La Crise Requine

Riding waves in Réunion Island is still largely illegal after a series of fatal shark attacks swept through it beginning in 2011. A decade later, the debate about how to address the situation remains.

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Arnault Gauthier cuts the engines on the ski boat and points to an orange buoy ahead of us, which rises and falls in the gentle swell. “We’re coming up to a SMART drum line,” he says. “It’s short for Shark Management Alert in Real Time. It’s very similar to a normal drum line, with a baited hook attached to a buoy that’s meant to catch potentially dangerous sharks, but it’s also linked to a GPS device. When a shark bites the hook, it pulls a small magnet on the device that sends a signal to a fisherman telling him there’s a catch. If it’s a tiger shark or bull shark, it will be taken out.”

A few hundred yards inshore, the dark-blue water turns a shimmering turquoise before giving way to the white sands of Boucan Canot, a once-popular beach that flanks the west coast of Réunion Island. On this bright Sunday morning, aside from a few umbrellas scattered around its northern corner, the beach is mostly empty. 

“To me, this is the best representation of what the shark crisis has done to the island,” says Gauthier, the scientific coordinator for the Centre Sécurité Requin (Shark Security Center), looking toward shore. “If it had been 12 years ago, you would not see a single grain of sand because there’d be people everywhere.” 

He slides the throttle up and we continue motoring southeast, past the beaches of Saint-Gilles and Roches Noires and on to our final destination, Saint-Leu. The adjacent terrain rises steeply to the interior, compressing the landscape into spectacular layers of coastline and mountains that have earned Réunion the nickname “the Intense Island.” Despite this vivid namesake, over the past decade the tiny French department in the Indian Ocean has become synonymous with mainly one word: sharks. 

Between 2011 and 2019 there were 30 shark attacks on Réunion Island, 11 of which were fatal. Most occurred along the short 20-mile stretch of coastline we are motoring past. The attacks became known as la crise requins (“the shark crisis”), a label that persists to this day. They started suddenly and were indiscriminate, taking place anywhere from deep reef passes to shallow lagoons, sometimes mere meters from the shore. In response, the French government instituted a ban on swimming and surfing in 2013. After considerable public pressure, they started systematically fishing bull and tiger sharks—which led to Réunion’s SMART drum-line program. The island, once revered for its abundance of tropical waves, quickly became a no-go zone for surfers worldwide.

In the wake of the crisis, marine biologists like Gauthier—who concentrated his PhD on the electrosensory system of sharks and rays—are still trying to understand what could have caused this change in shark behavior, while working with the local surfing community to mitigate the risk of future attacks. The iconic reef pass of Saint-Leu has become ground zero for these efforts. 

As Gauthier and I approach the lineup and moor the boat to a buoy located in a deep channel just off the reef, a tight pack of surfers picks apart the small sets on all manner of craft while a trio of jet skis continuously circles the length of the reef, patrolling for sharks. This is one of the only areas on the island where it is legal to surf again after the prolonged ban. 

Gauthier starts threading a cluster of electrodes through a PVC pole as the boat swings on its mooring. “This is to test the electric fields emitted by a shark-deterrent device. It’s mandatory to wear one if you want to surf Saint-Leu,” he says. The pole extends roughly 6 feet underwater and is mounted to a floating rectangular base upon which a surfboard with an anti-shark device—typically fitted into the traction pad or onto the bottom of the deck—is placed. The electrodes measure the electrical field emitted underwater and relay the reading to Gauthier’s iPad through an app, which spits out a percentage measuring the device’s efficacy. 

The biggest problem is that if a shark-repellent device isn’t meticulously maintained, the electrodes can quickly become eroded and ineffective. “This is something we developed to tell surfers if their device is working or not,” says Gauthier. “It’s a service we provide for free.” 

The overall goal of the Saint-Leu “experimental area” is to create several layers of protection to minimize the risk of a shark encounter or attack. “You have the drum line offshore, then the water patrol looking for sharks, and then the personal shark device,” says Gauthier. “And finally, we’re just trying to create as much awareness as possible.” 

