CITY OF CAPE TOWN

MUIZENBERG SHARK ATTACK INCIDENT REPORT

REVIEW OF EVENTS

1 AUGUST 2014

 

INTRODUCTION

At approximately 14:00 on Friday 1 August 2014, a 20 year old male, Mathew Smithers was bitten by a Great White Shark at Muizenberg Beach while surfing. The victim sustained serious injuries to both his legs.

The purpose of the review is to establish:

  1. The facts and ensure that the correct information is provided to authorities and the public
  2. Assess whether any reasonable actions could have been done to prevent the attack
  3. Identify areas / aspects that need to be improved to reduce the chance of further incidents
  4. Identify areas / aspects that need to be improved upon to ensure the most effective emergency and rescue response after an attack
  5. Provide a detailed account of the events for the record

The information contained in this report is derived from a process of eye-witness interviews and accounts, in depth interview and discussion with the victim, analysis of CCTV footage, collation of information and timelines, inputs from specialists and the collection of physical data from the surfboard, injuries sustained and environmental information.   In compiling the information consideration is given to the fact that witness accounts vary to some degree, as is expected following a traumatic event.

 

MUIZENBERG BEACH OVERVIEW

Muizenberg Beach located on the False Bay coastline is one of Cape Town’s most popular and utilised beaches, locally recognised as the best place to learn to surf. As a result Muizenberg Beach supports a number of commercial surf schools and associated businesses.  On any given day, water users can number in excess of 300.

Since 1960 there have been 30 shark attacks in Cape Town, on average 1 every second year. The last shark attack at Muizenberg was in 2004 on JP Andrew, and the last shark attack in Cape Town was in April 2012.

Muizenberg Beach is a known White Shark habitat with high numbers of animals recorded in the inshore area annually between the summer months of September and May.  Shark presence during the winter months in the inshore area is rare, but not exceptional, as we do have records of shark presence during this time since monitoring began 10 years ago.

 

SHARK ATTACK DETAILS

The victim was in the water for approx. 30 min before the attack happened. There were 3-4 people within a 30 m radius of him. The shark approached the victim from behind, below the waterline and from the left hand side. The victim did not see the shark before the attack. The shark forcefully struck the bottom of the surfboard, pushing the board and victim lying on top of it, sideways. This strike resulted in the shark’s lower jaw puncturing the bottom of the surfboard deeply, and the top jaw puncturing the victim’s legs and left thigh. This action caused the victim to be knocked off his board into the water – he was not thrown 3m into the air. He was in the water for a few seconds before he got back on his board. Following this initial strike, the victim says the shark circled him once before swimming away and eyewitnesses confirm that the shark swam towards the victim again before swimming away. The bottom of the surfboard received the brunt force of the strike. The species of shark responsible is confirmed to be a Great White Shark (Carcharodon carcharias). Based on the size of the spaces or interdental distance (IDD) between the teeth punctures left on the surfboard the shark is estimated to be 4.4 m in length.

report pic 1

 

Prior to the attack, the shark was seen by a Stand-Up Paddle Boarder (SUP) who indicated that the animal approached from the east (Sunrise Beach) side.  The Stand-Up Paddle Boarder was initially unsure at the time whether he had seen a whale or a shark and had assumed due to the size that it was probably a whale

At the time of the attack, according to Shark Spotter records, there were 63 surfers and SUP’s in the water.

Following the initial strike, the victim started paddling towards shore. A friend came to assist him and they swapped boards before he caught a wave inshore and was then assisted to shore by other water users.

The victim sustained multiple lacerations and deep puncture wounds to his upper legs above the knees and an avulsion to the left thigh.

 

AREA OF ATTACK

The victim as well as witnesses in the water at the time indicated that they had been surfing in front of the Muizenberg Pavilion and approximately in line with Bailey’s Cottage.  The attack took place behind the surf backline approximately 350-450m from shore.

report pic 22

report pic 33

Photograph taken at approx. 14h30 from the Shark Spotters lookout on Boyes Drive. Shows the approximate attack location and spotting conditions. Cloud cover (100%).

ENVIRONMENTAL CONDITIONS

At the time of the attack, there was a light (4-6 knots) SE (onshore) wind, the sea surface was calm with a swell of 3-4ft from the SSW, and the cloud cover was 100% with a general haze in the air. The water temperature was 13 °C and moon phase: 26.7% illumination. The Shark Spotters were flying the black flag as spotting conditions were poor. Eyewitnesses in the water within 20 m of the victim report a large school of ‘harders’ in the area.

