Port St Johns shark attacks: what the hell is going on?

In response to five fatal shark attacks in four years at Port St Johns’ Second Beach, the Sunday Tribune went there to find out what was causing the attacks and to speak to the family of the 15-year-old who was the most recent victim. Here are the stories, originally published on January 20, 2011, page 16.

Original articles, as published in the Sunday Tribune, January 30, 2011, page 16.


Speculation is rife as to why Second Beach at Port St Johns has witnessed five fatal shark attacks in the past four years. Residents are desperate to find the answer. Matthew Savides reports

The shark attacks in Port St Johns are a statistical anomaly. More attacks have taken place at this beach than any other in South Africa in the past five years. All of the past five attacks have been fatal, way above the national average of just one fatality from every six attacks.

Scientists say this doesn’t make sense and are desperate to find out why Second Beach – the busiest on the Wild Coast – has become what locals describe as “the beach of death”.

Zama Ndamase was attacked on January 15, presumably by a Zambezi shark. He is the fifth person killed on the 400m stretch of beach since 2008.
Ndamase’s coach and mentor, Mike Gatke, said surfers had been left “traumatised”.

“I have not seen a single surfer here since the attack. These attacks happen and you think, ‘Well, it might not happen again’. But then it happens again. You want to think the attacks were bad luck or a statistical anomaly that won’t happen again. But they keep happening.  There must be a reason. This must be one of the country’s most dangerous beaches.”

Geremy Cliff, a scientist with the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board, said: “There has got to be something to these attacks. We need to find out what has changed for us to have this mini-outbreak of attacks. I am not aware of any quantum change in human activity or shark behaviour.”

Mike Gatke points out where the most recent shark attack happened. He was watching Zama surfing and witnessed what happened. PICTURE: SANDILE NDLOVU

A common belief is that changes in the environment have  caused shark populations to grow in the area, particularly in the mouth of the Umzimvubu River, just 4km from Second Beach.

Cliff said many estuaries and river mouths had become silted. As Zambezi sharks use them for breeding, they might have moved further south to Port St Johns, where the river hasn’t been as badly affected.

However, many townsfolk believe sewage and pollution in the Umzimvubu River is to blame. According to municipal manager Zola Hewu, this is a factor.

“We haven’t had any scientific proof of what is causing it… (but) we believe that the dirty water is one of the reasons. It is during this time of year when most of the attacks have happened, or after periods of heavy rain. The river flows and a lot of the pollution comes from up the river,” he said. Sewage in the town also leaks into the river.

Although, for Cliff, this problem is not big enough on its own and there was no evidence.

People still swim at Second Beach, despite the shark attacks. In fact, we were told that people swam the afternoon of Zama's attack despite the beach being officially closed. PICTURE: SANDILE NDLOVU

Other theories are that ritual animal slaughters take place on Second Beach and the blood of goats and chickens could be running into the water and attracting sharks.

Seemingly the most bizarre suggestion is that loud bass music from taxis and the noise from drum circles could be playing a part. Cliff said that studies had shown fish could be attracted to low-frequency sounds.

“This would be extremely difficult to prove, but it is something that we have to look at. We just need to find a reliable way to test it,” he said.

“It appears to be a combination of factors. There must be a number of smaller things that are all adding up.”

Zolile Nqayi, spokeswoman for the Environmental Affairs Department’s oceans and coasts unit, said: “We are concerned about what is happening at Port St Johns and have commissioned an investigation by the KZN Sharks Board to determine what the possible causes are… and what the best method would be to mitigate and prevent shark attacks.”

This study is expected to start soon and will be completed by the end of the year.

Calls have been made for shark nets or drum lines to be installed.

Second Beach, as seen from the top of The Gap. Indicated in red is where Zama was attacked. PICTURE: SANDILE NDLOVU

Speaking to the East London-based Daily Dispatch, Zama’s brother, Avuyile Ndamase, said: “Enough is enough. The only answer is to put up shark nets. The sharks know this place, that is why they keep coming back.”

Lifeguards, too, believe this is the best solution.

Gerald Mtakati, who is stationed at Second Beach, said: “We need to do something. The lifeguards are scared to go into the water. If someone is in trouble, we use the jetski to get there. Maybe we need shark nets or something.”

