sought out Fabien Bujon. It was late afternoon, getting close to sundown, a bad time to be in the water, as everyone knew. The first bite took off one of Bujon’s feet, and the shark—a bull shark—came at him for more. As Bujon punched at its head, the shark latched onto his hand, severing it above the wrist. He crammed his other hand into its gill slits and the shark backed off. One tough hombre, Bujon somehow managed to make the hundred-yard paddle to shore unassisted.
Now the sun finally crests the 10,000-foot-tall volcano in the near distance, turning the sea a glimmering silver. I squint through the translucent water at my gloriously intact feet, wiggling my toes, and recall the warning I received from a St. Leu local. Wild-haired, eyes red-rimmed from a hard night’s partying, looking like the dockside prophet Elijah in Moby-Dick, the man fixed me with his stare and said, “The sharks, they taste the men, and they learn to eat them.”
If this is hysteria, it’s highly contagious.
Surfing Réunion has never been safe—the International Shark Attack File lists fourteen attacks on surfers, of which eight were fatalities, between 1989 and 2010—but the island has never experienced anything like the current spike: ten attacks in the past two years. In February 2011, a shark tore off a surfer’s lower leg at Roches Noires, a surf break near the harbor of St. Gilles, the island’s busiest resort town. A few months later, a surfer at the same break escaped with just a chomped surfboard. Sharks also pursued a waveski and a canoe, neither incident resulting in injury, though in the case of the canoe, a closed-hull outrigger, the shark came out of the water and bashed in the upper deck—an act of unprecedented aggression, or desperation. These incidents, plus the Aubert and Schiller fatalities, all occurred within or nearby the Marine Reserve, a twelve-mile-long protected zone established on the west coast to try to save the threatened coral of the barrier reef.
Was the Reserve itself to blame for the eightfold increase in attacks? Some surfers and fishermen believed that it endangered one group (the surfers) by excluding the other (the fishermen). They felt that la présence humaine was needed to restore the old balance, with man at the top. Or were the attacks just a cascade of coincidences? Or were they due to some changes in the sea at large, or in shark numbers or shark behavior? To begin to answer those questions, in October 2011 the government of Réunion island launched CHARC, an ambitious water-safety and shark-monitoring program, the main thrust of which would be the tagging of eighty sharks by 2014. In the meantime, the popular beaches of Boucan Canot and Roches Noires were closed to surfing and swimming for the indefinite future.
As the CHARC scientists pursued their tagging program—catch each shark with rod and reel, immobilize it alongside the boat, surgically implant an acoustic beacon—France’s biggest dive-training and certification organization took a more submersive approach: They hired the world-famous Belgian breath-hold diver, Frédéric Buyle, a kind of eco-Van Helsing of the monster-shark world, to swim down and have a look around. A passionate shark advocate, Buyle had won fame swimming with great whites—sans cage—and looking at them eye to eye. Here in Réunion, Buyle was amazed by what he saw, or failed to see. There were no sharks at all, at least none of the smaller reef sharks found everywhere else in the tropical world. Eventually, using baits, Buyle coaxed his wary quarry from the shadows. Moving in slo-mo and hugging close to the bottom, gray against gray, were specimens of Carcharhinus leucas. Requins bouledogues. Bull sharks.
“Ils sont timides, très, très timides, mais present,” Buyle writes in his report of the expedition. They were there all right, but very, very wary. And very bad news.
When Buyle inspected the attack sites at Boucan Canot and Roches Noires, he concluded that both sites are ideal bull-shark habitat: sand beaches fronting ravines holding fetid streams. Roches Noires has the additional attraction of nearby St. Gilles harbor, with its murk of pollution and steady supply of fish carcasses. Buyle asserted he would never enter the water at either place without a dive mask for defense against ambush.
Nevertheless, he believed that closing the beaches had been a mistake. Who would assume the authority to reopen them? Who could decide when they would be “safe” when they never would be? Réunion island didn’t have a shark problem so much as it had a people problem, peculiarly French. There was the French faith in the law on one hand, that for every crime a criminal could be found and punished. On the other hand, just a careless plunge away, was a powerful and unpredictable species—evolving and adapting to conditions made more hostile by humans. The sea had become “a place of mass consumption,” in Buyle’s words—and at the same time primo bull-shark habitat. He called the situation “grotesque.”
