When is it not safe to surf? My experience surfing in the world’s shark-attack capital

Nowhere in the world has been more dangerous for surfers than Reunion Island, a French department in the Indian Ocean. The isle has gained global notoriety for its disproportionate amount of shark attacks. Santa Cruz native Evan Quarnstrom, who has called the island home for the past three months, details his experience becoming part of a unique surf community that has been forever altered by sharks. “Everyone seems connected to someone who was attacked,” he writes.

When I paddle out for a surf in Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean, it’s impossible to not think about sharks. The reminders are all around me.

A surfer missing limbs paddles by. The lifeguards patrol the ocean in a jet ski searching for sharks. Many surfers carry devices built into their boards or worn on the ankle that deter sharks.

I grew up surfing the great white-infested waters of Santa Cruz County, so I am no stranger to the risk of shark attacks. At home in Santa Cruz, we all know the sharks are there. But the number of attacks compared to the number of surfers is so small that the risk never really scares you.

Here in Reunion Island, it’s different.

The risk of shark attack is like an unspoken, yet persistent, blaring announcement. It’s a palpable feeling, both in and out of the water. Shark attacks molded the communities. Everyone seems connected to someone who was attacked.

Reunion Island is a small French isle about 400 miles east of Madagascar. The locals like to compare it to Hawaii. Like the Hawaiian islands, it’s an active volcano with steep, lush mountains that slope down into crystalline water, where world-class waves tumble across coral reefs.

But in the past decade, the isle’s tropical beauty has not grabbed the global spotlight.

The sharks have. Shark attacks have exploded since 2011.

Locals refer to it as the “shark crisis.” From 2011 through 2017, in Reunion, an island smaller than the state of Rhode Island, there were 24 attacks, nine of which were fatal. In 2013, the situation grew so dire that surfing and swimming were prohibited.

Reunion Island is not unique in the number of sharks in its waters. Like most tropical oceans, the infamously aggressive tiger and bull sharks call the island’s shores home. You might expect surfers to feel disdain for the sharks that have wreaked havoc in the lineups, but ironically, the surfers here are often the most understanding.

They acknowledge that the ocean is the sharks’ habitat and they play a crucial role in maintaining balance in the ecosystem.

In recent years, attacks have inexplicably ceased.

Is it because the local government has implemented daily shark patrols at popular surf breaks? Or due to the controversial use of drum lines that trap sharks with baited hooks? Or is it the ($600) anti-shark devices worn by surfers, which emit impulses that irritate sharks’ ultrasensitive food receptors and cause them to turn away?

It’s hard to say. The most recent shark attack was four years ago. But no one really knows if the crisis is over or about to erupt again.

If you had invited me on a surf trip to Reunion Island in the past, I would have said, “no way.” Why would I travel halfway around the world to surf shark-infested waters?

But as fate had it, my current trip around the globe pulled me toward the island. After several months in Indonesia, India and Sri Lanka, an invitation from some friends I met along the way to come explore their picturesque island was too good to pass up.

Evan Quarnstrom surfing in Indonesia’s Mentawai Islands.
(Via Evan Quarnstrom)

I’ve been in Reunion for three months now and I can see why the locals are proud of their chunk of paradise. Aside from the world-class surfing and stunning mountain vistas (formed by collapsed extinct volcanoes), the island is a melting pot of rich cultural diversity. Its most iconic landmark is Piton de la Fournaise, a climbable active volcano.

Immigration from Europe, Africa, India and China has created a beautiful infusion of cultures united on this small hunk of rock that is home to 850,000 people. While walking through streets of the village of Saint Leu, I can smell fresh bread baking at a bistro blending with the sizzling aroma of fried Indian-inspired samosas served by street vendors next door. Locals speak a form of French-based Creole sprinkled with words from African and Indian languages.

Staying with my friend, who is a high school history teacher on the island, has helped me learn about the island’s diverse past of global immigration. I’ve also dedicated my time to studying French, forcing myself to struggle through conversations.

But the most important thing I’ve learned in Reunion is about my limits, particularly to ask the question: “When should I not surf?”

It’s something I rarely think about when surfing at home in California.

The locals recommend some best practices to mitigate the risk of sharks. They warn to avoid surfing in murky water after a rain and not to surf too late into the evening, which is apparently when sharks move into the shallow water to feed.

Surfing in Reunion is always a mental calculation of risk. How is the water visibility? Are other surfers in the water? Should I try to get one of these anti-shark devices even if it’s just for a month or two?

Statistically, I am more likely to get hit by a car than attacked by a shark. But the fear of sharks is more real. More visceral. A shark attack leaves its victim with almost no control.

These calculated risks are not new for surfers. We make them all the time: deciding if we should paddle out into a big swell, where to jump into the water from a certain point on the cliff, or how long to wait to go in the ocean after a heavy rain.

In Reunion, it’s just intensified.

People who don’t surf, both from the island and abroad, think I am a bit unbalanced for even bothering to surf here at all. They don’t understand surfing’s addictive qualities — and therapeutic benefits.

Surfers get it, though.

As I type these words, I am sitting at my beachfront cottage watching perfect waves bend around the coral-bottom point break, but due to rain and cloudy weather, I’ve decided to skip surfing today. These are what the locals would call “high risk” shark conditions.

If I went surfing, would I get attacked by a shark? Probably not.

But that’s the “game” in Reunion. There is too much history here to ignore the risk of sharks. So I’m staying on land, knowing I can surf another day when the conditions are more favorable.

It’s a good lesson in patience, humility and not losing sight of the big picture.

Watching the waves, I feel I am exactly where I need to be: lost on a half-forgotten spit of land on the other side of the world, collecting experiences, forming new friendships and catching a few waves.

Evan Quarnstrom is a Santa Cruz native with an affinity for surfing, the outdoors, traveling and studying languages. He graduated from Harbor High School in 2010 and went on to study international business at San Diego State University. After seven years working in the surfing industry, Evan now works as a freelance writer and online English teacher. He has been to 25 countries and counting. His previous piece Lookout appeared in January.

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