Culprit or Scapegoat?
The tragic death of bodyboarder David Lilienfeld following a vicious shark attack in Kogel Bay on Thursday 19 April 2012 caused a major uproar among many South Africans. Many believed that the deadly attack was caused by the ‘chumming’ of the US-based research team, Shark Men, filming a documentary in the False Bay area.
The Ocearch Research Programme and the National Geographic documentary show, Shark Men, were granted a permit to conduct research on the South African coastline, tagging and filming Great White Sharks. The team, led by Chris Fischer, would use a method of ‘chumming’ (attracting sharks with a mixture of crushed fish, blood and oil) and they planned to use five tons of chum over a period of 20 days.
According to the South African Press Association (SAPA), Dirk Schmidt – a wildlife photographer and author of White Sharks, had called for a high shark alert to be issued, saying it was prudent. “Unusual white shark behaviour and an increased presence, and possible shark-human interaction or even attacks cannot be excluded,” Schmidt said at the time. It was also his opinion that the chum slick could be blown closer to beaches by on-shore winds.
However, Alan Boyd, director of Biodiversity and Coastal research, said it would have little effect close to shore, Sapa reported. The Western Cape Department of Environmental Affairs, which granted the permit, said the documentary was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gather key research on white sharks.
According to Sapa, spokesperson for the Department of Environmental Affairs Zolile Nqayi, said the project would enable researchers to find out where sharks moved at different stages of their lives and how they moved between and used different habitats on shorter time-scales.
20 year-old David Lilienfeld, a member of the SA Bodyboarding team and Camps Bay resident, was out bodyboarding with his brother in a popular surfing area known as “Caves” at Kogel Bay – near Gordons Bay – when the attack occurred. According to a City of Cape Town press release, an eye witness, Matt Marais, recorded that he had been surfing at Caves and when he left the water he saw the two body boarders paddling out to a distance of between 70-100m from the shore. Minutes after leaving the water he heard shouting and saw a bodyboarder being attacked by a large shark.
Reportedly, the shark made three passes at Lilienfeld and only struck on the third pass, indicated by blood surrounding the victim. Eye witness accounts indicate that the victim’s brother, Gustav Lilienfeld, tried in vain to reach and assist his brother. The two brothers were, however, separated by strong wave action and as he was unable to reach his brother, Gustav left the water. The waves and the current eventually washed the body of the victim towards the shoreline and it was pulled on to the rocks by bystanders. The shark was seen swimming in the area for at least
40 minutes after the attack. The City of Cape Town closed the Kogel Bay beach after the attack and the Shark Men research permit was cancelled with immediate effect. “This incident is a tremendous tragedy and I’m very shocked. No more field work will be proceeding from here on out,” Alan Boyd told Sapa: “I cancelled all the shark research permits for the project 10 minutes ago when I heard about it,” he said at the time. Following the attack, angered South Africans took en masse to Facebook, flooding the Shark Men page with accusing and blameful comments. Many held the documentary team directly responsible for the death of David Lilienfeld because of its chumming in the False Bay area. Comments such as: “Your chumming has just cost a life, and now people are scared to go to the beach” and “You should feel disgusted with yourselves after the death of Dave Lilienfeld. Chumming to attract sharks for your film? Get off the camera and onto a board if you want a close up,” were some of the less loathsome comments that were posted on the page.
Chris Fischer also posted on the page, offering condolences to the victim’s family, but affirmed that his team had vacated the False Bay area three days prior to the incident. “During our 24 hours of work (Sunday afternoon to Monday afternoon), we chummed 24 kg of pilchards (sardines). Less than the daily allotment for each of three cage diving boats working daily,” Fischer wrote. “We are terribly sorry again for the loss to this family and at this time our thoughts and prayers are with them.” Many came to the defence of Shark Men however, and a report released by the Department of Environmental Affairs confirming that the chumming done by Ocearch/Shark Men did in fact not lead to the tragedy, was later also displayed on the Facebook page. The permits that had been suspended following the attack were re-issued on the basis of a scientific investigation that established that the research team could not be held responsible for the attack.
In the report, Zolile Nqayi stated that the permits were suspended after the attack on David Lilienfeld to ensure that further activities were not undertaken while the Department examined the situation, in particular whether there was any link between the incident and the Ocearch/Shark Men research activities. According to Nqayi no evidence was found to support a link and these results were made public a few days after the event. Over the following 10 days further information, including that of the movements of the tagged animals strengthened this position, reported Nqayi. The press release issued by The City of Cape Town verified that, during the attack the dorsal fin of the white shark broke the surface, as reported by eye witness Matt Marais. “If this shark had been one of the tagged sharks, the satellite transmitter would have given off a signal that would have been recorded on the system and located the shark at Kogel Bay. On assessing the data, no satellite records exist for that area.
The lack of satellite signal is clear information that the shark involved in the attack is not one of the sharks tagged by the Ocearch Research Programme.” The Environmental Affairs report also asserts that “a strong case was put forward regarding the benefits of this work, not only for understanding and conserving sharks better, but also that in future being able to provide for public safety e.g. close-to-real-time advice on risk areas for potential shark attacks.” The Department therefore decided to lift the suspension and issue new permits but with “refined conditions”. The permits will allow the Shark Men team to conduct their research from Gansbaai eastwards from Friday 4th May and in the cage-diving area of False Bay from Monday 14th May. Nqayi related that the team’s activity will be limited to the deployment of a maximum of six satellite tags per area and the renewed permits will only be valid until the tags have been deployed or until the 31st of May 2012, whichever comes first.