Diving for abalone among the great white sharks

Impoverished Gansbaai residents risk death to supply illicit trade

Photo of children playing

Children play along the slipway at Gansbaai. Photo: Kimon de Greef

By Kimon de Greef

11 October 2017

The boat launched in darkness from the slipway in Gansbaai, a town in the Overberg marketed as the great white shark capital of the world. It was Sunday 1 October, not a month since the most recent shark attack. Five divers waited on board in wetsuits as their skipper navigated the narrow channel and drew out into the bay.

Their target was Dyer Island, nine kilometres to the south-east, where the sharks that attract more than 80,000 visitors to Gansbaai each year prey on a large population of seals. Eight companies run shark cage diving tours from the small harbour at Kleinbaai.

But the divers that night were participating in a parallel economy, stripping abalone from the reefs off Dyer Island to sell on the black market. For two decades Gansbaai has been a hub of South Africa’s illicit abalone trade, withstanding all attempts to shut it down. A status food in China, abalone is worth more than R400 a kg in South Africa, spurring thousands of divers to risk arrest, injury or death harvesting the shellfish on behalf of traffickers who dry and ship the product to Hong Kong. Impoverished coastal communities provide a steady labour pool for this sector, which illegally exports some 2,000 tons of abalone each year. In September GroundUp reported on the death of Waylon Love, a diver from the nearby settlement of Hawston. This was not an isolated incident: since the mid-1990s dozens of men have died poaching abalone in Gansbaai alone, with at least five killed by sharks.

The divers began surfacing after an hour underwater and clambered back onto the boat, their cylinders almost empty. One of them, a man named Bradley Fick, also known as ‘Baba’, didn’t return. Fick, 31, had learned to snorkel for abalone as a teenager, when large poaching syndicates first established in Gansbaai, but stopped for a few years after a sweeping police bust in 2011, taking a low-paid job at the municipal parks department. According to people who knew him he’d only resumed poaching recently, envious of the money other divers were earning — up to R5,000 on a decent night. He had little experience using scuba gear and no formal dive qualifications, they said.

“I’ve never known him to dive [scuba] tank before,” said a friend from his church. He’d seen Fick the afternoon before the dive and urged him to quit the trade for good. “But he told me he needed the cash. I think he pretended he knew how to use that equipment so he could keep up with the other divers.”

Fick’s accomplices on the boat began an urgent search when they realised he was missing, shining their torches into the depths and yelling his name. Other local vessels arrived to help, circling the island and pushing through beds of kelp. The boats returned to shore a few hours before dawn, running low on fuel and wary of drawing attention. “Divers don’t want to call the police and then find the guy sitting on the rocks,” said one fisherman who assisted. “If they go poaching it has nothing to do with me — but if someone is in trouble I’ll always send a boat.”

It was daylight before the National Sea Rescue Institute (NSRI) heard about the accident and launched its own rescue craft. Fick’s friends and family, including his pregnant wife, had gathered at the slipway; according to a fisheries official who was present the group was reluctant to involve the police. The decision was taken out of their hands when the NSRI contacted the Police Dive Unit, a specialist recovery team based in Paarl. By the time the unit arrived, the wind had picked up, churning the water and making diving impossible.

The wind was still blowing when I arrived in Gansbaai two days later, lifting spray from the ocean and blasting down the main street. In Blompark, where Fick lived, I met several people who’d known him, including a member of his family who asked not to be named. His wife was traumatised and didn’t want to be interviewed, they said. His mother believed that he was still alive. The police divers had struggled to get into the water but were still trying. Fick’s church friend had walked more than 30km up and down the coast, finding no trace.

The next morning people were still waiting for news, so I drove to the neighbouring holiday village of Pearly Beach, the closest stretch of land to Dyer Island. Tucked out of sight behind the village, down a bumpy gravel track, lies a tiny informal settlement called Eluxolweni, home mainly to people from the Eastern Cape. Beyond seasonal cleaning and gardening jobs there is little work in the area; a public works road-building project that offered brief respite ended several years ago. These circumstances have produced a strain of abalone poaching that is almost impossible to comprehend, with divers swimming more than 3km to Dyer Island and back again, crossing a deep channel where sharks hunt for prey.