Suddenly the two-way radio crackles urgently and the skis dash to the top of the reef. A fin breaks the surface, followed by another, then another. A pod of dolphins appears just beyond backline and the lineup collectively relaxes. Afterward, the crowd thins noticeably, until there are only a few surfers left bobbing in the lineup.

It’s late afternoon by the time we get back to the Shark Security Center headquarters. Perched high on a hill just north of Saint-Leu, the building offers views of the ocean sprawling endlessly to the west. Inside, the tall timber-frame is filled with nautical equipment: buoys, boat trailers, racks of diving suits, and other paraphernalia. The center was established in 2016 to bring scientists, government, and civil society together to find a unified solution to the crisis. Mounted along the walls are numerous jaws, cut from the mouths of sharks caught by the fishing program. Each set has a tag denoting the location where the shark was hooked, its size, and the species. 

“At the moment, we have to kill every single tiger shark and bull shark caught on the SMART drum line that’s bigger than 2 meters. Those are the instructions we have been given,” says Gauthier. If it’s bycatch or another shark species, it will immediately be tagged and released. The aim, he says, is to have as little ecological impact on other species as possible. “But the drum lines are only one part of a bigger system that we are trying to implement.” 

Gauthier’s mission, along with his colleagues, is to establish baseline data that can help them better understand shark distribution and behavior around the island, while developing scientific tools and nonlethal measures to mitigate the risk of future shark-human encounters. I ask him what could have caused the unprecedented rise in attacks over the past decade. “Anyone who tells you that they know the exact reason why there’s been an increase in shark interaction and shark bites in Réunion would be lying to you,” he replies flatly. “We just don’t know. It’s probably multifactorial. There’s plenty of different reasons. And we probably all have part of the truth. But no one’s got the complete truth.” 

One of the most commonly cited theories is that a marine reserve, established in 2007, is responsible for attracting more sharks to the west-coast reefs. The Natural Marine Reserve stretches from Cap la Houssaye in the northwest to L’Étang-Salé in the southwest, a distance of roughly 25 miles, and was created to protect and repopulate Réunion’s coral reefs, which were being decimated by overfishing. The reserve is divided into five different zones that allow for varying degrees of human activity, such as diving and recreational fishing. Only 5 percent of the reserve is fully protected, where all human activity is strictly prohibited.

Gauthier in the lab. 

“People started to think that the marine park was creating a food reserve for these animals. More reef fish meant more food for bull sharks,” explains Gauthier. “And because bull sharks could not be fished in there, [people thought] the sharks were aggregating in this area. And that’s why [they’ve theorized] the marine park was the cause behind the shark crisis in Réunion.”

Based on data collected through an extensive underwater surveillance program, however, Gauthier believes this is unlikely to be the cause. “We’ve been putting these all over the western side of the island to see if we can detect any aggregation site for bull sharks,” he says, holding up a baited remote underwater video system, or BRUV. The system, comprising a canister filled with bait that is rigged to a submerged GoPro camera, can record footage for up to four hours. Sharks are attracted to the bait—usually tuna or mackerel—but they cannot eat it and there is no reward.

The study started in 2018 and has recorded more than 900 hours of footage, with each second being closely scrutinized by Gauthier and his colleagues. To date, the BRUV cameras have recorded three bull sharks, none of which were inside the marine protected area. While Gauthier points out that this is not necessarily a reflection of the bull shark population or their behavior, it does clearly indicate that “we don’t have a huge density of bull sharks around the island, or a concentration of bull sharks populating the marine reserve.” 

This also casts doubt on the notion that the bull shark population has exploded around Réunion since the commercial sale of shark meat was banned in 1999. “It’s possible that the population has gone up with less fishing pressure,” says Gauthier. “But we don’t have any baseline data, so we don’t actually know if that’s happened. You have to understand it’s quite a small marine reserve as well, and it’s very young. So it’s not like it’s had time to develop and truly become a ‘nest’ for bull sharks, like some people say.”

According to Gauthier, the fish population itself has grown only marginally inside the protected area, with an estimated 1 percent increase in total biomass. Prior to the establishment of the reserve, species like reef sharks were particularly hard-hit by overfishing. The dwindling reef shark population has led to another theory.