The bull shark is a species with a detestable reputation. Feared worldwide under various names—Zambezi shark, Nicaragua shark—it is perhaps the most intelligent, most adaptable, and least predictable of the large, dangerous sharks. Neither fast nor graceful like the tiger, nor majestic like the white, the bull is a bulky, round-bellied, seemingly sluggish beast, though capable of quick bursts of speed in attack. Mature females, larger than the males, attain a max length of about eleven feet and can weigh more than 500 pounds. Small eyes hint at the relative unimportance of sight in their hunt for prey, which they are known to pursue in coordinated attacks, often in turbid, low-visibility conditions. Through an adaptation called osmoregulation, their versatile kidneys allow them to move freely between salt water and freshwater, to enter river mouths and prowl miles upstream. On Réunion, with its steep volcanic slopes scoured by deep ravines, it had long been folk wisdom to stay out of the water after heavy rains, when freshwater laden with silt and debris sent long brown plumes into the sea. Above all, bull sharks are attracted to that turbidity, to murky waters for the cloak of invisibility. That’s why bulls are rarely glimpsed until the moment of impact.
But many Réunion surfers had come to believe something different: The bulls were learning that surfers were easy prey. So they wait, these killer sharks. Hidden. Elsewhere. You never see them when the sea is calm. Then the waves come—a symphony to their senses, the big pounding swell. The swell churns up the bottom, the sand in solution creating that murkiness through which they navigate with the ease of the blind, like great bats. Then—voilà!—the food arrives, arranged just beyond the breakers, a dangling banquet of human limbs.
On July 23, 2012, at Trois-Bassins—traditionally the safest surf break on Réunion—a third surfer was lost. Alexandre Rassiga, a handsome 21-year-old actor-bartender, took a bite below the knee—a nonfatal injury—and then suffered a second bite to the upper thigh that severed an artery. At this point, something seemed to snap in the minds of Réunion island surfers. Aubert. Schiller. And now Rassiga. The surfers were losing their friends, losing their pastime. Boucan Canot and Trois Roches remained shut down. Now the mayor of Trois-Bassins closedthat venerable surf spot. Robert Boulanger, president of the Ligue Réunionaise de Surf, described the mental state of his constituents as “psychose.”
Three days after Rassiga died, some 300 surfers and fishermen marched on the capital, St. Denis. Carrying surfboards painted with slogans, they chanted “Open the Reserve now!” The protesting surfers believed that the Marine Reserve, in which commercial fishing is banned, had become like a “larder” for sharks. They were no different from criminals, these bouledogues!, as one furious surfer put it, except that they had the Reserve as a hideout and a refuge, a sanctuary like a medieval cathedral.
Ten days after the protest march, on August 5, Fabien Bujon was mauled at St. Leu, the island’s signature break. If Rassiga’s death lit the fuse, the St. Leu attack created the explosion. An angry mob of about a hundred surfers and fishermen tried to break into the offces of the Marine Reserve, where they were forcibly repulsed by police.
The mayor of St. Leu, Thierry Robert, promised a shark cull. The cull would be good for business, this pro-development mayor of a tourism boomtown might have reasoned (not unlike the panicked mayor in Jaws). Instead the plan made international headlines, and the backlash from animal-rights groups was immediate and effective. In France, Brigitte Bardot (as head of her eponymous animal-welfare group) wrote a letter to the prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, attacking the decision to kill the sharks. “The sea belongs first to marine life,” the group announced. “We can’t condemn sharks to death just to please surfers. It’s ridiculous.”
A minister in France big-footed the St. Leu mayor with a compromise. Two professionals would be hired to fish the Marine Reserve for twenty sharks, bulls and tigers, which would be tested for ciguatera, a potentially deadly food-borne toxin, to see if their meat could be marketed. It was a grotesque solution, as Frédéric Buyle might’ve said, since the fishermen were targeting the same sharks CHARC was attempting to tag. And angry Réunion surfers were far from satisfied. But for anyone watching with dismay the endgame of the earth’s last large charismatic animals—the dangerous ones, the diffcult and inconvenient beasts of the shrinking wilds—Réunion island’s reluctance to cull marked a long-overdue check on human arrogance.