EMERGENCY RESPONSE

Immediately following the attack the victim started paddling towards shore. His friend who was surfing with him paddled towards him and they swapped boards as his friends board was bigger than the victims. Once on the new board the victim caught a wave to shore where he was assisted through the surf and out of the water by other people who were in the water with him. Initial medical treatment was provided by members of the public who stemmed the blood flow by tying a tourniquet using a surfboard leash and covering the victim with a space blanket. The victim was positioned with his head down-slope to reduce bleeding. Emergency services and paramedics took over when they arrived on scene approximately 20 minutes after the victim had reached the beach. He was stabilised on the beach before being airlifted to Vincent Palloti Hospital. NSRI Simonstown volunteers, CMR paramedics and a CMR ambulance, City of Cape Town Environmental Resource Management, Shark Spotters management, the SA Police Services, WC Government Health EMS, City of Cape Town Law Enforcement, City of Cape Town Fire and Rescue Services and the Red Cross AMS Skymed helicopter responded and were on scene within 20 minutes.

SHARK SPOTTERS RESPONSE

The Shark Spotters were flying the black flag due to very poor spotting conditions. There was 100% cloud cover combined with a general haze in the air. The attack also happened in front of Muizenberg Pavilion, 1km down the beach from the mountain spotters’ location. Under these conditions shark sightings are extremely difficult if not impossible.

A number of eye witness accounts, and the duty shark spotters, confirm the following:

  • The shark was not seen by the shark spotter prior to the attack
  • The shark spotter did not witness the attack
  • The first person to have seen the shark, although the witness in this case confirms that he was unsure as to whether it was a whale or shark, and who exited the water prior to the attack, could not find the beach spotter.. He maintains, however, that he would not have asked for the siren to be activated but wanted the Spotter to investigate what he had seen.
  • A second surfer who exited the water after seeing the shark attack made his way to the ablution block and on finding the shark spotter indicated that he had just seen a shark attack.
  • A further witness confirmed that when the alarm was initially set, it tripped and had to be re-set at the electricity mains.
  • The time between the first sighting of the shark in the surf (where the witness was unsure whether it was a whale or shark) and the actual setting of the alarm is estimated at 10 minutes
  • The time between the attack and the setting of the alarm is estimated at 3-4 minutes
  • Once the alarm had been set, the shark spotter followed protocol and:
    • Raised the white shark flags
    • Radioed information to all spotters on duty and the project manager, who informed the relevant authorities via telephone and sms as per emergency protocol
    • Ensured that the water was cleared of all surfers and water users
  • A specialist team from Shark Spotters and the City’s ERMD collected eyewitness statements, measured environmental conditions, interpreted the behaviour of the shark and determined the size of the shark based on the bite pattern on the surfboard.

 

The following timeline has been established from an analysis of the CCTV footage and interviews

  • 13:56.30 SUP surfer who had been surfing off the Pavilion exits the surf and unsuccessfully attempts to find the shark spotter as he had seen an animal in the surf that might have been a shark
  • 14:01.53 Surfer comes running towards the ablution block shouting that there had been an attack
  • 14:02.30 Siren activated but trips power after short blast as victim is being carried up the beach
  • 14:05 Siren successfully activated – victim now on the beach – and shark spotters attack protocol initiated.

It is concluded with a high degree of confidence that the attack took place at 14:00 and that it is highly unlikely that there was sufficient time to clear the surf from the time of the first confirmed sighting and the attack.

CITY’S RESPONSE

At 14:11 the Disaster Risk Management Department sent a SMS notification to all relevant City staff confirming the shark attack and its location. The City’s Environmental Resource Management Department (ERMD),  Law Enforcement and  Fire and Rescue Services immediately responded to the area and were on scene within 20 minutes.

On arrival:

  1. The area surrounding the victim was cleared of the public
  2. A safe area was allocated for the helicopter to land
  3. Beaches in the surrounding vicinity were closed
  4. A media statement was issued by the City
  5. Witness contact details were collected
  6. Victims surfboard was collected for assessment
  7. The victim’s family was contacted and assured that he was under expert care and in no immediate dang

GENERAL INFORMATION

Shark activity at Muizenberg

Since the Shark Spotting programme started in 2004, 770 shark sightings have been recorded in Muizenberg. The last shark sighting in Muizenberg was on the 8 May 2014. Shark sightings show a strong seasonal peak in spring and summer, and winter months are typically times of very low white shark activity along the inshore areas of False Bay. However, in the last few days there was been summer conditions in Cape Town with light to strong SE blowing.

