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Shark Attack Report – Incident took place 1 August 2014

Shark Attack Report – Incident took place 1 August 2014


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 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.

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.

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.

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%).

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.

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.

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.

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

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.


  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


  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

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