Tangui Gicquel, 28, rests by a natural pool he discovered near his home, in Etang Salé. In 2013, he lost his right leg to a shark while bodysurfing with some friends. "A guy who loses his leg in a car accident doesn’t trigger such reactions, such anxiety among people", he notes. "A lot of them are terrified just imagining what happened to me. They don’t realize that I didn’t experience pain, with the rush of adrenaline. As we fought, the shark and I, I felt some sort of connection that I couldn’t explain. In the end, I lost some, but I won my right to live." 


Since 2011, 23 shark attacks have shaken Reunion, 9 of them being fatal to the victims (other sources count 29 attacks, one being a dog). Bull sharks and tiger sharks are both cited as the species responsible for these attacks, even though tiger shark attacks amount to just one. This French overseas region's rate of human deaths caused by shark attacks is among the world's greatest.




info
×

A culled tiger shark is getting transported for dissection at Saint-Denis university. The tiger shark's body was dragged in front of an underwater sonar, as part of CRA's 2018 test campaign, aimed at preventing further attacks.

Immersed sonar could indeed warn beach-goers in case a shark approaches the coast; but before that, the sonar needs to learn the difference between a shark and a dolphin or a tuna.

Unfortunately, after a week of testing, no shark passed by the immersed sonar. The CRA team felt they had no other choice but to use a culled shark to finally calibrate the machine and use it for beach safety. In three months, 21 tiger sharks and 8 bull sharks were culled, along with 52 individuals from other species of sharks and fishes.

The CRA (Centre de Ressources et d'Appui sur le risque requin) was officially founded in 2016 under the impulse of French state and local authorities, and is mandated to lead experiments and build solutions to prevent shark attacks. In 2018, it will test several techniques to avoid further attack, from camera traps to electric shark deterrents to innovative beach nets. The aim is to efficiently advice local authorities, so they can identify which technique is better suited for their needs and means. This year, CRA's budget has been doubled up to 2 millions euros.

info
×

A vigie poses as he finishes his shift, a one-hour patrol in the water. The Vigies Requins plan was created by the Reunionese Surf League to prevent further shark attacks on surfers while preserving surf activities and competitions on the island. It consists of six vigies swimming back and forth an identified surf spot, within which licensed surfers can practice.

Choosing the surf spot every morning is tightly linked to water conditions and visibility. Boats equipped with underwater cameras also surround the zone to form an additional "security wall". Such protective team is unique in the world, and despite having risen concerns when it started a couple of years ago, it stands today among the least invasive preventive measures in Reunion.

info
×

In 2017, a study analyzing the stomachs of 95 bull sharks and tiger sharks culled around Reunion came to a puzzling result: 20% of these tiger sharks’ diet consisted of terrestrial animals (mainly chicken). In both species, 15% of the diet was fish waste.

In total, 147 sharks were dissected between July 2015 and May 2017 for this study, called ECoReCo-RUN, which focused on shark ecology and behavior in Reunion. Unfortunately, lots of them regurgitated their stomach out of their mouth before getting to the lab (an instinct in stressful situations), making it impossible to learn about their content.

info
×

Beach lifeguards enjoy a surf session under the surveillance of the Vigies Requins team. They wouldn't be allowed to enter coastal waters otherwise: in Reunion, it is forbidden by law to swim, surf, bodysurf or paddle outside the protected areas considering the presence of "potentially dangerous sharks near the coasts", as stated in an order from the Reunionese authorities.

info
×

It's nearly impossible to see a leopard shark in Reunion (here pictured at the Aquarium of Saint-Gilles). Year after year, they disappeared from Reunionese waters, along with other reef sharks like the white tip, black tip and grey reef shark. Unexpectedly, a white tip was filmed in June 2018; it made the headlines.


"Reef sharks populations have drastically decreased, and this created an ecological niche for bull sharks and tiger sharks", explains Olivier Bielen, Director of CRA. Some reef sharks are indeed reputed to eat the juveniles of these bigger sharks, balancing therefore their populations. However, no scientific observation exists in Reunion to confirm that this was indeed the case around the island: "It’s empirical", notes Bielen.

info
×

"We weren't educated to live on an island", tells Matthieu Fougeret, 28. "Reunionese people are afraid of the sea. But we should all learn about the ocean surrounding us. We should become 'watermen', just like people in Hawaii or Tahiti."

Fougeret is a surfer. He's also a beach lifeguard –yet he won't follow the basic safety rules if the waves are great. "I'll go surf anywhere, even if the water is maroon. I am aware of the risks I'm taking. And I totally accept them."

info
×

Emmanuel Daydé has been living in Reunion for a couple of years and has a strong connection to the sea. He's also a talented engineer.

At the beginning of 2018, he contacted the CRA, offering his help to build special camera traps that they could use to prevent attacks. "I thought –I have some skills, maybe I could be helpful", he tells. "If you wait for others to do stuff, you're going to wait a long time." The CRA seemed pretty enthused at first, but to this day, no collaboration has emerged.

Daydé hopes that respectful solutions will be found, and that access to the sea will be allowed again. "I don't shout it from the rooftops, because it's quite a sensitive topic here, but I'm also hoping for the reintroduction of reef sharks", he adds.

info
×

Overfishing, water pollution, global warming, rogue individuals, exponential touristic activities, the ban on shark commercialization due to risks of ciguatera poisoning… Lots of hypotheses exist, yet little is known regarding the causes that led to the sudden increase of attacks.

Moreover, it seems impossible to scientifically pin the actual factors, as there is a dramatic lack of relevant data in Reunion. Today, to learn about how things were before, one has to trust the memories of those familiar with the ocean.

info
×

"I just stood still and looked at it", Olivier Payet remembers. "It wasn’t paying any attention to me". Last March, the 19-year-old boy encountered a bull shark right behind this sand dune, near the pass of the popular beach of Etang Salé. Payet was snorkeling, and as he followed a big fish, a massive silhouette caught his eyes. As soon as the bull shark disappeared, he went out of the water, avoiding to run "to not make people panic", and warned the lifeguards so they could raise the shark warning flag. An hour later, Reunionese media were all over the place looking for him. "It went crazy. Four radios came, journalists took pictures, television crews asked questions… Later I found out that some of them switched my answers in their edit." When first contacted, he didn’t want anything to do with another journalist.

info
×

Published by Nature last February, the first study exploring human-shark interactions in Reunion firmly stated: “In a situation where decision makers tend to manage public emotions rather than the hazard itself, efficient management of negative human-wildlife interactions needs to be based upon scientific evidences".

info
×

I Thought It Was A Joke, an environmental story about the current state of human-shark relationships in Reunion Island, seven years after the number of shark attacks drastically increased –since 2011, 23 attacks occurred, causing 9 fatalities.


In 2017 I moved to Reunion, a French overseas region in the Indian Ocean. The situation I witnessed struck me right away. An island that doesn't know much about the ocean surrounding it? Really? It added to my astonishment that the media coverage of the shark issue mostly falls into the dark side of journalism –sadly sensational, rarely nuanced. I wanted to complicate the narrative.


For three months, I got close to those who are building the future human-shark relationship in Reunion. I have followed the shark trail above and underwater, exploring the contradictions and subtleties of a relationship that never really began, and questioning the possibilities lying ahead. As I was interviewing Tangui Gicquel, who lost his right leg to a shark in 2013, a forty-year old man came up to us and said something strikingly revealing: “We were never told anything before the peak of attacks. When people talked about sharks around the island, I thought it was a joke.”

Using Format