Clifton Shark Files Goes Live
It was around 2000 that I heard a vague reference to a shark attack that had occurred at Clifton Fourth Beach, South Africa sometime during the 1970s.
At the time I was working as an editor for a technical publishing house called George Warman Publications and surfing my brains out each evening at Llandudno after work.
I remember taking a long lunch one afternoon and spending the rest of the day combing through the rich labyrinth of the Cape Times Newspaper archives.
In those days, the Internet was not yet my virtual assistant and I had to rely on instinct and a curious nature.
I also kept reminding myself that it sure beat editing the endless press releases on chemical processing that were piling up on my desk.
After a few hours buried in front of a microfilm-display window I finally found a reference to an article called “Shark victim hopes to swim again ‘soon.’”
The report outlined an attack on a Geoffrey Kirkham Spence that took place few days earlier on 27 November 1976. Spence, 19, was recovering at Groote Schuur hospital.
The story was indeed odd for a number of reasons.
For some inexplicable reason I had never heard about this incident growing up in Hout Bay and Llandudno. I also never recalled my parents or any other adult talking about this incident.
At the time, I was about five years old and already a water baby.
I lived and breathed ocean swimming, which soon graduated to surfing after my best friend at the time, Gavin Pittway, introduced me to this intoxicating sport.
Others joined us including Paul McCloughlin, Adrian Scholtz, Brandon Smith, Mark Smith, Hugo Stander, Russell Atkins, Rian Turner, Douglas Jenmen and a number of others.
We surfed Hout Bay, Llandudno, Noordhoek and a number of other spots along the Atlantic seaboard.
One time during the 1970s, I cannot recall exactly when, Douglas Jenman’s father reported seeing a huge great white swim into Hout Bay harbor. He frantically waved some of the fishermen kid’s playing in the shallow waters near one of the jetties to get out the water.
That very day a beachgoer told me about the incident and warned me not to go in the ocean.
I ignored the older gentleman and proceeded to surf the small swell, hardly making a splash and keeping my hands and feet above my board when not paddling for a wave.
We thus knew great whites roamed the Atlantic waters but most of the attacks happened in False Bay, particularly the Strand and Macassar.
Great whites, we were lead to believe, did not like the freezing waters of the Atlantic zone.
This internalized belief also allowed us a measure of piece as we surfed the cold freezing waves of the Atlantic Ocean, which while beautiful, can also be intimidating.
We had enough problems keeping our heads straight in water temperatures that often fell below 14-degrees Celsius.
But, after discovering the Cape Times article this tenuous theory was really put to the test.
Upon doing more research, I discovered another attack had taken place 30 years previously in 1942 at almost the same location in Fourth Beach Bay.
Incredible, I thought, but why there? I left the Cape Times archives that day with a vague intention to write a story or at least pinpoint what great whites were up to in what I call the Atlantic zone between Llandudno and Table Bay.
However, procrastination is one of my strong suites and the idea remained just that, an idea, until several months ago when I decided to revisit the 1976 shark attack and explore details relating to this forgotten moment in South African shark history.
On September 22, 2010 after countless weekends hunched over my Apple Macbook Pro I put the finishing touches on the website, The Clifton Shark Files.
The project introduced me to some amazing people connected to the incident who vividly recalled that famous day on November 27, 1976, which became only the third great white attack (or more accurately “Bite”) to take place in the 20th Century between Table Bay and Llandudno.
This included touching base with Alison Kock, shark researcher, who is developing an international reputation for her knowledge of great white behavior in False Bay via her shark-tagging program.
Others, such as Nic de Kock, Peter Basford and Peter van Gysen – all witnesses to the incident — transported me back to that beautiful summer’s day in 1976.
As you can imagine, tracking down persons involved in a shark attack over 35 years ago is challenging and this process is far from over!
Further, the ’76 incident is only part of the story. It took place during what I call the ‘Mean Season’ when a Cape Town media, spurred on by the release of “Jaws” and the earlier introduction of Television, hungrily sought out shark stories in False Bay.
Great whites, they suggested, were turning ‘mean.’
Theories were raised; shark hunters interviewed, and the public could not get enough of it.
But, when the smoke cleared, South Africa’s great white, would strike in the last place that anyone would think of: Fourth Beach, Clifton.
This apex predator continues to perplex scientists and surfers alike, 35 years later. The mystery is even more pronounced along the Atlantic seaboard.
The 1976 incident thus assumes a very special significance in retrospectively overturning many myths relating to great white behavior on the tip of Africa.
Visit the Clifton Shark Files at: http://www.cliftonsharkfiles.com
If anyone reading this has more information relating to the 1976 incident or the general ‘great white’ climate of 1976, please contact me at research [at] cliftonsharkfiles.com