After a series of shark attacks in Reunion Island, we caught up with Hugo Savalli on some of the heated exchanges of opinions that followed between surfers and conservationists...

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Photo: Laurel

SE: Seems like it’s been one attack after another in Reunion lately...

Hugo: Yeah at the start of the year a surfer from Marseille had his leg bitten off. Fishermen and divers had been ringing alarm bells due to the increase in near-shore bull and tiger shark sightings.

And since there’s been a series of fatal attacks?

Yeah, the attacks started at a place called Roches Noires, unusually in the middle of the day in clear water conditions and close to shore. The second was a paddleski near Brisans beach. The third was one of the fatal ones, a bodyboarder at the beach of Petit Boucan. And fourth attack saw the death of former bodyboarding champion Mathieu Schiller, which sent the whole island into shock. Most recently a canoe was attacked, all this within a 5km radius.

This set off a bit of a media frenzy, with some making strange comments…

Initially, environmentalists (including the creator of the reserve) and local authorities accused surfers of taking too many risks in the water. They simply tried to put the blame on us. Meanwhile fisherman were actually doing something about it and trying to catch the shark responsible for the attacks. It wasn’t until the fourth attack that local authorities realised the bad publicity might actually start to discourage tourism to the area and there was finally talk of emergency measures.

Where have things been left?

People seem to have calmed down a little now and realise they should be listening to what surfers, divers and fishermen are saying. We’re the ones who are most familiar with the sea, not the bureaucrats who think they know it all just because they’ve read a couple of books and go scuba diving once a week.

How do you explain this recent spate of attacks?

Well, it’s thought to be due to several factors: primarily the creation of a state-funded marine park and natural reserve that has lured a greater number of sharks to the area. The reintroduction of mature adult turtles to the marine life is also thought to play a part, as they attract bull and tiger sharks in particular. Admittedly, it’s hard to know the exact causes but the Reunion association Océan Prévention is looking into it further. They’ve been tagging tiger sharks to monitor their movements and gain a better understanding of their behaviour, rather than just kill them. We’re all in favour of looking after the environment, but in this case perhaps it wasn’t the right place for a natural reserve as it’s put everyone who goes in the sea in danger.