The drop-off at Saint-Leu, as viewed from above. It’s theorized that the dramatic change in bathymetry makes it an ideal environment for ambush predators.

“A lot of people think reef sharks used to scare away bull sharks or used to eat bull sharks,” says Gauthier. “And because we don’t have reef sharks anymore, bull sharks have moved into this habitat. It’s a bit more complex than that. Reef sharks are uniquely suited to reef environments, so they’re much better at getting prey and food in this area.”

Gauthier says it is possible that as reef sharks were fished out, the ecological niche they occupied was left open, allowing bull sharks to move around the west-coast reefs more freely. But for them to “take over” and inhabit the reefs would theoretically require a much longer process of adaptation—essentially an evolutionary change.

“Is the absence of reef sharks the reason why we’ve had the shark crisis? Probably not,” he says. “But is it part of the reason? Maybe.”


From Saint-Leu, the coastline arcs southeast toward Saint-Pierre along a six-lane highway that clings to the island’s steep flanks. The constant stream of vehicles on the road is evidence of the exponential growth in Réunion’s population, which has nearly doubled since 1990 to just under a million people. The island itself measures a mere 39 miles by 28 miles across and is essentially the tip of a volcanic peak that was created three million years ago when the earth’s crust split open and magma oozed to the surface. Piton de la Fournaise, the volcano that dominates the east, remains among the most active on earth.

Riding in the car with me is photographer Alan van Gysen and two young pro surfers from South Africa, Luke Slijpen and Eli Beukes—the first foreign pros, we’re told, to visit the island in more than five years. We cross a series of bridges and deep ravines cut out of the mountainside. In the distance below are countless setups—rivermouths, reef passes, and beaches. Up close, the volcanic nature of the coastline becomes more pronounced until we reach La Pointe du Diable—Devil’s Point—where a long finger of lava slices into the sea. 

Saint-Pierre is a laid-back town catering mostly to local holidaymakers with a pleasant strip of bars, bakeries, and restaurants that skirt the ocean. It’s also the focal point of surfing in the south of Réunion. La Jetée, the hollow right-hander that lies in front of the town’s picturesque marina, picks up any hint of southerly swell. It can be overhead here when Saint-Leu is completely flat. It’s also exposed to the cross-shore trade wind and is easily blown out.

Carcharhinus leucas, or commonly the bull shark, is one of the main suspects for scientists seeking to understand the attacks on Réunion Island. Photo by Gerard Soury/Getty Images.

Ironically, the cross-shore is what made the wave famous. The powerful bowl catapults a surfer directly into the oncoming section and, with the wind blowing from an optimum angle, it became the ramp of choice for local and visiting aerialists, immortalized in films like Kai Neville’s Modern Collective in a section featuring Jordy Smith, Mitch Coleborn, and Craig Anderson.

For the everyman, glassy mornings and crisp tubes are Saint-Pierre’s main drawcard. That is, if you can avoid the urchins. Accessing the lineup requires scrambling down from the jetty and over the slippery boulders, where these mutant aberrations lie in fist-size clumps. Out in the lineup, the reef appears dark and foreboding beneath the surface, but the quality of the wave is hard to resist.

“We never stopped surfing, even during the shark crisis that started in 2011,” Matthieu Guillaume tells me after a windswept morning session. The 27-year-old grew up in the village just south of Saint-Pierre and is a lifelong Jetée local. “We were very lucky because this is the only area in Réunion without the marine reserve, so there’s no sharks like the west coast.”

With mutant urchins wedged between the boulders, the entry and exit at La Jetée poses its own set of challenges.

Like many surfers on Réunion, he clearly believes that the marine reserve and the ban on commercial shark fishing are responsible for the increase in shark attacks around the island. “2017 was the worst year ever for Réunion,” he says. “In close to three months, I lost two of my friends, really close friends.” 

