Réunion Island, once a surfer’s paradise, at mercy of sharks
Fierce debate on island thrust into news by flight MH370 on how to make lethal waters safe again
Searching the ocean off Réunion, during searches for more wreckage of the ill-fated Malaysia Airlines flight. Photograph: Patrick Becot/AFP/Getty Images
“To see the perfect wave and not be able to surf,” Nicolas Dantec said, shaking his head. “It is too difficult.” Dantec realised a childhood dream when he moved here to Réunion, a French island in the Indian Ocean that until recently was best known around the world as a surfer’s paradise. He bought a house on a hillside overlooking the beach at St-Leu, on the western shore.
“When I was young, I had a poster of this spot,” Dantec (39), originally from mainland France, said as he watched waves rise, crest and break in the distance. “I dreamed to come here and surf this wave.”
But it has been almost four years since he could do that, and these days, when he sits on his balcony, he turns his back to the sea. The problem is sharks. The island has been besieged by them, and at least 18 people have been attacked and seven have been killed since 2011.
The government responded in 2013 with a controversial ban on nearly all surfing and swimming, making Réunion perhaps the world’s only island destination to order residents and tourists to stay out of the water. The ocean cast up another way for Réunion to make headlines late last month, when a piece of a jet’s wing was found on a beach. It is thought to be part of a Malaysia Airlines Boeing 777 that vanished mysteriously in March 2014 with 239 people aboard. The discovery prompted members of the French military and local beachcombers to scour the island’s shores for other flotsam that might have come from the plane.
The frenzy on the shore, with volunteers still searching the beaches, is unlikely to change the frenzy over what to do about the sharks. They remain the focus of a heated debate among environmentalists, ecologists, animal rights activists and government officials in Paris about how to make the island’s waters safe for recreation again.
Many people on Réunion, which is governed as a department, or administrative unit, of France, believe that if a similar problem afflicted the Mediterranean shore of France, the government would try harder to address it. Instead, they got the ban, which they say is an extreme measure intended mainly to avoid bad publicity rather than to solve the underlying problem. And that problem is definitely not solved: the most passionate surfers refuse to stay out of the water, and the sharks continue to attack them.
When a surfer named Elio Canestri (13) defied the ban and was killed in April, his death struck hard. Elio’s name is now scrawled on walls, benches and street signs in beach towns around the island. Jeremy Flores, a professional surfer from Réunion, captured the mood in a post on Instagram. “Another shark attack in Réunion island this morning,” he wrote in a comment on a photograph of Elio. “Words can’t describe how sad and angry I am. So young!!! Heartbreaking news.”
The teenager’s death renewed questions about what is behind the shark attacks and whether the authorities are doing everything possible to remedy the situation. Theories abound. Some people blame overfishing in the waters surrounding Réunion for devastating the sharks’ natural food supply and forcing them to scavenge ever closer to shore. Others say that there are more sharks near the island because the government banned the sale of shark meat – and therefore fishing for sharks – in the 1990s, or because it established a marine nature reserve along the coast near St-Leu in 2007.
With few people in the water, some argue, humans become easier prey for the predators. Still others cite a perceived shift in the shark population. Reef sharks are being supplanted by larger and more aggressive bull sharks, they say, signaling a marine ecology that is off-kilter. Nathalie Verlinden, a marine biologist on the island who helped the Discovery Channel produce a documentary on the shark problem here, noted that Réunion’s geography also probably plays a role.
The island is volcanic and steep-sloped, with its highest mountain rising roughly 10,000 feet above sea level. Runoff from rainstorms, washing down mud, muck and other detritus cast off by the growing human population of about 850,000, creates the kind of murky aquatic environment bull sharks prefer. And the ocean floor falls off steeply around the island as well, meaning that the coast is only a short swim from very deep water.
Mick Asprey (67) visited Réunion for the first time in 1972 and moved here from Australia soon after. As the longtime owner of a small surf shop two blocks from the beach at St-Leu, he has shaped boards for several generations of islanders. He does not mince words about what he thinks needs to be done: kill the bull sharks.
“I am on the side of eliminating a species that is not a native part of this island’s environment,” he said. In his view, a combination of factors brought the hordes of bull sharks to the island, none of them natural and all of them correctable with enough determination. But “there is just not enough interest in what happens here,” he said. Imagine the outcry “if this was Sydney, and five people got hit in the first five months of the year,” he said. Before the attack that killed Elio, he said, people were starting to tire of the ban and were going back in the water, and business in his shop was picking up. Asprey said he did four times as much business during the end-of-year holiday season in 2014 as he had a year earlier.
But then Elio was killed, and another surfer had an arm bitten off in early July – and the water is largely empty again.