The Eerie History of Shark Attacks on Reunion Island

Craig Jarvis

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Updated 21d ago

I surfed at L'Hermitage Pass on Reunion Island 30-years-ago. I still remember that session like it was yesterday. The waves were solid.

The right was washing through, and there were about five guys out on the left, sharing a few of these heavy six-foot walls. It was a scary session. There was one guy out there, however, who was quietly charging. He caught a few bombs on his backhand and impressed with his smooth style.

After our surf, he showed us the way in. We had to sprint-paddle to the hanging chains that were dangling over the channel to be assistance if people were to get washed out. Hang onto them, get some breath back, and sprint paddle back into the lagoon until you no longer felt the suck of the gap.
 
That day, on the beach at L'Hermitage, he told us a story in brief and faltering English. A few years previously, a friend of his had been bitten by a shark and died on the beach. They had been surfing at Sainte-Suzanne, a rarely surfed right-hander on the northeast coast. So there were sharks around, before 1990, at this pristine Indian Ocean surfing island. 
 
The best surf in Reunion is on the western shoreline, with reefs and beaches and perfect setups everywhere. There are the prime spots of St Pierre and St Leu; there are the fun waves of Etang Sale and Turtle Farm, while Trois Bassins and Boucan Canot were a little less powerful but equally fun to ride.

Saint-Gilles was ok, but always lovely people around, while and Peak du Diable did feel a bit sketchy.

L'Hermitage Pass was one of the best waves for several reasons, and the big wave spot at Le Port was the most intimidating. 
 
Soon after my trip in 1990, Reunion became the flavour of the month in global surf media. It soon appeared that Reunion was actually a premier surf destination, with a glut of perfect waves, warm water, and a thriving surf economy.

Surf Tourism thrived, and the Association of Surf Professionals ran the Yop Reunion Pro World Tour event, followed by the Rip Curl Pro Search for a few years, finishing in 2005.

In 2006 there were two shark attacks in Reunion. In 2011 there were six attacks, with two of them fatal, followed by three in 2012, and three more in 2013. The authorities, however, ignored the situation, as the clamour from
shark-conservation lobby groups intensified.

When hugely popular 13-year-old Elio Canestri was killed while surfing, there was utter outrage. Four more attacks followed, with two fatal. A 15-year-old swimmer, Sarah Roperth, was cut in half by a shark a few meters from the shore. 
 
The last surf store was forced to shut the door after 15 years of business, and access to the ocean, prohibited since July 26, 2013, continued to stay firmly in place. Despite all the facts emerging, authorities still referred to the main reasons being 'reckless surfers.' By 2017 the government had made ten million euros available to find a solution. Instead, the presiding Reunion Prefect decided to continue the ban on surfing, to remove the blame from the government should there be any more deaths
 
By 2017 the government had made ten million euros available to find a solution. Instead, the presiding Reunion Prefect decided to continue the ban on surfing, to remove the blame from the government should there be any more deaths. 
  
According to Jean Francois Nativel in his book Shark Attacks – A Modern Tragedy – Reunion Island's Story – it was at this stage that the locals realised that "the environmental sensitivity of Western societies that frown upon such things as culling predators prevent any real chance of making the ocean safe again."

Adrien Toyon's home.

 
It was a mess, further exacerbated by a fatal shark attack on a surfer, Kim Mahbouli, on May 9, 2019, at St Leu. This is the very spot that the ASP used to run their events, and where Occy in braids and Ronnie Burns from Hawaii were immortalized in Billabong's Pump movie. 
 
In November of the same year, a Scottish man went missing at L'Hermitage lagoon, the large lagoon that flows out at L'Hermitage Pass, the same place I surfed 30-years-ago. The tourist went snorkelling in what is generally considered a very safe lagoon and went
missing.

He was identified by his wedding ring that was found on a hand inside a tiger shark that was caught for research purposes a few days later.  
 
Yet surfers are stubborn, and still, venture out when perfect waves reel along barely covered coral reefs. They were even pushing their luck during COVID lockdowns to get their fixes amongst shark-infested runners.
 
In Jean Francois Nativel's book Shark Attacks – A Modern Tragedy he cuts to the chase as to where this is all going. Nativel states that: "Defending human interests now seems to be in total contradiction with modern ethics, which places nature above all else. However, many end up forgetting that Man is also part of nature."

Man is part of nature and a shark is an apex predator, which means that sharks occupy the top rung of the food chain. Go swimming with them if you like. But spare me the faux sympathy next time someone is killed. These deaths are not necessary
 
With regards to the apex predator moniker, renowned Australian journalist Fred Pawle wrote in The Australian newspaper about the fact. The article was published a few years ago, but with the scourge of shark attacks Australia is currently experiencing, the words are still so pertinent.

Pawle noted that the shark’s apex predator signature wasn't always the case.
 
"This was not always true. Until a mere 2.6 million years ago, 20m long megalodons ate Great Whites for breakfast. Since the demise of the megalodon, another species has developed tools that significantly reduce the odds in its favour. These tools are available at most fishing and diving shops. "
 
Pawle continued: "People who wish to manage their own environment - even for recreational purposes such as swimming, surfing and diving – are not automatically on the wrong side. If you oppose culling, that's fine. Knock yourself out. Go swimming with them if you like. But spare me the faux sympathy next time someone is killed. These deaths are not necessary."