He’s referencing Adrien Dubosc, who was attacked in Pointe au Sel near Saint-Leu, and Alexandre “Crapaud” Naussac, who was attacked while surfing Santana, a rivermouth in the east of the island. “It made me think that could happen to me, because we often surfed together,” he says. 

These attacks, like the others since 2011, have left deep psychological scars on Réunion’s surfing community and polarized the island’s residents. Unlike other island nations, Guillaume claims that many Réunionese are detached from the ocean and blamed surfers for continuing to go in the water, while “Parisian politicians” were tone deaf to the urgency of the situation and slow to react. The conflict steadily escalated between those calling for a shark cull and those opposed to it.

“We feel like they don’t understand our spirit about surfing,” says Guillaume. “We’re not here to say we have to kill all the sharks. We’re not into it. But we have to find a solution. For me, there’s only one solution. It’s fishing and protecting human life. You can’t die for your sport, for your passion.”

South African visitor Eli Beukes, carving through calculated risk. Photo by Ian Thurtell.

In 2015, after 13-year-old Elio Canestri was fatally attacked while surfing north of Saint-Leu at Les Aigrettes in Saint Giles, the situation boiled over into heated public protests. The French government introduced the drum-line program shortly afterward, but it remains controversial and there is still a tangible air of resentment toward the government’s handling of the situation.

The surf industry on Réunion has been particularly impacted, having all but collapsed at the height of the crisis, with many surf shops and shapers forced to close their doors. The surfing ban remains in place and carries a €50 spot fine (approximately $48), but it’s hardly enforced. Many locals say it’s simply a measure to indemnify the government, should anything happen. Those willing to take the risk continue to surf outside of the designated surfing areas. “It’s just crazy to think that in this day it’s illegal if you surf, like you’re a criminal,” says Guillaume.

The scientific community is also divided. David Guyomard, who heads the shark-fishing program for the Shark Security Center, claims the drum-line program is working. Speaking on national news channel France 24, Guyomard stated that between 2014 and 2016, a high number of bull and tiger sharks were caught in the program and that the number has subsequently declined. “That indicates that the presence of sharks has decreased,” he says, adding that the number of attacks has also gone down.

Other scientists argue that drum lines don’t work in significantly reducing the risk of an attack. “Sharks are low-density, highly migratory animals that readily recolonize areas denuded of their kind, rendering any attempt to cull an ineffective strategy,” says George Burgess, the former director of the Florida Program for Shark Research and the former curator of the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), who retired in 2017 to focus on research.

Luke Slijpen and Beukes, fortifying themselves.

In other words, bull and tiger sharks killed by drum lines may simply be leaving a space open for other sharks to occupy. The most famously cited study related to culling looked to Hawaii, where, between 1959 and 1976, close to 5,000 sharks were killed using drum lines, yet the number of attacks remained the same, and even rose slightly in subsequent years.

Dr. Ryan Daly—a shark expert from the Oceanographic Research Institute of South Africa, who focused his PhD on the spatial ecology of bull sharks—is less dismissive of the immediate effects drum lines may have. “It is possible that by culling sharks we are addressing the short-term problem of localized shark attacks,” he says. “But in the long run we may be jeopardizing the functionality of our marine ecosystems with all kinds of negative feedback.”

Lethal measures like drum lines and shark nets come at an ecological cost, one that is hard to calculate at face value. Many shark species are apex predators and play a vital role in regulating the food chain and marine ecosystems, cited as key species in trophic cascade, where the removal of an apex predator can have far-reaching consequences that ripple out across the entire food chain over time. Their removal can result in a proliferation of invasive species, or other predators moving in and decimating fish stocks and upending delicate ecological balances.

An avid diver, spearfisherman, and surfer, Daly understands the traumatic impact that attacks have on individuals and communities on Réunion and beyond. He also believes there needs to be a balanced approach between ocean health and nonlethal interventions that can minimize the risk of attack. When asked what may have caused the change in Réunion’s shark-human interactions, Daly is cautious in his reply. “I’m not sure if it’s a case of increased interactions due to more surfers and more sharks, or a change in shark or ocean-user behavior. It may be due to environmental stress, such as fishing pressure, climate change, pollution, or habitat degradation, that has led to a shift in natural habitat and foraging patterns. We can’t be sure.”