But Cliff said this was a “very sensitive issue”.

Shark nets were expensive to install and maintain, and it is not only sharks that get caught in them. “There are lots of factors that need to be considered,” he said.

Hewu said shark nets would be considered, but only once proof had been produced that they would make a difference.

Zama Ndamase


Zama Ndamase was one of the most promising surfers in the country. He had already represented Border at age group level and was tipped to continue to grow in the sport he loved.
But on Saturday, January 15, Zama was killed in a shark attack on Port St Johns’s Second Beach. The 15-year-old was buried yesterday in Mthatha.

“I miss him so much. I can’t go to the beach anymore and I don’t want to watch people surfing anymore. I don’t want to see that beach,” said Ntombodumo Ndamase, Zama’s mom, as she fought back tears.

On Wednesday, friends, schoolmates and his family said goodbye to Zama at an emotional memorial service at his school, Port St Johns Junior Secondary.

Zama’s brother, Avuyile, was in the water when the attack happened. He tried to speak at the service, but broke down and left the stage. “My son (Avuyile) is not okay. He and Zama were not just brothers, they were best friends. He is really struggling,” Ndamase said.

Zama’s mother, whose house is just 100m from the beach where the attack happened, rushed on to the sand when she heard what had happened. She cried as she saw her son’s lifeless body covered by leaves and branches.
Mike Gatke, who was Zama’s mentor and coach, witnessed the attack from the veranda of The Lodge.

“I saw Zama surfing there and I saw him paddling. Next thing I saw him roll off his board – that must have been when he was first attacked. I saw behind him that the water was red. I knew then that it was an attack,” Gatke said.
He called emergency services and rushed to the beach with towels and rope to stop the bleeding.

“By the time I got there, he had already bled out. He was dead before he left the water,” Gatke said.

Parents of surfer Zama Ndamase, Ntombodumo and Sipho Ndamase, speak to me after a memorial at Zama's school.

Lifesaver Gerald Mtakati was on duty that afternoon. Using a jetski, he pulled Zama’s body from the water.

“When we got there, all we could see was his board, but not his body. But then he floated up. We picked up the body and got him to the beach. We could see that he was dead.”

Mtakati has been on duty for each of the past five attacks and has pulled each body from the sea. He believes the beach should have been closed that day.

“The water was murky. We try to close the beach, but people who come here on holiday threaten to hit us if they can’t swim. So we tell them about shark attacks and warn them, but they still swim,” he said.

Zama’s principal, Rian Erasmus, praised the surfer at the memorial.

“Zama was a very energetic and talented young man, but an incredibly humble child. We should take Zama’s life an an example that if you are good at something you should go for it – not 50 percent, but 100 percent. That is what Zama did,” he said.


4 thoughts on “Port St Johns shark attacks: what the hell is going on?

  1. Sad, really very sad. Here in Brazil we had a lot of atacks last years too, in Recife city, Pernambuco state. The tiger-shark is a most dangerous shark here and Recife is one of the most dangerous place to surf practice and swim in world. We have not white sharks, but the tiger-sharks is very dangerous in my country. The government has a responsability to protect people at beaches and they support them about, against shark atacks. There are advertsiments all over the beaches where identifieds possibles shard atacks. Well, i hope god cares the family of this beautiful kid and talentous surf who died in South Africa. We prays for your life, blessings to this hard moments…
    (sorry for my bad english language).

    Jorge Jojó
    From Rio de Janeiro city,
    email: rootsland2001@yahoo.com.br

  2. please lets set up a fishing competition targeting Zambizi sharks only! There is a shark or sharks who have developed a taste for human blood. If mature sharks taken out of the population maybe we catch the rotten apple as i believe not all sharks are bad! I am from port st johns and if stories are checked with locals you will find that a vast amount of young boys have so called drowned in the vubu with no bodies found unreported and reported the numbers are shocking and far exceed local shark attack reports!

    1. Tens of millions of sharks die each year to supply the multi-billion dollar fin trade. People are not really an endangered species and there are only 569 recorded shark deaths in all of history. Get your head out of your ass. Anyway mostly surfers are at risk and all of them will be appalled by your childish, attention seeking, ill informed, parasitic comments. Do you really think humans are the only ones allowed to use the beach or live for that matter.

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