Way back when, nearly three decades ago in a distant and troubled past, I was one of many young men who were conscripted into two years of military service in South Africa. Two years is a long time, especially for a surfer. Towards the end of my tenure I said fuck it, went AWOL, and snuck off to Reunion Island.
I had my 21st birthday among the trees on the point at St Leu. I set up camp there, and surfed that perfect left for days on end, enjoying the subtle pleasures of being overseas for the first time and scoring perfect waves.
Back then there were already talk of sharks, mainly on the east side, where there were supposed to be some perfect river mouth set-ups, but no one ever bothered because the west was so good, and the surf was so consistent. I surfed everywhere. St Pierre and St Leu, Etang Sale and Turtle Farm, Trois Bassins and Boucan Canot, St Gille and Peak du Diable.
My favourite was L’Hermitage, and the most terrifying was Le Port. It was here, at this big wave spot, that we spotted our only shark – a fat boy cruising at backline that resulted in a hair-raising paddle in through the harbour mouth alongside some hefty ships passing.
Soon after, Reunion became somewhat of a surfing Mecca. Billabong brought out Pump in 1990, with Occy and Ronnie Burns scoring perfect St Leu to the soundtrack of Concrete Blonde, with Occy’s braided hair bouncing in the wind.
There was the Yop Reunion Pro, and over the five years of this event the winners were Jeff Booth, Richard Marsh, Sunny Garcia, Matt Hoy and Kelly Slater. This event went on hold after the 1996 event, but Reunion came back to the fore of modern surfing culture with the Rip Curl Pro Search in 2005, which was won by Mick Fanning, in perfect waves at St Leu. It seemed La Reunion was one of the premier surf destinations in the world, with a glut of perfect waves and warm water, a thriving economy and an influx of surf tourism. There were surf shops and surf schools flourishing, there were boards coming in from South Africa or being made by legendary local shaper Mickey Rat, and there were surf hotels and accommodation options everywhere. Then things started getting trippy….
In 2006, the year after the event, when Rip Curl had gone down to Mexico for their incredible ‘La Jolla’ event, there were two shark attacks in Reunion. A fatal attack on a surfer at Pointe Du Diable, and a non-fatal attack on a bodyboarder at Saint Gille. The world took notice, but the focus soon faded, with only two more non-fatal attacks over the next four years.
In 2011 however, shit got real. There were six attacks and two of them were fatal, with each attack a tragic story
In 2011 however, shit got real. There were six attacks and two of them were fatal, with each attack a tragic story. The following year there were another three attacks, including a fatal attack at Trois Bassins and in 2013 there were three more. In the space of three years Reunion Island became the sharkiest place to surf in the world.
When Elio Canestri, an up-and-coming 13-year-old surfer was killed while surfing at Les Aigrettes in 2015, there was outrage. Sensationalism took over, and the descriptions of this violent attack and of his limbs being torn off his body made headlines around the world. There were another four attacks that year, with two more of them fatal. In May, 36-year old surfer Stephane Berhamel was killed while on the first day of his honeymoon, and 15-year-old swimmer Sarah Roperth was killed in mid July the same year, sliced in two at the torso a mere five meters from the shoreline.
No one really knows why the sharks arrived, in such numbers, and so quickly. One theory is that it began with the creation of a marine reserve on the west coast in 2007 along a prime surfing stretch. More sharks attracted by more fish. Others blame the increase in numbers on a 1999 ban on shark meat being sold, which resulted in the end of shark fishing.
World Surf League’s 16th rated Championship Tour surfer Jeremy Flores hails from Reunion Island, and he and his dad have been vocal about the ensuing tragedy on the island. Jeremy blames the decision to declare a nearby Marine Reserve along with the banning of traditional local fishing practices for the problem.
"At the start of the story there was this Marine Reserve in this 15km area, so they prohibited fishing about 10 years ago and it really created a fish park all of a sudden," said Jeremy.”
The other theory is that the reef sharks were over-fished as well, the side effect being that they used to hunt the bull shark pups, so now there are many more adult bull sharks. Either way, nature seems out of balance.
The last shark attack in Reunion however, was on 29th April 2017, and it was fatal. Adrien Dubosc, a local body boarder, was attacked and killed while surfing at Pointe au Sal. By this stage there was so much happening, and nothing at all. The government had made ten million Euros available to find a solution, there was talk of culling, of drum lines, of more drastic solutions, but the Prefect (the governor) decided instead to ban surfing, thus taking the blame off the authorities shoulders should anyone be attacked.
It was at this stage that 11-times world champion Kelly Slate spoke out. “I won’t be popular for saying this, but there needs to be a serious cull on Réunion and it should happen every day,” said Slater. “There is a clear imbalance happening in the ocean there. If the whole world had these rates of attack nobody would use the ocean and millions of people would be dying like this. The French government needs to figure this out as soon as possible.”
His statement created a vicious backlash, including a bomb attack on the offices of the Reunion marine reserve, and so dire were the repercussions that he had to backtrack, stating that his viewpoint wasn't one of revenge. That didn't improve the situation, and eventually Paul Watson, Sea Shepherd captain, came to his defence, publicly stating that, “Kelly Slater is not the enemy of the shark,” in a successful bid to diffuse the situation.
Surfers are indomitable, and local surfers have recently been venturing out again, where perfect waves reel along barely covered coral reefs
It was, and is, a big mess. Yet surfers are indomitable, and local surfers have recently been venturing out again, where perfect waves reel along barely covered coral reefs. “We’re still seeing some big sharks around over the last few weeks,” said local surfer and business owner Davey Stolk recently. “A spear fisherman was actually charged down by one, but there are more and more surfers getting back in the water.”
So why is there a resurgence of surfing in the most dangerous surf zone in the world? “Well, nothing has changed legally,” said Stolk, referring to the banning of surfing on all Reunion beaches. “The main difference now is that the entire coastline is drumlined regularly.”
It is almost two years since the last attack, and the kids are the only ones who have extra safety in the water. The surf academy kids have ‘shark vigils’ in place for their practice sessions – spear fishermen/lifeguards in the water, backed up by a drone, as well as jet skies, but they’re the only ones getting protection. For the rest of the surfers it’s up to them.
Is it nature correcting the mistake and recalibrating the numbers in the local shark population? Stolk doesn't think so.
“The drumline program is bearing fruit and saving lives,” he says. “On top of this, nearly all surfers are wearing some sort of anti shark device, and more and more spots are being surfed regularly.”
All in, it’s positive news from this Indian Ocean island paradise. The waves that I experienced in 1990 were incredible, and the memories I have of Reunion Island was of perfect waves, light offshore winds, warm water and friendly people like Tarzan, Gilah, Patout and Mickey.
But is it behind us, and is Reunion clear of the blight, as well as the sorrow that 20 shark attacks would leave in their wake? Can we start returning to Reunion to surf perfection? “I think the worst is behind us,” opines Stolk. “Let’s say we're just cautiously optimistic.”