But as shark attacks increase worldwide, there is a growing body of evidence that points to various human impacts as the primary cause behind changing patterns in shark behavior and distribution. A 2016 study assessed the underlying factors behind increases in unprovoked shark-bite incidences in six global shark-attack hot spots: the United States, South Africa, Australia, Brazil, the Bahamas, and Réunion Island. It summarized that, aside from more people entering the water, the increase in global shark-bite incidence is likely a result of habitat destruction and modification,deteriorating water quality, and changes in the distribution and abundance of prey.

Looking specifically at Réunion, the study highlighted that the island’s population has grown exponentially, while food products, specifically sugarcane, are a crucial part of the economy. With more pressure on land being cleared for development, there has been a significant increase in runoff, pesticides, and wastewater entering the surrounding marine environment that has negatively affected local ecosystems.

“There have also been noticeable habitat modifications which have reduced the abundance and diversity of the island’s fish communities,” adds Burgess, suggesting that overfishing and declining fish stocks, rather than more fish, may be directly linked to a change in shark behavior around Réunion Island.

Slijpen, undeterred by what may lurk beneath. Photo by Ian Thurtell.

Other factors, like climate change, are also altering shark distribution patterns in unprecedented ways. According to a 2021 study published in the scientific journal Nature, a prolonged rapid-warming trend of the California Current along the West Coast of the US has driven juvenile great white sharks north of Point Conception, which historically marked the upper edge of their preferred temperature range. The result has been a dramatic increase of juvenile white sharks in Monterey Bay.

These younger sharks prefer what’s been described as a “Goldilocks” temperature range—not too hot and not too cold—between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit, a gradient the study says has shifted about 175 miles north since 2014. As the waters have warmed, the sharks have followed. “The growing presence of juvenile sharks above 34° N suggests that climate change may be revising basic aspects of the established spatial population structure for this white shark population, and perhaps others,” the study notes.

Although not yet supported by published research, similar observations have been made on the east coast of Australia, where it is theorized that warmer water spilling down from the Pacific Basin could be bringing bull sharks and tiger sharks closer to shore along densely populated surfing regions like Queensland and New South Wales, which have seen a significant spike in shark-human interactions over the past three decades, increasing from 88 recorded attacks in the 1990s to 220 attacks in the 2010s. Perhaps most tellingly, the Nature study concludes that “climate change is redistributing marine species and ecosystems, completely altering the present and future outlook of commercial and protected species.” 

It would be incorrect to extrapolate data across oceans and shark species, but the collective evidence backs up Gauthier’s assertion that, on Réunion, there may be many answers to the same question.


Emeric “Keni” Gauthier, running the odds of becoming a new data point. Even the most informed marine scientists studying the attacks on Réunion Island don’t have the research to completely explain why the incidents began. Photo by Charly Chapelet.

When the swell picks up we head back to Saint-Leu, navigating the narrow roads that twist through the village until we reach the car park at the foot of the wave. A red-and-yellow warning sign with the outline of a shark has been graffitied over to read Fuck les Requins, or “Fuck the Sharks.” From the car park we catch glimpses of the long-period swell filling in through the casuarina trees, and it’s plain to see why surfers have been drawn to this corner of the Indian Ocean for decades.

After an easy takeoff, the wave gathers momentum, getting shallower and shallower until it hits a hard-knuckle bend in the reef. This abrupt refraction causes the wave to grow, often doubling in size and intensity before tapering out into the deep channel some 300 yards from where it began.

Out in the lineup there are tight knots of surfers and bodyboarders concentrated along various sections of the wave, but the mood is mostly convivial. Schools of tropical fish dart through the gin-clear water as the most dialed-in locals attack the inside bowl with savage precision, seemingly unconcerned by the fire coral peppered along the shallow reef.

Christophe Mulquin first came to Réunion in 1986 to surf Saint-Leu and never left. A French native who grew up in Morocco,he used his degree in sports science to start the first surf school on the island and was soon approached by the Ligue Réunionnaise de Surf (Réunion Surfing League) to run training camps for their junior team. In 1991, he became coach for the Réunion national surfing team, a position he held for the next 18 years.

