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Shark Attacks Still Haunt Residents Of Reunion


The French island of La Reunion in the Indian Ocean is reeling from a spike in shark attacks. A 13-year-old surfing champion was killed this year; also a 22-year-old woman. They are the latest victims in a rash of incidents stretching back to 2011. NPR Above The Fray fellow Emma Jacobs traveled to La Reunion and has this report.

EMMA JACOBS, BYLINE: A small crowd of people dressed in white linger on the beach of Etang-Sale after the vigil for 22-year-old Bishop Talon. A shark had attacked the swimmer on the previous evening and she died later on from her injuries. This loss is a familiar one for surfers Edson Encana and Loris Gasbarre.

LORIS GASBARRE: Quite a sad feeling in fact.

EDSON ENCANA: Yeah, it's pretty hard.

GASBARRE: It's pretty hard for us.

JACOBS: They lost their childhood friend, French bodyboarding champion Matthieu Schiller, early in the string of attacks that began in 2011.

ENCANA: Each the same situation, same crisis, same sharks.

GASBARRE: And then another life's gone, you know?

JACOBS: The evening after this attack the sun is setting over the island. The black volcanic sand stretches out of sight down the coast lined with tall trees. Again, Edson Encana.

ENCANA: It's like paradise, you know? The black sand, the water's hot.

JACOBS: It looks like paradise.

ENCANA: It looks like, but under water it's "Jurassic Park."

JACOBS: "Jurassic Park" is a little dramatic, but here's a summary of what people here call the shark crisis, why Encana and Gasbarre no longer surf here. There have always been shark attacks off this island whose 850,000 residents mostly live on the coast. But shark attacks happening off the West Coast where the prime beaches are - this is new. Take the case of the attack considered to be the first of the crisis. It happened to a surfer on holiday from France, Eric Dargent, in 2011, in clear water in the late afternoon, conditions considered safe.

ERIC DARGENT: You don't have a big pain when you are attacked. It's just when I arrived on the beach. I look my leg and I saw I have lost my leg. And just in this moment I fight to stay in life.

JACOBS: The next attack happened four months later. That victim died. There were two more attacks that year, 12 more since and even more close calls. La Reunion's residents want to understand why this is happening. Looking for answers, I went to see marine ecologist Marc Soria. He's with the Institute for Research and Development on the island.

MARC SORIA: (Speaking French).

JACOBS: To show me what his team has been doing, he pulls a tray of electronic transmitters out of the office refrigerator.

Wait, is this - this is the same fridge where you all keep your lunch.

SORIA: (Laughter) Yes, normally we have not to do this, but...

JACOBS: Soria has been trying to learn more about the main culprits in these attacks - bull sharks and tiger sharks. He spent the last two years tracking a group of sharks embedded with these transmitters to figure out how to predict the risk for attacks.

SORIA: One of the hypotheses that we have to explain this is - it's the reproduction.

JACOBS: He says it's possible that during mating season male sharks become more aggressive and mistake surfers for competition. But Soria's also considering a whole list of other factors. It's possible sharks are attracted by cloudy runoff from shore, by a coral preserve abundant in fish. There's also been a ban on the sale of shark meat since a disease scare several years ago that could have led their numbers to increase. In the meantime, while they're still investigating, the island's residents are trying to figure out ways to mitigate the risk. To many, one solution seems like common sense - fishing for sharks. Some towns are specifically targeting sharks near shore with strings of baited hooks around recreational areas. These strategies aren't popular with environmental advocates like Didier Derand.

DIDIER DERAND: (Speaking French).

JACOBS: "For a shark or whatever fish," Derand says, "the ocean is their home and people need to adapt, even accept a certain amount of danger." The one strategy both sides seem to be able to agree on is the deployment of swimmers with masks who patrol the water for sharks.

GUY GAZZO: Hello (speaking French).

JACOBS: On this clear day, they're receiving training to become the eyes for surfers and bathers on the surface. They practice deep diving without air tanks and dragging prone victims. Their instructor is Guy Gazzo, a well-known deep-sea fisherman in his late 70s. He leads the class with his son, surfer Alexis Gazzo.

ALEXIS GAZZO: (Speaking French).

JACOBS: "Once everyone is operational," he says, "we'll locate nearer the coast at the edge of the surf spots and do surveillance of the entire area." They won't attack the sharks, just spot them and warn people out of the water. This strategy has limits. It's expensive and they won't go out when the water isn't clear, even though others will still take risks. Eddy Aubert died in a shark attack in 2011. His brother Christophe says he doesn't know if he'll ever feel safe in the water.

CHRISTOPHE AUBERT: That's a really difficult questions. Yes, when the risk come down and when we can go back - I don't know. I really don't know. I miss the ocean so much. I don't know.

JACOBS: And that's the new normal. Every person will have to figure out how much risk they can accept before going back in the water. For NPR News, I'm Emma Jacobs in La Reunion, France.

SIEGEL: Emma Jacobs is an NPR Above The Fray fellow sponsored by the John Alexander Project. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emma Jacobs