Meanwhile, as the Réunion shark controversy boiled, signs and portents of nature’s revenge—call it “bite-back”—continued to emerge around the world. Last August, scientists in the diminishing Everglades captured a record-setting seventeen-and-a-half-foot Burmese python—an invasive species swallowing whole populations of native mammals. In southern India, the desperate poor were moving into the national parks, foraging for food, and grazing their cattle on land set aside for elephants. The elephants, tenuously confined in what one writer called “animal concentration camps,” responded with rampages through towns and villages. About the same time, a lioness and her three cubs were captured in a Nairobi suburb. She was staking out her territory in backyards and vacant lots. A biologist for the Nairobi National Park said that he believed the survival of the species as a whole depended on “successful fencing.”
There’s a troubled history of fencing off the reefs of Réunion, where wave action makes shark netting diffcult, and where the situation is further complicated by the near invisibility of the predators. Sardon Courtois, the prophet who balefully warned me—”They taste the men, and they learn to eat them”—had gone on to say that there was no magic solution. Then he gave me his blessing to go forth and surf.
The next morning at my hotel, I can hear the rhythmic booms as waves unload on the barrier reef. The swell has begun to build. I wonder if that drumbeat is really summoning the bouledogues to feed. The surf is probably triple-overhead at Pointe du Diable (way too big for me), double-overhead at St. Leu (but the local surfers have posted a sign asking visitors not to surf). I decide to try my luck at L’Hermitage, a reef-pass break in the Reserve that’s still open for surfing.
As I’m wading into the lagoon, about to begin the 300-yard paddle to the barrier reef, two lifeguards on a Jet Ski come blasting across the flats to confront me. “You surf alone?” one asks. “Why do you make this bad decision?” I want to answer that in a place where to surf or not to surf has become a political decision, my politics tell me to surf. But that sounds pompous, even to me. So I just shrug. One lifeguard shakes his head, glowering, dismounts from the Jet Ski, and wades ashore. The driver returns my shrug and says, “I have to apologize for my friend. He was there, you know, when Mathieu Schiller was killed.”
Soon I’m out alone in the channel, watching the waves, with just a sea turtle for company. It blows its nose, cranes its neck, and regards me skeptically. We’re the perfect test for the mistaken-identity theory, and I’m feeling nervous. Mostly, though, I’m worried about the waves, which make a fearsome tearing sound like crashing timber as they explode onto the reef. This is no surf break for out-of-practice middle-aged men. Still, I can recall the old compulsion, the restless nights before an expected swell, the sheer joy and the camaraderie of the wave-riding tribe. I know what it must be like to have to give it up when you’re in the throes of early passion for the sport—and I was just a surf-starved pup from flat-city Florida. To be a young surfer with the skill to ride these waves—dude, it’s gotta suck.
But while many surfers are simply sitting out the crisis, a lot of others are organizing and developing tactics to get back in the water. Loris Gasbarre, a close friend of Mathieu Schiller, has started Prévention Requin Réunion, pushing for a selective culling but also fund-raising to buy Zodiacs and hire security for surf competitions. Christophe Mattei, a technologically inclined big-wave rider, is developing a smartphone app that would work in conjunction with shark-tagging data to provide real-time info on shark locations. Réunion island surfers are beginning to realize that the loss of safety is long-term and that they are going to have to adapt.
One sunny afternoon, Mat Milella dons mask and fins and slips into the water of the St. Gilles harbor, within sight of the shark warning flags flying over Trois Roches. Milella is a paid vigie requin (shark lookout), part of a new CHARC “securitization” program that has begun patrolling surf breaks that remain open. With a quick prayer to the surf gods and a quicker “fuck it,” I splash in after him.
The 32-year-old waterman is well-suited to the task: whippet-thin, with piercing eyes and golden hair, he’s Rowdy Gaines reborn. We kick out of the murky harbor, heading south, away from Trois Roches, thankfully. We’re within the Marine Reserve, among knobs of bleached coral. There are a few bright tropicals, various tangs and angels and parrotfish, but no sharks, no barracudas, no mackerel or grouper. Not much of a “larder,” not here, anyway. Milella dives down to twenty, thirty feet, hanging motionless, working on his lung capacity and free-diving technique. If this were an actual lookout shift, Milella would be paired with a fellow waterman, ready at the first sign of danger to blow a whistle and clear the water. For the worst-case scenario, the vigies have a trauma kit and the training to use it.
