The two Great White sharks were easily spotted in the clear turquoise water of Fish Hoek Beach, South Africa, at 9:15 the morning of September 28, 2011. Some distance apart, the two sharks moved languidly as they patrolled the shoreline and swam between the transparent ocean water and brown stained water where the Silvermine River enters the bay, hunting for their morning meal.
Vigilant spotters sounded the loud shark alarm, quickly evacuating the water. White flags with a shark emblem were raised, signifying that the sharks were present and which served as a clear warning to would be swimmers – stay out of the water.
When the sharks left the bay the white flag was exchanged for the red one that warns swimmers that sharks had been recently seen but are no longer present, and bathers gradually began tentative forays into the water.
However, by 10:50, the sharks were back, the alarm was again sounded, and the white flag again raised.
At this point, the sharks – one about 10 feet long, the other 15 feet in length – had successfully cleared the bay of humans and no one seemed interested in challenging the sharks’ domain.
That is, except for one man. A man who after a series of bad decisions and worse luck was destined to lose one leg and part of another, but who, at a crucial moment also experienced tremendous good luck, and survived due to the bravery of passersby and the presence of a seal.
The sharks may have been searching for Cape fur seals (Actocephalus pusillus) a species of sealion that breeds on an offshore rocky island, Seal Island :
“The island is well-known for the interesting way the sharks grab their prey: They come up from underneath and literally launch themselves out of the water with the seal in their mouth. It has been shown that if the seals enter the “Ring of Death” (where the sh arks circle the island) on the surface instead of at the murky bottom, they will be picked off by the faster and more aggressive Great White”.
This time of year though, as the male Cape fur seals set up territories and the females begin to have their pups, the sharks abandon the island and move inshore.
This seems counterintuitive, but biologists believe that the Great White sharks have learned that the baby seals which begin to frolic in the water as they learn to swim may be easy pickings, but have no fat and little muscle and hence are not worth the effort for the sharks.
It is thought that instead of investing energy gobbling up the bony baby seals, the sharks come into the shallow bays this time of the year in the pursuit of fish, such as yellowtail, as well as the adult seals that are still present. And there, inevitably, the sharks wind up in conflict with humans.
They frighten us, and occasionally attack; we put out nets or hooks and occasionally they get caught and die. Mostly, we avoid each other.
Shark experts will tell you that much of the time we are in the ocean environment, sharks have probably been nearby and we didn’t even know. The experts will also tell you that most attacks are the result of mistakes in perception, and they will caution you to just be careful, keep your wits about you, stay out of the water in low light, and avoid turbulent or cloudy water. Don’t go in the water if you know a species, such as Great Whites, are there.
At 12:25 pm, all that advice was disregarded by a lone swimmer, 43-year-old Michael Cohen.
A frequent visitor to Fish Hoek, Cohen was known to ignore the shark warnings in the past, and was reported to have said that if he ever were attacked, not to blame the shark. Perhaps, having swum previously when the warning flags were aloft, he felt the threat was over played – but whatever his reasoning, he entered the water and began to swim along the shoreline, inside the breakers, ignoring the repeated warnings. He chose the absolute worst part of the beach, next to where the brown effluent of the Silvermine River clouded the water. The sharks soon spotted him.
At this point the story takes an almost surreal turn.
The official Shark Spotters, part of the local Disaster Risk Management system, sit perched high on a hillside which while giving them the best view into the water, puts them out of hearing range of the swimmers below. They rely upon first sounding their alarm, then on radio contact with colleagues on the beach.
When the Shark Spotter saw Cohen in the water, he tried to sound the alarm as they had done twice that morning already, but horrifyingly, it just didn’t work – at the worst possible time, a local power failure had rendered it useless. The Spotter radioed beach personnel and then began to sprint for Clovelly Corner, where Cohen had entered the water. Upon getting the radio message, the Shark Spotter’s manager Monwabisi Sikweyiya got in his car and raced to the scene.
Meanwhile, two men, Douglas Drysdale, 61 and Hugh Till, 66, who volunteer at the local prison where they give spiritual guidance to prisoners, were on their way home. As they drove along the road overlooking the coast, they looked out over the bay for whales as was their habit, and happened to see the ominous dark shape of the shark as it moved in on Cohen. They quickly parked and ran down to the beach, screaming a warning.