Unmanned A-frame.

“I know every urchin between Saint-Pierre and Saint-Paul,” he jokes, recalling his time spent coaching and surfing along the west coast’s plethora of waves. There has always been the risk of shark attacks on Réunion, Mulquin says, but this was largely confined to the rainy east coast rivermouths and were sporadic events. When the attacks began on the west coast, all the “rules” about shark risk on the island were thrown out the window, he explains.

“It started just like that,” he says, clicking his fingers. “First shark attack, second shark attack, third shark attack…bam-bam-bam! Clean water, middle of the day, good weather. It didn’t matter. If you work out the average, there was a shark attack every two months in 2012. That was horrible, horrible.”

When the deputy mayor of Saint-Leu asked Mulquin to help come up with a solution, Mulquin was reluctant to get involved in the political storm surrounding the situation but felt duty-bound to try to do something. “I just wanted to do my best to save Saint-Leu,” he says. “For the island, but especially for Saint-Leu. I also accepted because Patrick Flores [the father of pro surfer Jeremy Flores] entered politics, so I was not alone”

Along with his good friend, lifeguard Gilbert Pouzet, Mulquin developed the idea of the Saint-Leu Water Patrol. The system employs three jet skis, each manned by a spotter and a driver who constantly patrol a different zone of the lineup, with a support boat anchored in the channel. Comms are maintained through two-way radios, and the teams are trained to respond to a number of different scenarios in case of a shark sighting or attack.

Visiting pro Brendon Gibbens on the path less taken at La Jetée.

After consulting extensively with scientists and shark experts like Gauthier, Mulquin proposed a system that combined the water patrol with the existing SMART drum-line program and the mandatory use of a personal shark-repellent device to allow surfers back in the water. Gauthier subsequently conducted and published extensive research to test which devices are most effective against bull sharks, so that they could use scientific data to advise local surfers. In 2021, with these protocols in place, it finally became legal again to surf Saint-Leu.

Mulquin has subsequently become a project manager at the Shark Security Center and plans to duplicate the system in six zones along the west coast: Saint- Pierre, L’Étang Salé, the greater Saint-Leu area, Les Trois-Bassins, L’Hermitage, and Roches Noires. He is the first to point out its limitations, however. It requires good visibility (25 feet or more) and is limited to days with clean surf conditions, and a SMART drum line has to be deployed nearby. Lastly, it’s not a surefire line of defense against the risk of a shark attack.

“It’s a reduction of the risk,” says Mulquin. “That’s a really big difference. ‘Security’ means you’re protected. You can’t say that with certainty, especially with a shark.”

After closely analyzing all the attacks on surfers by suspected bull sharks, Mulquin observed an unnerving pattern: Almost every attack happened when the victim was left alone in the lineup, often after everyone else had taken a wave. One of the water patrol’s primary objectives is to make sure that a surfer is never alone out back for longer than a minute.

“You can imagine what that’s like,” Mulquin says. “As a surfer, it’s the dream to be alone in the lineup, but now we hate to be alone.”

The island-wide ban on surfing has sparked a backlash from local surfers, who continue to ride waves outside designated areas.

Mulquin relates a harrowing firsthand experience that backs up these observations. In 2015, he was surfing Saint-Leu with a handful of other locals until just he and his good friend, Rodolphe Arrieguy, were left in the lineup. They’d already both decided to go in, but the swell was small and inconsistent, so they were forced to wait.

Eventually a single set wave approached, with Mulquin on the inside. Arrieguy paddled for it, but Mulquin jokingly called him off and rode it to shore. Arrieguy was attacked by a bull shark immediately afterward. He was saved thanks to the quick actions of fellow surfer Erwann Lagabrielle and other locals who had been watching from the beach, but he lost his right arm. 