With a last look around for sharks to disperse, Milella heads for shore. Though the waves are small today, they are surprisingly powerful and disorienting through a dive mask, the swirl of sand all but blinding, and I’m greatly relieved to take off my fins and wade through the shallows. As we trudge through the sand back to St. Gilles, Milella readily expounds, in fluent if heavily accented English, on the crisis. As a surf instructor and former competitive bodyboarder, he favors selective culling, but if the culling can’t happen, he’s still looking forward to a new era of surfing on Réunion, one that’s both more careful and more hard-core.
Milella waxes persuasive about overfishing from long-liners creating starvation conditions, the local fouling of the ravines, bad water management, and faulty water-treatment plants discharging sewage into the sea. At St. Pierre, in the south of the island, there was a bad-sewage-treatment plant right in front of the break. “And bouledogues follow the shit,” Milella says. A friend of Mat’s, Vincent Motais de Narbonne, was surfing nearby when a bull grabbed his leg, dragging him down and beating him against the bottom. “He was praying his leg would go so he wouldn’t drown,” Milella says. Miraculously, Motais, who lost his leg at the hip, survived.
As I listen to Mat Milella, it seems to me that everything that’s shitty about usHomo sapiens—literally and figuratively—is good for the bull sharks. And half-buried in the screed, I detect a grudging respect for the beast.
My last evening on the island, I meet with a local spearfishing legend, Guy Gazzo, at his family’s poissonerie, their seafood shop, in a mall across the street from the beach at Boucan Canot. Gazzo, one of the world’s best breath-hold divers, and still incredibly fit at age 75, has spent more time underwater with the sharks than anybody. He tells me that spear fishermen saw the problem coming—witnessing increasing numbers of bulls, which were becoming more aggressive. He recalls, back in 2006, diving off Roches Noires, when he speared a tuna and it took off, taking line. Then here it comes, back to him, with three sharks chasing it. But back then nobody took the fishermen’s stories seriously.
Gazzo doesn’t believe anyone really knows precisely why the sharks are attacking now, or why so aggressively. Nor why they have settled in the area. “When you choose a neighborhood,” Gazzo reasons, “you a want a boulangerie, a charcuterie, a chemist, bus stops. Many factors make for a good home. It is the same for thebouledogues.”
Guy Gazzo’s surprising anthropomorphizing harks back to Buyle’s most empathic speculations. Buyle believes that the bull sharks’ social units are complex enough that the loss of a single individual could send a group into a tailspin of erratic behavior. It’s also possible, Buyle posits, that if an influential individual were to be injured, the others might help it hunt for easy prey—and nothing could be easier prey than an oblivious land mammal on the surface. It’s a leap of imagination to see the tragedy of the attacks in reverse perspective: a beloved bull (do they love one another?), suddenly wrenched from the water, vanishing into the sky; the grieving survivors (do they grieve for one another?) rallying together, making a necessary change.
It’s a tragic change of behavior, for man and shark. Gazzo is pro-cull, but he doesn’t want to see a shark massacre. And he believes CHARC had better hurry up with its study, or the surfers and fishermen will take out the sharks, poaching them by night. “All species have a survival technique, whether it’s speed or size or coloration,” Gazzo says. “Ours is intelligence. What’s incredible in this story is that we’re using intelligence to protect a species that is killing us.”
Alas, we are both too smart for our own good and not nearly smart enough. Our manipulations of nature are perforce shortsighted: We are blinded by both its vastness and its proximity, its constant flux amid illusory stability. As the Marine Reserve scientists have pointed out, kill the bull sharks and you might get something worse. The world as we know it—and as we have loved it—depends on its predators for balance, yet we keep choosing the unknown world without them, the brave new world with as-yet-unpredicted monsters in it.
With our own monster fleets, floating cities hauling humongous nets, we have ransacked the seas, perhaps irreparably. Enormous catches feed our growing populations, and population increase means increased pollution. Our success predestines our peril. It’s a bitch. Here on Réunion island, suffering its own successes, its steep volcanic slopes draining the efluvia of a burgeoning population, all the unforeseen dangers of bad stewardship of the environment are embodied in one beady-eyed, piggish thug of a fish. Which seems to be thriving, for a time, in our shit. Or maybe our sins aren’t so much good for them assurvivable. Like a macro version of a super-virus, bull sharks are a symptom, and a consequence. They’re what you get in the sea when you’ve lost just about everything else: the last shark swimming.