Simultaneously, a beach walker also glanced over and saw the shark as it swam up behind Cohen, now just two yards behind the swimmer. According to the man’s account, the shark suddenly lunged forward and bit Cohen taking his right leg below the knee and part of his left leg, then swam a few yards away. Where it waited.
By now the two spiritual counselors had reached the beach, and without hesitation they plunged into the bloody water, grabbed Cohen, and started to tow him to shore, the shark still lurking nearby.
A third man jumped in to help and as they struggled to haul the victim through the surf, bystanders saw the Great White swimming towards the men and began to yell.
And then it happened.
Out of nowhere a seal appeared in the midst of the chaos, repeatedly swimming past the victim and rescuers, and some observers were of the impression that this served to distract the shark long enough for the rescuers to make it to shore.
But what in the world was the seal doing there?
The answer to that might lie in understanding how these fur seals cope with the ever-present threat from sharks:
“When they detect a white shark, seals often do a headstand, vigilantly scanning underwater with their rear flippers in the air. They also watch one another closely for signs of alarm. Alone, in pairs, or in threes, Cape fur seals occasionally even follow a white shark, swirling around it as if to let the would-be predator know its cover has been blown.
To avoid a shark attack, seals may leap in a zigzag pattern or even ride the pressure wave along a shark’s flank, safely away from its lethal jaws. If an attacking shark does not kill or incapacitate a seal in the initial strike, superior agility now favors the seal. The longer an attack continues, the less likely it will end in the shark’s favor. Cape fur seals never give up without a fight. Even when grasped between a white shark’s teeth, a Cape fur seal bites and claws its attacker. One has to admire their pluck against such a formidable predator.” naturalhistorymag.com
It would seem possible that in this case, the shark was hunting the seal, which was probably there the entire time, maybe even swimming undetected near Cohen – joining forces so to speak, in an effort to dodge the shark. Although fearful of humans on the land, these seals are known to be curious about people in the water and often approach divers.
Remember though, that there were two sharks present in the bay at this time, and it could also be that the seal was trying to evade the second shark.
However it came to pass that the seal was there at a critical time, it was an extraordinary event, possibly helping to turn the tide on the survivability of the attack.
Both the femoral artery and vein in Cohen’s leg had been severed at the first bite and with each beat of his heart Cohen’s blood volume was pumped into the sea, and any delay would have been disastrous.
Even so, Cohen lost a tremendous amount of blood, but once on shore Sikweyiyai used his belt as a tourniquet on the stump below Cohen’s knee, and fashioned another one from his diving shorts for Cohen’s less damaged left leg. Within 35 minutes he was airlifted to a hospital, where doctors praised the bravery of the rescuers and the quick, competent first aid Cohen had received. He is now (7 October 2011) out of intensive care, and so far the medical team has managed to save his left leg.
As for the sharks, Great Whites have continued to patrol the area looking for fish, seals, or smaller sharks and rays. Swimmers heed the warnings, and there was no retaliation, no one went out and tried to kill the sharks; the people who live and swim in the region accept the presence of sharks and acknowledged that Cohen’s attack was an unfortunate event.
“Any discussion of white sharks must acknowledge their occasional, though much-publicized, “attacks” on people. The vast majority of them, however, bear no resemblance to shark attacks on prey. The attacks on people are slow and deliberate, and the resulting wounds are relatively minor compared with the wounds inflicted on prey. About 85 percent of the victims survive. Deaths do occur from blood loss, but there are very few verified cases in which a white shark actually consumed a person. Clearly, we are not on their menu.” (Sociable Sharks).
Worldwide, there are only 50 to 70 shark attacks on humans reported each year. At the same time, worldwide, there are about 70 million sharks killed by humans each year, and many species are in danger of going extinct.
Killing them off will not make the water any safer for us, and it may wind up further distressing the ocean environment that is so crucial to life on this planet. Cohen’s unfortunate incident serves to underscore the need to heed warnings, take precautions, and show respect for ocean inhabitants.
And leave the coats on the seals, you never know when a seal might save your life. (They are still hunted for their pelts).
For more information:
A Growing Movement to Protect Sharks
www.dailymail.co.uk/(photo source for this article)