'It would have been suicidal' 10 years ago – activist's daring swim reveals dwindling shark numbers

De Wet du Toit completed the 7.7km swim to raise awareness of dwindling shark populations.

De Wet du Toit completed the 7.7km swim to raise awareness of dwindling shark populations.

  • A conservationist has completed a dangerous swim to create awareness about sharks.
  • The swim to Dyer Island and back was completed by De Wet du Toit on Thursday.
  • Du Toit hopes to raise awareness about the impact of shark nets.

A conservation activist has become the first person to complete a dangerous swim to and from Dyer Island near Gansbaai, in waters that have become renowned for their shark activity.

De Wet du Toit completed the 7.7km swim on Thursday to raise awareness of dwindling shark populations.

He said the route has never been swum before “because of the association this island has had for over a hundred years with great white sharks”.

“As locals know, it would have been suicidal to do this swim 10 years ago. 

“But [shark] numbers have dwindled in recent years, and this is exactly why we undertook this swim: to raise awareness of the plight of our local sharks.”

Dyer Island Conservation Trust shark biologist Alison Towner says white shark sightings around Dyer Island have been sporadic since 2017 due to orca activity.

READ | Hundreds of great white sharks have vanished from South Africa’s coast and fearsome orcas are to blame

Incidents of orcas preying on white sharks in the area have been well documented over the years, and with each incident, the white sharks appeared to stay away for longer, said Towner.

Towner said: 

The last orca attack was in June, and we’ve not seen sharks since.

Prior to the attack, there had been significant white shark activity and consistent sightings in May and June by cage diving operators in the Gansbaai area, and Towner tagged eight individual sharks at the time.

The tagging will allow scientists to track the sharks’ movements.

However, Towner stressed, the lack of sightings was not necessarily an indication of a population decrease – the sharks might have moved off to a different area or were not being spotted.

“The difficult component to this situation is determining whether this is a whole population decline or regional site abandonments and with such a complexity of factors influencing this shark species movements in South Africa the science needs to be given a chance to be done comprehensively.”

She added there had been sightings of white sharks further along the coast – in Mossel Bay, Port Elizabeth and Plettenberg Bay.

Meanwhile, Du Toit hopes to garner support for the removal of shark nets along the east coast of South Africa through the creation of a documentary.

He said:

I knew that doing this swim would draw attention. We want to use that attention to lobby for the change in attitude towards our sharks. Sharks all over the world are in deep trouble. Human pressures are driving them to extinction.

“Our number one outcome for the documentary which we are making is to apply pressure on politicians to remove the archaic shark culling nets on the east coast of South Africa.”

De Wet du Toit completes the 7.7km swim

De Wet du Toit completed the 7.7km swim to raise awareness of dwindling shark populations.


Shark nets were first deployed off Durban in the early 1950s to reduce shark attacks after damage to KwaZulu-Natal’s tourism industry.

The nets aim to catch species of sharks considered dangerous. Nets are in place at 37 beaches along the province’s coastline.

According to the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board’s website, most of the shark nets deployed were 214m long, and 6m deep, secured by two 35kg anchors at each end all have a stretched mesh of 51cm. 

WATCH | Orcas attack great white off the coast of Knysna

The nets are laid in two parallel rows, approximately 400m offshore. In 1999, an initiative to reduce the total amount of nets was launched to minimise the catch of harmless animals and involved the replacement of nets with drumlines.

Drumlines consist of large, anchored floats from which a single baited hook is suspended. Most beaches are protected either by two nets or by one net and four drumlines. Over a decade, 165 drumlines had been installed along the coast, reducing the length of nets to 15km (an almost 70% reduction).

According to the board, the drumlines have reduced the capture of non-target species by more than 47%.

The board had not responded to News24’s request for comment at the time of publication. Its response will be added when available.

Towner said shark nets did pose a danger to sharks.

“Shark nets are a source of mortality. If they kill 20 sharks a year, and that’s been going for years, it can have an impact on the shark population,” she added.

The nets killed other marine life, Du Toit insisted, and “do not work”.

He instead called for alternative bather protection methods, such as the Shark Spotter programme employed in the Western Cape.

“We cannot protect a species on paper and at the same time keep killing them out at sea where no one can see what we’re doing… Other technologies exist,” he said.

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