“We start here and swim through the kelp,” said one man, standing on the dunes that face the island, a distant strip of rock fringed by exploding whitewater. “The sharks don’t like the kelp, but there’s nothing to protect you further out. I’ve never gone the whole way — it’s too dangerous. Many others have.”

One man who tried recently, Sivuyile Xelela, was attacked in front of a group of other divers on Sunday 3 September. It was a calm morning, ideal for diving. The men set out together, kicking slowly from shore. It takes up to three hours to reach Dyer Island, where the men typically spend another three hours diving — not with scuba gear but with with snorkels, holding air in their lungs for minutes at a time. As the coast receded behind them the divers chatted in Xhosa, avoiding the topic of sharks.

“He was a few metres in front of us when it happened,” one of the divers told me. “We were in open water. Suddenly the shark dragged him under and came up shaking him in its jaws. There was blood in the water. We heard him screaming as we swam away.”

In the mayhem that followed someone called for help with a cellphone wrapped inside a condom. Several poaching boats launched from Pearly Beach to rescue the divers and retrieve Xelela’s body. He had died in the water, bleeding from large wounds behind his legs. He was buried in his home village of Mqanduli, near Mthatha, the following weekend.

“Our parents don’t understand this abalone poaching and keep asking us to stop, but we support them with whatever we earn,” said another diver, one of about 40 Eluxolweni residents who traveled home for the funeral, hiring two minibus taxis and stowing the coffin in a trailer. “Like me — I support my wife and two children here, and another five people back in the Eastern Cape, including my mother. We take these risks because of poverty.”

Xelela, 34, had married a woman from Mqanduli in June this year, the man continued. She’d fallen pregnant with his child and arrived to live with him in Eluxolweni just a week before the attack. After the funeral she’d moved back in with her family. Her place on the return journey was taken by one of Xelela’s relatives, a young man who moved into their vacant wooden shack. There is a strong chance that he will begin poaching abalone. “Most of the men living here do,” the diver said.

Some residents of Eluxolweni township near Gansbaai risk their lives poaching. Photo: Kimon de Greef

In the last two decades sharks have killed at least five abalone poachers from Eluxolweni. Several of these incidents appear in an online database called the Global Shark Attack File. In June 2004, Nkosinathi Mayaba, 21, was pulled underwater three metres away from his nearest accomplice. His body washed up three days later, missing an arm and a leg. In September 2010, Khanyisile Momoza, 29, was fatally struck from below. “We just swam,” one of his fellow divers told reporters. “We didn’t look back.”

Other deaths have not been recorded. Testifying against a Gansbaai syndicate in 2013, local SAPS Captain Danie Rautenbach said that “seven or eight” poachers had been killed by sharks near Dyer Island since 1998. “I’ve seen situations where the shark comes at the diver, like in Jaws … and takes him away,” Rautenbach told the Western Cape High Court. “I only found the pelvic bone of one of the guys.”

Eluxolweni divers swim to Dyer Island to avoid detection by marine patrols and to save paying fees to poaching boat owners, usually between 10 and 15kg of abalone per diver — equal to at least R4,000 each per trip. Shark attacks seem not to deter them. “The guys usually stop swimming for two or three weeks,” one resident told me. “Then they start working again.”

In addition to the fatal shark attacks, at least 20 divers had drowned in Pearly Beach over the years, he added, although it was not possible to verify this figure. Poachers in Masakhane, a crowded informal settlement nearer Gansbaai, told me that as many as 15 men had drowned diving for abalone. Most recently, Siyabulela Bhebheni was found floating in his wetsuit near Pearly Beach in May 2017.

“When people swim out there we pray for them,” said a diver from Eluxolweni who told me that he only worked close to shore, where it was safer. “Sharks dwell in the water. It’s the nature of God. We can’t remove them — our duty is to pray. ‘Please God, let the sharks not be among us’ … that’s all we can say.”

Bradley Fick’s body washed up near Pearly Beach late in the afternoon on 5 October. A Gansbaai fisherman spotted a black object rolling in the surf and hauled it ashore before calling the police. The diver was still wearing his wetsuit, mask and flippers, but his scuba tank had come loose, perhaps while he’d struggled for air beneath the surface. He had no bite wounds on his body, just swollen fingers and toes from three days in the ocean. The wind had begun to abate again, and that night the water was calm.

Kimon de Greef is a freelance journalist from Cape Town. He is writing a book about abalone poaching in South Africa.