Reunion Island: Shark Attacks – an Open Letter from William Winram

photo of shark whisperer and shark publicist William Winram courtesy of Lauren Swartzbaugh ©

I am receiving many emails and messages with questions about Reunion Island and the shark attacks that have been taking place there. I would like to respond to these questions within this post but first let me clarify some things:

My heart goes out to anyone who has lost a family member or close friend to an encounter with a shark.

I am a surfer. I have been surfing for nearly 30 years in many places that are shark territory. In some of the locations where I have surfed the local sharks are, in fact, great white sharks – for the majority, the most feared animal in the sea.

I have been diving with sharks for the past 25 years and with many different species including the great white shark. I am not just a shark conservationist/breath-hold diver who does not care about surfing and who only cares about sharks. I understand both aspects of the difficult questions being raised and I very much love surfing!

Now, to the issues at hand…

When I arrived to Reunion island last year, I was taken immediately to a surf break and asked if I would surf there. Now, not having surfed at all in the last 3 years, I was very interested in going surfing but after a quick assessment of the area I declined. It was at that moment that I was told that this was the surf break that had had most of the shark attacks.

The question begs: Why would I not surf there? To answer the question, I need to explain the nature of the area and of the animals in question:

The shark: Bull shark, Requin bouledogue, Carcharhinus leucas.

The area: The surf break is out in front of the entrance to a small boat harbour. This harbour has commercial and sport fishing boats and a regular supply of fresh water coming from a small river that runs through the area.

Bull sharks seek out fresh water. They will swim up rivers regularly as the fresh water kills off parasites that form on their skin.

The small boat harbour will have fish heads, fish entrails, etc in its waters when the fishing boats return and clean their catch.

The small stream/river can have small dead animals, fecal matter etc, the kinds of things that attract sharks to an area. You also do not know if someone has been dumping something inland that has made its way into the water table and arrived to the sea by way of the river which may attract sharks.

Bull shark (Carcharhinus leucas)– ALERT: The speargun visible in the frame is not a weapon against these sharks. It has a tag attached and this image is a screen capture taken from the GoPro film that was used to document the tagging of the bull sharks present in the waters.

Within 5 minutes of looking at the area I knew there was a strong likelihood that if I went surfing I might have an unwanted encounter with a bull shark. I would have no problem going freediving and having an encounter because I would see the animal well in advance and could avert a problem. As a surfer my eyes are not focused under the sea but on the waves and I would miss the approaching animal until it was too late.

It is entirely possible that I could go and surf without an issue. The odds are actually in my favour to surf without incident but because of the animal that frequents the waters of Reunion and the nature of the area I decided that the risk was higher than I was willing to assume. This is an important point – I am consciously assuming or accepting the risk when I enter the sea.

As always, when something like this happens there are headlines in the news, there is information being released, speculation and a call for solutions. With the incidents in Reunion last year and this year, many surfers and residents had claimed that they had not had incidents with sharks for more than 30 years prior to that. Some wanted to use this opinion as grounds to take immediate action because perhaps there was some psychotic shark that had taken up residence in the area and had to be eliminated.

The reality is that these statements are not true however, and a recent report published by the government in Reunion Island states that there have been regular incidents with sharks for the past 20 years:

“During the 1990s, between 1 and 4 attacks and 1 to 2 deaths were reported each year. From this point of view, if the year 2011 remains outsized because of the total number of attacks, it can be close to a year like 1992 (4 attacks, 2 fatal)”.

It also goes on to explain why people might be of the opinion that there have not been problems with sharks for the past 30 years by stating the following:

“In contrast, the 2000s has resulted in a long lull (1 death throughout the decade in 2006, and several years without any attack), may explain the relative lack of interest or collective amnesia, to shark attacks.”

This same perspective is echoed by well known shark scientist and ocean advocate Michael Scholl when he states:

“Shark incidents at La Réunion have not started last year! Yes, there have been 13 incidents in the last three years, but the island is located in the middle of the Indian Ocean! Sharks have always been there, and shark incidents have occurred on a regular basis in the past thirty years”
Michael Scholl.

Both Fred Buyle and myself have offered non-violent solutions to the shark issue in Reunion and so have scientists and other shark experts. Still, many who are not interested in the truth, who are driven by fear and anger have in mind only one solution – kill the sharks! The media often preys on this fear, re-iterating the idea of the shark as mindless killing machine.

They justify this violent solution as something that will be good for tourism, good for the economy etc. This approach is selfish and short-sighted and will only bring more problems down the road and severely damage the ecosystem.

The sea covers 70% of our planet, provides 50% of the oxygen in the air we breathe and governs our climate. It is a finely tuned ecosystem within which sharks play a crucial role in maintaining balance. Should we just forget about this so that we can go and play on our fiberglass boards? I am of the opinion that the answer to that would be NO!

The sea is NOT Disneyland…it is NOT ours…it is NOT our playground. It is time that we who recreate in the sea, who love to be there, take responsibility for our actions and our participation and accept the risks that are inherent when we enter the sea.

Do you think that the family of a climber who dies or who is injured on Mt. Everest (1 of every 7 who attempt to summit will die) or on K2 (1 of every 3 who attempt to summit will die) blame the mountain? NO! They accept the risk… why is it that surfers and swimmers enter the ocean without accepting or acknowledging the risks associated with what they are about to do?

Sharks have been around for millions of years and yet in a few short years we have pushed many species to the brink of extinction. Most of the big pelagic species have had their numbers reduced by upwards of 90%. We cannot afford to continue this way and we certainly cannot justify killing sharks because we want to play in the sea.

I hope that the residents of Reunion and coastal communities around the globe can put aside their fear and anger and begin to look for solutions that are respectful and sustainable.

photo © Lauren Swartzbaugh

View Comments

  • Thank goodness that someone is talking common sense at last. A breath of fresh air.

  • Bull sharks can also be territorial, especially near or in freshwater spawning areas. In freshwater, they will investigate anything in their turf. So from the above, it looks like everything is in place to cause shark/human encounters. It's the shark's home and territory that they may defend, so maybe we need to keep out.