S. African Pastime: Trolling For Big Sharks in Little Boats

Gill Seekers

In a South Seas version of the legendary "Man Bites Dog" story, beachgoers from a tough Cape Town slum beat to death a great white shark earlier this month.

Sunworshippers at False Bay's Macassar Beach Jan. 3 were primed by Page 1 stories about a fatal shark attack over Christmas, leading to this quirky turn on the usual "Shark Bites Man."

But how (let alone why) does one draw near enough to deliver a blow to a great white without the shark getting in a few licks of its own?

"I don't know. There were no scientists there, and it seems nobody caught it on video," says shark expert Len Compagno of the South African Museum in Cape Town. "But a few good blows to the gills would do it."

That there are shark haters comes as no surprise. Four-hundred million years of evolution have done little for the great white's reputation or looks. Unlike lion cubs or baby elephants, this protected species evokes little sympathy. There are now only 10,000 mature sharks - which grow to 15 feet in length - left in the world.

The attacks seem only to whet the appetites of adventurous tourists. More than 4,000 paid local fishermen about $100 a pop to go on "sea-faris" to sight Charcharodon charcharias last year.

One of the best sites in the world to see great whites is a strait near Geyser Island in Walker Bay east of Cape Town. Geyser Island is fat with Cape Fur seals, a great white's favorite meal.

Shark-watching is an adventure straight out of the movie "Jaws." The boatmen anchor in the strait and release chum - fish offal and animal parts - into the current. The sharks swim up the current to the boat, wondering whether there's more where that came from.

The fishermen then throw out bait to keep the sharks around long enough for the tourists to get the requisite photos. Some tourists go underwater in the fishermen's shark cages - flimsy-looking, homemade affairs.

This new tourist industry is completely unregulated, and competition is so fierce that many observers say the biggest sharks are captaining the boats.

"We've had complaints about overcrowding of tourists in unlicensed boats that go out in unstable weather conditions with flimsy cages ... that sharks have managed to get their heads in the cages, and people were lucky to escape," says Jeremy David, a conservation officer with South Africa's fisheries department.

Conservationists worry that chumming and baiting disturb the sharks' natural predatory behavior. And some experts say that if sharks begin to associate boats with food, there could be trouble.

One tourist operator, Jackie Smit of the boat Master of Happiness, says his method of baiting is more snacking than feeding. On a recent morning, he took four intrepid tourists out in a 35-foot catamaran in search of great whites.

He stuffs frozen sardines into a three-ply nylon bag, shaped like a sock. The sock is attached to a buoy, which is attached to a rope, which is attached to Mr. Smit standing on board. "Because the sardines are in a bag, the shark just gets the juice, like sucking on a toffee," he says.

A 4.4-ton male, the third shark sighted that morning, shoots up to take the bait bag in its ragged, red-streaked mouth. Smit, a tough salt if ever there was one, hauls in the shark by hand to the boat railing. Smit has a long history with great whites - he was bitten by a 12-footer in the 1960s.

The shark bucked and twisted on the end of the rope like a dog fighting for a bone, its tail slapping the boat, its head almost coming through the railings. Smit says a shark once bit onto the boat's diving platform, just two feet from where a journalist sat.

But fearsome reputations and "Jaws" aside, humans have little to fear from great whites, experts say: We don't taste fishy enough to tempt them.

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