Monday, July 2, 2012

Chumming is the word

Fish chum - works well on sharks
If you look for the meaning of "chumming" on the internet, the word shark pops up every time. No wonder, because chumming is basically the luring of big predator fish by means of throwing chum into the water. Chum is nothing other than fish guts and blood, something sharks apparently like. Sharks have a very keen sense of smell, so if you are on a boat and you throw your remaining Portuguese sardines which you had for breakfast overboard, you might soon have a shark or two on your tail.

There is a huge debate happening at the moment regarding the practice of chumming. Many people believe that chumming turns sharks into man-eaters because they associate human beings with feeding. I don't know if they think about humans when they smell fish or whether they get hungry when they see humans. As long as they keep chumming the sharks at Gansbaai which is situated on the other side of the Peninsula, then I am OK to kite surf on the Atlantic side hoping that the sharks won't make that association when they pass by. In order to create a final opinion on chumming I decided to go along on a shark cage diving boat to see what the hell they are throwing into the water and how the sharks reacts to that kind gesture by the humans. I am not a shark scientist, so I am just reporting on what I saw.

Sea-sick chum - not appreciated by sharks or humans
Getting a boat to go shark cage diving is not a problem in the Cape Town area. There are quite a few operators operating from Gansbaai (translated directly it means Goose Bay), a small fishing town about 40 kilometers on the eastern side of Hermanus. Hermanus of course is famous for its Southern Right Whale Watching tours. Whales don't really do the chum-thing, they just come to the South African coast to check out the human tourists I guess and then give us an opportunity to stare at them and take pictures. You can actually see them from the beach, sometimes even at a closer distance than what commercial whale watching boats are allowed to go. But the topic today is chumming, so let me get back to the Great Whites.

The whole experience form where we paid for the trip, the lunch and short presentation, as well as the actual boat trip to Shark Alley was quite exciting. Once we got to the place we were going to stay anchored, the chum came out. No dead horses or donkey meat as some people believe, just a gory soup of raw fish guts and blood. Definitely not the average sushi lover's hors d'oeuvre, just a smelly mixture of...well...chum. The chum was thrown into the sea, and although it looked pretty much like vomit, there were no "big pieces" to make a shark of 4 meters in length, full. It did work though, because after a couple of minutes the first shark turned up to check out what these fishy tourists were up to again. Maybe hoping for a bigger piece this time, or maybe for a tourist to slip from the deck. Whatever they were thinking, they definitely looked more like curious fish than dangerous predators on a search for a quick meal. The sharks were calm and collected, with no indication that they were going to jump up on the back of the boat and devour each tourist they can get their teeth into. If you know how much dead and unused fish gets thrown overboard from commercial trawlers, I am sure this is by no means competing with the "chumming" of real fishermen.

Human chum - works well on human males
To me it was difficult to see how chumming could make sharks more predisposed to surfers and body boarders. I wasn't at this stage going to jump in the water to test the theory, so I decided to do like the rest and go down in the cage. There was another theory though that I managed to test and that was if urine also attracts sharks. Needless to say after waiting about 3 hours for my turn to enter the cage I could not help it in any case, so I answered Nature's call while I was in the water. Fortunately there were no changes observed in the normal shark behaviour and I guess that theory was also proven wrong. So, if you are a surfer and the question "to pee or not to pee" comes up again in a discussion with your buddies....go ahead. Just make sure you stay in a while longer to let it gradually wash out. It can be very embarrassing when you remove your wetsuit and you smell like the "Gents" at your local pub.  

So chumming to me is just a way of luring sharks closer so that they can be observed by scientists and silly tourists. It is like using a whistle to call ducks. At least the sharks aren't lured closer and then shot by hunters. As a matter of fact, the boat that we were on had a few scientists-to-be on boards, collecting a lot of information on the sharks. The operators are also actively involved in a huge campaign to save the Great Whites. Is it to save their business or to really save the sharks? I am 100% sure it is the latter. These animals are being killed in their thousands because of shark fin soup and misconceptions about their man-eating character. If a surfer or swimmer gets attacked we like to find someone or something to blame, and chumming seems to come up quite often. If we walk through the Kruger National Park and get killed by a lion on who or what can we put the blame then, other than our own stupidity to hang around in their natural habitat? 


Believe me, while the waves were quite good around Dyer Island today, I will not go surf there. If they start chumming around the Seli One at Kite Beach, it will end my kite surfing career as well. But as long as the sharks stay in the Gansbaai area while I do my stuff around Kite beach, then they can keep on chumming as far as I am concerned.  I cannot see it changing the feeding behaviour of sharks. But then again as I mentioned earlier, I am not a shark scientist....

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