The tracking research and shark spotters’ data over the last 10 years has shown a very clear seasonal peak in white shark sightings from September-April, with very low sightings over winter months. During autumn and winter months the male and female white sharks tend to aggregate around Seal Island where they predate on seals. During spring and summer months the males typically move out of False Bay and disperse along the southern African coastline, while many of the female sharks start spending much for time closer to shore near beaches. This is either due to favourable water conditions such as warmer waters, or due to the increase in abundance and availability of fish and other shark prey. However, there is always variation in these patterns.

Of note, there had been onshore winds (south east) blowing in False Bay over the last week, including on Friday with un-seasonally warm weather.  Eyewitnesses also reported large schools of baitfish in the area where it happened. It’s possible these conditions were favourable for shark presence at that time. It is very important to remember that white sharks are present year round in False Bay, and although we understand some behaviour and what drives movement, they are large, highly adaptable, and mobile predators.

Shark behaviour

White sharks are large, confident and opportunistic predators. In this case the sharks’ behaviour as described by eyewitnesses and from examination of the board are indicative of a typical bite and release strategy. The initial strike was likely predatory in nature given the force of the strike, but after it bit into a foreign object, namely a hard fibreglass surf board and neoprene wetsuit, it released and then did an investigatory pass, before swimming away. These kinds of single bite attacks are recognised as mistaken identity attacks.

Shark Signage and flags

The City has deployed Shark Smart information signs across its coastline in 2010. These signs have been installed at all nodal points including Muizenberg. A Shark Spotter and Be Shark Smart are positioned at the main entrances to Muizenberg beach. Two Shark Spotters flags were raised, one on either side of the Muizenberg huts.

SUMMARY OF FINDINGS

  1. The shark spotters did not see the shark before the attack
  2. The shark spotters did not see the attack itself
  3. This is due to a combination of the distance the victim was surfing from the corner, the direction from which the shark approached the surfers, the depth of the water and the environmental conditions of the day
  4. As soon as the spotter had been notified of the attack standard protocol was initiated.
  5. Care, support and immediate first-aid assistance by the public was exceptional
  6. Emergency response by NSRI Simonstown volunteers, CMR paramedics and ambulance and the Red Cross AMS Skymed helicopter was exceptional and of the highest standard
  7. The City Emergency SMS notification system functioned optimally.
  8. City officials from a range of relevant line departments were on scene within 20 minutes
  9. All beach closures and protocols worked optimally
  10. Collation of information and witness accounts and contact details was effective and optimal
  11. Of concern however, was the difficulty members of the public had in locating the shark spotter and notifying them that there may be a shark in the area. Visibility to the public of duty spotter on the beach is an essential component of the safety system and this must be improved
  12. Control of the helicopter landing area was not optimal and could be improved
  13.   

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR IMPROVED SAFETY

  1. The shark spotter on beach duty must be clearly visible and accessible at all times to the public. This is essential and needs to be improved
  2. More public awareness and education needed about the field of view of the Shark Spotters i.e. it is very difficult to see past the Shark Spotters flagpole which is positioned on the northern side of Surfers Corner. Signage in this regard should be considered
  3. Within the programme, the more confident individuals must be selected to assume beach duty, undergo extensive emergency response training and be trained to assume control of the crisis situation between the attack and the arrival of emergency services or City staff.
  4. Shark Spotters to conduct “shark attack” training exercises to ensure staff are regularly trained in dealing with crisis management
  5. Improved control of helicopter landing area by City officials

 

Contact Details:

Gregg Oelofse

City of Cape Town

Gregg.oelofse@capetown.gov.za

0839408143

 

33 comments

  1. I have a friend who owns a flying school in Western Australia as he has instructors in the air a lot of the time they have been contracted to do their training over the surf zone and relay spottings to the lifeguards on the beach by radio,kind of makes sense,also given the amount of people using Muizenburg and the relatively high amount of spottings it warrants an inflatable boat being out there at least over peak times

  2. This is just a thank you to the shark spotters and all the emergency services that took part that day. We were just about to suit up as the siren went off. I feel allot safer after seeing how the rescue crews performed on the day.

  3. I was very impressed by the way you have approached this issue from the point of view of safety procedures for the public and with the rational way you have looked at this incident. I am also aware of the amount of time and effort it takes to maintain and improve procedures. This approach minimises public hysteria which can otherwise easily take hold. Keep up the good work. Tim Hookins. Chair. Paddlensw.org.au. Sydney

  4. Brian Bernstein

    I suggest the shark spotter program gets support to have a boat or wet bike patrol the beach, especially when the sharks are inshore! Would be pretty easy to set up, and may deter and allow for better sighting.
    I have been suggesting this since JP incident for Muizenberg.
    63 people in the water on a Friday indicates quite a popular spot? Lots of tourists and beginners, may be worth getting support from the city?