Mulquin, who had just arrived onshore, helped coordinate a rescue Zodiac and administered first aid on Arrieguy when he reached the beach, securing a tourniquet and keeping Arrieguy conscious until emergency services arrived. “The wounds were very serious, there was a lot of blood. I was afraid that he would die in the parking lot,” says Mulquin, who still feels a lingering sense of responsibility for what happened. “If I hadn’t taken that wave, the shark was for me.”

The thought of sharks is never far away on Réunion. Each beach we visit has bold signs emblazoned with Danger Requin (“Caution Shark”) to warn the public. Graffiti of shark caricatures are rife around the island. One piece in particular depicts a surfer huddled on top of the island’s most famous mountain peak while a number of fins circle in the ocean below.

Other reminders are more somber, like the numerous shrines dedicated to victims at the site of the attacks. Out in the water, any shadow that flickers across the reef can trigger an involuntary surge of panic and imbue a sublime session with a sense of dread.

 Aside from the trauma of the attacks, the shark crisis in Réunion has also divided the local community between those who consider sharks the problem and those who believe humans are to blame.

But Mulquin believes the height of the crisis may be over and is cautiously optimistic that systems like the water patrol and measures like the shark program have significantly reduced the risk of an attack. “It’s been three years with no attacks. Why?” he asks rhetorically. “Because there is the shark program. There is fishing with the SMART drum line. And I think we’ve started to take out all the big bull sharks that were staying near the coast. I don’t think it’s possible that there will never be another shark attack in Réunion, but the goal is to do our best to avoid this.”

He admits that working with scientists like Gauthier has made him question his previously held convictions of what caused the surge of attacks. Regardless of what may have driven the crisis, Mulquin says it is disingenuous to frame the situation as Réunion surfers being anti-shark or anti-environmentalism. “I hate the name ‘shark crisis,’” he says. “This is a bull shark crisis. The problem is just with this one species. In the end, you’re choosing the life of a fish or you’re choosing the life of a kid.”

Attack survivor Tangui Gicquel has a different perspective, despite losing his right leg when he was attacked in 2013 while bodysurfing close to shore at L’Étang-Salé, a hollow left-hander south of Saint-Leu. “I don’t think of myself as a victim of sharks,” he says in the Vice documentary Island of Sharks, while recounting his ordeal. “I’m a victim of the human impact. Our relationship to sharks and to the ocean has changed, and all of this has backfired on us.”


Back at the Shark Security Center, Gauthier shows me a prototype of their latest innovation, which he hopes holds the potential to dramatically reduce the risk of shark encounters around the island—a device that fits neatly into the palm of his hand. “It’s an autonomous camera,” he says excitedly, holding up a small cylinder that looks like a home surveillance camera. “We can put it underwater and leave it there for two months, all the while having a live video feed on my phone.”

The camera is linked to solar panels on the surface that keep the battery charged, while a Wi-Fi antenna transmits the data back to shore. A tiny windscreen wiper is activated every few minutes to prevent the buildup of algae over the lens. The real innovation, however, is the camera’s detection algorithm that was developed to identify sharks.

“The algorithm is triggered by the shape of the fish and the way it swims,” explains Gauthier. “So we have to feed it data, we have to feed it footage of sharks to actually teach it how to recognize them, especially bull sharks.”

Saint-Leu, in alluring form.

Tellingly, Gauthier and his colleagues have had to go to New Caledonia—renowned for its abundance of sharks—to feed the camera this data. “We simply don’t have the density of bull sharks around Réunion to do this,” he says.

When a shark is detected by the camera, it triggers an alarm that gets transmitted to a cell phone and can alert any number of people. The tech is still in development and is being trialed in the Saint-Leu area. The results so far have been promising, says Gauthier, and hold great potential—not only for Réunion, but for application in other shark-attack hot spots around the world. “We will be able to have eyes underwater, helping people be safer,” he says.

Ultimately, Gauthier hopes innovations like this and the science they are doing will allow his fellow islanders to return to the water freely at some point in the future, and perhaps even help bring together the communities that have been ripped apart by the crisis. “Eventually I just want people to be able to go swimming and surfing safely whenever and wherever they want,” he says.“But I think it’s still going to take a lot of steps to get there.”

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