In 1976, two popular, but flawed, theories surfaced to help explain great white shark behavior in False Bay and other areas of the Atlantic Ocean between Llandudno and Table Bay in South Africa.
The pivotal high-point for both theories is arguably 1976 when the Cape Town media began publishing reports of great whites behaving aggressively in False Bay.
Food Shortage Theory
Sharks, they suggested, were turning ‘mean’ and attacking ski boats with increasing ferocity and frequency. Two major English newspapers, The Cape Times and Weekend Argus, interviewed fishermen and anglers in False Bay outlining shocking descriptions of large great whites attacking ski boats.
“Four ski boat fisherman had a terrifying experience off Macassar Beach when a four meter Great White leapt out of the water and landed on the bow section of their seven meter craft, smashing the steel guard rail to dock level before sliding off into the water,” described one Weekend Argus Report.
Several other fishermen reported similar experiences that puzzled media and scientists alike. In those days, shark research was still in its infancy and great whites were the ‘white gevaar’ (white danger) exemplified in the movie ‘Jaws’ released earlier that year.
The movie, in tandem with the introduction of television in 1975, served to paint this apex predator as a dangerous menace to both fishermen and bathers.
This so-called “Jaws Affect,” coined by shark scientists such as Alison Kock, persisted for the next four decades even after the South African government heeded warnings of extinction and became the first country to protect the great white species.
The momentum generated by the movie stimulated many journalists to actively seek out shark stories and sate a growing public appetite for more reports on great white encounters.
This reporting cycle has been termed the ‘The Mean Season’ by Clifton Shark Files, an online project dedicated to uncovering new insights into that turbulent year.
According to the Clifton Shark Files these newspaper reports reached their zenith in November gaining speed as well-known shark hunters such as Danie Schoeman and Theo Ferreria caught massive great whites, over 4-meters in length at Macassar Beach and The Strand.
In many ways, these two gentlemen bore passing similarities to the character ‘Quint’ played by Robert Shaw in Jaws. Both had no qualms ridding the False Bay region of large sharks.
Two in particular, were of major concern to Schoeman: He termed them “killer sharks” and became intent on killing both, stating they were a terrible threat to the Cape Town public.
The first was ‘Spotty’ a highly aggressive shark with distinctive white spots marking his body. The second was a massive great white called “The Submarine” said to approach 6-7 meters in length. Over the years, a number of anglers in the bay reputedly encountered both these ‘dangerous’ sharks.
The media lapped up Schoeman’s comments and portrayed him as a gladiatorial hero in the press. Ironically, both Schoeman and Ferreira would become staunch conservationists in later years and loyal advocates of protecting the great white species.
In 1976, the Cape Town media turned to nameless sources at the Department of Fisheries to find some explanation for the odd, aggressive behavior of South Africa’s great whites.
These sources suggested a possible reason for their strange behavior: A food shortage.
The explanation hinged on a key decision by the Department of Sea Fisheries earlier that year, to suspend sealing operations in False Bay for the first time in ten years.
This ‘Food Shortage Theory’ concluded that since disposed seal carcasses were no longer being thrown back into the bay, great whites no longer had a reliable food source.
Consequently, suggested the theory, they were “starving” and seeking new food sources, including humans.
Alison Kock told Clifton Shark Files that while great whites were opportunistic predators she considers it “highly unlikely they would ‘forget’ millions of years of evolution (predating on various other ocean animals) to depend getting food from activities like these.”
“It’s my opinion that they would supplement their diet with this given the opportunity, but not change their whole way of life,” she said.
In 1976, however, the Cape Town Media were convinced an attack was imminent in the warmer waters of False Bay, a region renowned for great white activity.
However, when a bite did finally take place it took everyone by surprise.
The Coldwater Theory
In late November, Geoffrey Kirkham Spence found himself in the cross hairs of a great white while imitating a scene from the movie ‘Jaws’ he had seen the day before.
Horrified beachgoers watched Spence tread water in a pool of blood before a nearby dinghy manned by Peter Van Gysen pulled him out the water.
The odd thing about the bite was that it crystallized at Clifton Fourth Beach in the usually freezing waters of the Atlantic Ocean between Llandudno and Table Bay.
In this area, water temperatures often drop below 14-degree Celsius.
Luckily, Spence survived and became only the third person in the 20th Century to be bitten by a great white in this area.
Interestingly, the water at this ‘signature’ Cape Town beach was warmer than usual that day leading to some to suggest that it played a role in attracting the presence of a great white.
A previous attack in 1942 had occurred in similar conditions. However, scientists warn against reading too much into this data, although the do not entirely discount it may have played some role.
Most Capetonians had grown up believing that great whites did not like the colder waters of the Atlantic zone in the area mentioned above.
While they had been occasionally spotted, these sightings were considered exceptions to the rule.
Clifton Shark Files calls this the ‘Coldwater Theory’ and claims it was adopted by most Capetonians growing up in South Africa.
Further, there had only been two previous fatal incidents in the Atlantic zone, thus leading most beachgoers to conclude they were generally safer than their False Bay neighbors.
Even today many water enthusiasts cling to this belief and are switching their activities away from False Bay to the Atlantic side in the hope that this will offer some measure of safety.
The Clifton incident is thus a pivotal episode in South African shark history, which has been largely ignored by shark scientists up to this day.
It suggests, retrospectively, a turning point in understanding what prompts a great white to attack a human being.
Further, it also hints at providing new evidence that the great white is not the cold-blooded killer portrayed in Spielberg’s summer blockbuster, ‘Jaws.’
Indeed one of the few scientists to investigate the attack in 1983, Tim Wallet, suggested in his book, “Shark Attack in Southern African Waters and Treatment of Victims,” that many factors involved in this attack are contrary to those usually exhibited by an attacking great white.
“It is probable that behavior displayed by this particular shark hints at many unknown facets of this species’ psychology,” he said.
Importantly, it also reminds us that South African shark scientists have collected very little data on great white activity in the cold-water Atlantic zone between Table Bay and Llandudno.
Only since the fatal attack on a body boarder at Noordhoek beach in 2004 has a shark-spotting program been initiated in that area.
Further, only a tiny amount of data has been collected outlining great white activity in this part of the Atlantic Ocean based on current shark-tagging programs.
In conclusion, the 1976 ‘Mean Season’ and the Clifton shark bite, offers powerful insights into the world of shark research and what great whites may be up to in the freezing Atlantic zone between Table Bay and Llandudno.
Clifton Shark Files: http://www.cliftonsharkfiles.com