  5. Kudos to Shark Spotters in their detailed investigation. Most importantly for being self-critical and finding areas for improvement. This shows a proactive learning organization. These same behaviors are emphasized in the Nuclear Industry that I have worked in for the last 30 years and any critical organization. I am truly impressed that Shark Spotters mirrors this behavior!

  6. What about using cheap drones (quadcopters)

  7. Kudos to Shark Spotters in their detailed investigation. Most importantly for being self-critical and finding areas for improvement. This shows a proactive learning organization. These same behaviors are emphasized in the Nuclear Industry that I have worked in for the last 30 years and any critical organization. I am truly impressed that Shark Spotters mirrors this behavior!I’m not just blowing smoke. This type of behavior is usually only seen in Military, Police, Nuclear, etc…You should be proud!

  8. Build look-out tower mid beach … Will help shark spotters.

  9. Ross Dyer

    I would suggest erecting a hut for the beach based shark spotter, not to act as a spotter but to ensure the can be contacted easily – they are the only link between the people on the beach (who in an emergency like this may not have access to cell phones) and the spotters on the mountain and ultimately quick response emergency services if required.

    A clearly marked hut that everyone knows the location of (even with a flag of it’s own so people can find it faster in an emergency) would go a long way to minimising the time required to alert the shark spotters, launch an investigation and clear the water if required.

  10. Why not use sonar to pick up sharks like in Australia? Then you don’t need shark spotters.

  11. Another way of improving effectiveness is to have a back-up loud hailer thingy – the type that is used at contests – in case the power trips or Eskom is on the blink.

    Otherwise we really appreciate the work being done by the spotters….they never get recognized for the amount of times that they potentially save lives by raising the alarm – people are generally miffed that they have to get out the water….

    SO THANK YOU SPOTTERS – YOU GUYS ROCK!!

  12. Hi, thanks for a great report, answered most things. I have a question though,how often is it that the Spotters cannot see a shark/s if in the vicinity of the Pavilion, that is my preferred place to surf. Also, assuming we will never know what happened to the illusive Shark Spotter who was found in the office??

    • Hi Martin,
      i just would like to point out that when the visibility is good and the green flag is up, the chances of NOT spotting a shark or other marine animal is pretty slim. Having sighted sharks over the years from the Mountain side whilst hiking, i can attest to this.
      the black flag should be considered when surfing. this indicates low or no visibility and thus responsibility is entirely upon the water user. the spotters simply provide us with guidelines that we can select wether to follow or not. sadly in situations such as this, when people seek to lay blame, it is only upon the water users who did not listen to the black flag warnings. a chance we all take when the surf is good.
      the spotters provide an invaluable service regardless.

  13. Hi, thanks for the great report, clears up most things. i do have a question though. The Top Spotters, how often is it that they will not be able to see a shark/s in the area slightly down the beach, basically where the attack took place. That is my area of preference on most days. Also, i take it we will never know what illusive Shark Spotter was doing or was not at their post??. Keep up the great work.

  14. Paul Ruger

    The elevated pavilion walkway would provide a reasonable vantage point to triangulate with the Boyes Drive lookout site

  15. Bill Corcoran

    Can you tell me what sized board the surfer was using at the time of the attack? There is a general feeling among surfers that long boarders are safer than short boarders due to the animal’s natural instincts of self- preservation.

  16. Dane Paarman

    Why is it that the sharks are not tagged ? I am sure with the new technology it should not be too difficult to tag and releas release ? It would probably be costly , but it’s worth a consideration for safety and research purposes .

  17. Very insightful report that highlights the effectiveness of Shark Spotters along with the numerous response services under the CTCC jurisdiction.

    I would add to the recommendation, since there is such a high portion & frequency of water uses in the Muizenberg area, that year round dedicated Life Guards and and tower facilities be provided for to assist with immediate beach trauma response service along side the SS program.

    Well done to all, I understand that Smithers is due for hospital release to today and wish him a speedy recovery.

    • Martin Stabrey

      Excellent recommendation Jamii. When discussing in-shore shark activity, I would go as far as to say that the spotters should be regarded as no more than a supplementary service and that the services of permanent, trained lifeguards should, in fact, be the primary source of any future investment. Not only are they trained to deal with instances like what happened, but I maintain that they would likely have a better all-round understanding and knowledge of conditions that would constitute an “unsafe” beach environment – the threat of sharks being just one of element thereof.

