SAINT-LEU - It rose from the abyss like a colossus, zeroing in on its target. “I can still see the eye and mouth, right here, 50 centimeters (20 inches) away from me. He was chewing on my shin.”
Yes, Fabien Bujon looked death straight in the eye off the coast of the Indian Ocean island of Reunion: it came in grey and copper-like skin, with a white belly and a ferocious glare. A real life “Jaws.”
“I was sitting on my board. He came from the front like a pit bull. He immediately caught my leg and started gnawing on it," Bujon recalled. "The scientists say he was just tasting, but he seemed to have decided he liked it.”
The 40-year-old surfer tells about how time stops, minutes turning into hours, very much like a disaster movie. “I pulled on its gills, a sensitive area. He didn’t like that so he left. I thought he was going to come back. I didn’t feel the pain. It’s only when I wanted to grab my board that I realized I was missing a hand! Blood was flowing everywhere. I rolled over and saw my leg bone…then I told myself: “No! shit..” For half-a-second I considered just giving up….then I pulled myself together. I had to swim. I had to save my life.”
From land, people saw Bujon get dragged down “like a cork,” with a red tide soon washing up on the black shingle shore of this tropical island.
Sharks, surfers like the same rough waters
Eddy, Mathieu and Alexandre, all regular surfers on the island, died. On May 8, a 36-year-old honeymooner boogie-boarding became the fourth killed in a shark attack in the waters off Reunion in the past two years.
Six others have survived attacks, but at what cost? Fabien is limping and needs clutches, waiting for prostheses. Eric, a tourist from Marseille, started surfing again…with one foot made of polyester. The luckier ones only crossed the animal’s path, like the man who found the shark bites in his kayak or 16-year-old Arnaud who had his surfboard gnawed on in the middle of the afternoon while hitting the waves at the popular Roches-Noir break point.
Reunion island, which is part of French territory, has long been a desirable getaway for tourists and pleasant home to some 800,000. It was also a favorite destination for some 8,000 surfers each year, especially along a 35 kilometer-long strip west of the island with the best sandy beaches and the finest hotels. And that's just where the sharks arrived.
On a late April afternoon, as some tourists were trying to catch the last sunrays, a post near the beach read: “NO SWIMMING” in red, capital letters. It has been a year since the “shark orange” flag had a day off.
The problem comes from the strong currents and the powerful waves -- something both surfers and sharks like is an agitated sea.
“The beach is closed two or three days per week, every time the swell becomes too powerful. We feel like it depends on what mood the people at city hall and the lifeguards are in,” grumbles a restaurant owner whose business dropped 30% last year as the crisis was peaking.
“Only two surf schools are left, out of 18,” adds Pierre Giovannangeli from Mickey Rat surf shop in Saint-Leu.
They know your scent
The sharks quite often show their fins near the shore, at which point the warning flag is hoisted immediately. It shouldn't come as a surprise on this rock of an island, lost in the middle of the ocean.
Something has changed nevertheless. In the past, the only ones roaming these waters were the silvertip sharks and nurse sharks. Big fish in their natural habitat. “They vanished ten years ago, the bull sharks kicked them out,” says an underwater spear fisherman. The bull shark is an uber-predator: it can swim in a few centimeters of water, swim upstream rivers to deliver its babies and loves briny waters, full of organic particles.
On Reunion Island, urbanization has devastated the seaside. The treatment plants are overflowing in the gullies. When there was an attack, the “water stank,” and hard rains were falling.
It’s very clear to local fishermen that these creatures have settled here and multiplied, and human flesh was on their menu. They put the blame on the protected natural reserve, which was widened in 2007. The fish in this area would attract the large sharks very close to the beaches.
“If man had become their favorite prey, there would be attacks every week,” says Marc Soria, in charge of the Charc study program. "Sharks aren't fond of human flesh since it’s not salty. These accidents are more the result of confusion: the surfer resembles a tortoise.”
Floating alone on the surface, the surfer on his board has all the characteristics of a sick animal, a godsend for the shark. “Give him troubled waters on top of that and you will be in big trouble! He doesn’t screw around when he’s attacking, he can drag down half a body.”
Eye for an eye, tooth for tooth
We used to know little about the shark. Now the ocean predator is the subject of countless studies. Specimens are fished and released with a tracker bug in their abdomen. Scientists mark their coming and going with listening stations scattered along the coastline.
“Most of them live in the deep sea, they do not find habitats near the coast,” notes Soria. But at least one large female is regularly seen in the Roches-Noires -- and the death toll speaks for itself.
The surfers have had enough, insisting "an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth." After the attacks, shark hunts were organized secretly. The state itself eventually agreed to allow shark fishing. Some 20 specimens are getting “sampled.” A female was autopsied: she was pregnant with 42 pups. Though hunting the creature may help appease minds, it doesn't solve the problem. “If you kill a shark, another one will come and take its place!” says Stéphane Girard from the Sea Shepherd environmentalist association. "These animals are endangered species, we cannot sacrifice them for our leisure’s’ sake.”
Reunion inhabitants, who have always feared the rough ocean around them, do not see shark hunting as the solution. “I’m against this practice. We are the ones intruding his element. We are the ones who need to pay attention!” says Aurélie, a 21-year-old student.
For the locals, surfing is a “metro’s” thing, those whites from metropolitan (mainland) France who come to exploit the sweet life under the palm trees. “Surfers are going in even when the red flag is up and they are the firsts to complain,” says Aline, 35, a Reunion native.
Still, before and after the hot hours, at dawn and when dusk falls, the surfers sometimes still go into the water in groups, with watchers taking shifts, scanning the surroundings waters for fins while others ride the waves. But many don’t have the will anymore.
“I went out to go surfing about 50 times. Almost every time I turned back,” says an experienced surfer. “Sometimes just because there was a cloud blocking the sun, or the gully was overflowing and the water seemed dirty. I might have gone in eight times since July, and only in small waves. I’m not admitting it to my students. I was surfing one day in Trois-Bassins. I saw that place where the kid died nine months ago. I watched him grow up, he always had a smile on his face. I stayed in just 10 minutes and I got out of the water. How can you surf there?”