      • Thanks Martin. Just to expand the discussion.
        The Sharks Spotters program as I understand, is partly funded by CCT, but was founded and sustained largely dependent upon fundraising and donations etc. (I do feel that the Shark Cage Diving operators could made a percentage of their earns available to the SS Program, but that is not the topic of this discuss.)
        I stand to be corrected that most of the spotters have little surfing or beach-going background and are trained and employed specifically for that function of the SS program to observe, identify and warn of danger, lastly to activate emergency services if needed.
        Similarly lifeguards are trained for water safety supervisions and to activate ‘response protocols’ to provide water assistance, first aid or initial trauma response until emergency services take over, or in certain instances would require the metro police assistance for crowd control etc.
        Unlike KZN that has full time lifeguards year round, Cape Town lifeguard service is ‘seasonal’and the City of Cape Town co-supports the WP Lifeguard Association to ensure the water safety of identified CT beaches daily during the summer peak season, with public holiday or weekend service only during summer terms yet no service after Easter until Spring Holidays.
        For Muizenberg (due to the higher year round usage) I feel there is merit and growing motivation to have full time lifeguards available to assist with water safety and work in conjunction with the SS Program.
        However, contrary to general opinion, is should be understood that each of these organizations have a limitation to their functional duty and services they offer until greater funding is provided for training, resources and restructuring to facilitate a higher service.

        • Spot on.
          It is clear that both SS and guards both have their place when it comes to the threat of sharks in False Bay. In fact, they could compliment one another excellently.
          But what patently clear is that the relative over-funding of the SS and relative under-funding of lifeguarding and its ancillary services in the Western Cape is something that requires urgent discussion at CCT level. From my vantage point it seems the CCT has thrown their entire lot in with the SS in the hope that it somehow becomes a magic bullet for ocean safety in False Bay when, in fact, many other (I would contend) more “professional” services bear closer scrutiny.

  18. sandy mitchell

    thank you for this, I have twice experienced insufficient support from the spotters on the beach. I would also like to know if the spotters are using binoculars with polarised lenses and can you please address the lack of medical supplies at the beach. thanks

    • Hi Sandy,
      Thank you for letting us know about the problems you have encountered with the spotters. We are addressing the issues that have emerged as a matter of urgency and will make sure to improve in the future. If you have any future issues/problems please do contact us straight away so that we are aware and can rectify it immediately.
      The spotters do not use polarised binoculars, but they do use a combination of polarised sunglasses with normal binoculars. This allows the spotters to have the polarisation while scanning the water with the naked eye as well.
      We will ensure to have the medical first aid kit easily available in future.

  19. Nice work Gregg and thanks for the information.

  20. We would like to somehow be part of this project. Our collection teams often dive odd places for certain thing. Please contact our admin division with regards to this..

    Our front desk staff can also forward to to the relevant people.

    Regards
    Wouter

  21. Time to put up Shark Nets…….!!! Forget about the Tree Huggers, or do what they do in Western Australia, kill the Great Whites every time there is an attack, stop shark cage diving – just saying !!

    • Michael Pearce

      I am an Australian and have heard a lot about what they are doing in WA and have spent much time there. It has been unsuccessful using drum lines and it kills smaller sharks that are not causing the problems. The problem sharks are more than often larger than 3 meters and come in from deep and then leave again quickly. Drum lines have caught no shark of this size to my knowledge in WA.
      Netting basically kills everything. These are blanket solutions that create more issue than they resolve.
      I too am a surfer (last surfed muizenberg 2weeks ago) and want to be safe in the water but researching, tagging and finding out more about these animals needs to become a priority as little is know. This is not an issue exclusive to SA but need to be something addressed world wide.
      I wish this surfer all the best in his recovery.

    • Or keep the humans who have no respect for the shark out of the water?

  22. Ryno Lawson

    Hi there,

    Could a wooden structure like a lifeguard hut on stilts be built affordablly on the section of beach beyind the pavilion for permanent lifeguard and sharkspotters station to review the waters.

    • Hi Ryno,

      Unfortunately for spotting you need to have a considerable elevation and a wooden structure would not be sufficient. Most of our beaches are have a lookout point which is higher than 40 m, Fish Hoek and Muizenberg are about 100 m above sea level. Elevation is key to detecting sharks, and detecting them at a far enough distance so as to give time for response by spotters and water users. One of our lookouts is at 21 m, but the area that needs to be observed is very small. Therefore a hut on stilts would not be sufficient at the pavilion.

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