Black December: When Sharks Attacks Compelled The Government To Bomb The Ocean
Even the gnarliest, saltiest surfers in the world admit that sharks give them the willies. Thankfully, sharks attacks are so rare that we don't have to worry about them most of the time, but "most of the time" did not include the period between December 18, 1957 and April 5, 1958, known as "Black December." During that short stretch of time, nine people were attacked by sharks along the coast of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, six of whom died of their injuries. Believe it or not, that was just the beginning of the weirdness.
South African Vacation
It started on December 18, 1957, when 16-year-old Robert Wherley was attacked while bodyboarding just outside the city of Durban, losing his left leg from the knee down and part of the same thigh as well. While gruesome, the attack didn’t raise too many alarms, as shark attacks aren't unheard of in the Durban area. Just two days later, however, 15-year-old Allan Green was fatally attacked while simply wading in the water. At that point, people began the pay attention.
The Panic Is On
Just a scant three days after Green's death, Vernon James Berry was also killed while calmly floating off Margate Beach, and a phenomenon that had previously been mildly alarming became a full-on panic. Three attacks within a week, including two fatalities, were decidedly not normal. Another three days later, Donald Webster was attacked in Port Edward. He suffered bites to the head and neck, but miraculously, he was left alive. Bumper-to-bumper traffic clogged the streets of South Africa as tourists fled the apparent feeding frenzy.
Not a sign that inspires tourism. (CNN)
Very Bad For Business
Black December posed not only a safety risk to those living and vacationing in the area but also a serious economic threat that could have left many people without jobs. The coastlines of South Africa are a subtropical paradise, so its businesses and the people who work for them rely heavily on tourism. With entire economies on the line, the South African government stepped in, albeit with some ... unconventional solutions. Spoiler: It's dynamite.
It Was 1957
The scientific community has learned much about sharks since 1957, but back then, the best idea the government had to control the shark problem was to equip lifeguards with rifles and direct them to shoot at any scary shadows they saw. When that didn't work, their next idea was somehow worse: bomb the sharks with depth charges. The bombs didn't kill the sharks, but they did kill boatloads of fish, whose tasty corpses floated to shore and formed a seafood buffet for the very animals the government was hoping to keep away from it.
Their last-ditch idea was to build a barrier with wooden planks driven deep into the ocean bed and connected with wiring. Whoever came up with that bright idea forgot about the surf. The first large swell ripped out all the planks and deposited neatly them on the shore.
The Attacks Continue
While the government toyed with various terrible ideas, sharks continued to chomp on beachgoers. Julia Painting lost her left arm while wading in the water, and an unknown Zulu man was killed while fishing. Just after the world rang in 1958, Derryck Garth Prinsloo was killed while taking his last dip in the ocean before heading back to his landlocked farm.
For those keeping counts, that's seven attacks, four of them fatal, within three weeks. Such a relentless ambush over such a short period had never been seen before and hasn't been seen since (knock on wood).
How On Earth Did This Happen?
At the time, no one could explain why so many attacks occurred in such rapid succession in one area, but today, the cause seems obvious. One important factor was the whaling ships operating in close proximity to the coast. Whales stand extremely high on the great white menu, and their blood in the water is sure to lure the largest meat-eating sharks from thousands of miles away. Another was the rain that had recently pounded the coastline, flooding rivers and streams into the Indian Ocean. Murky water creates an ideal hunting ground for great whites, who prefer that their prey not know of their presence until it's already too late. Lastly, new development along the coastline brought more tourists and beachgoers into the water than ever before.
In the end, the government tried an idea that is hotly debated today: shark nets. Way back then, animal welfare was simply less of a concern than stopping the streak of aquatic murder that the primitive people of the 1950s couldn't explain. Hundreds of juvenile sharks were killed, but only two more attacks occurred three months later, so it did appear the government had finally hit on a winning a strategy. Black December has been partially credited with inspiring Jaws, the movie that kept beaches empty for years, so in the end, the best solution to the problem was, perhaps, the problem itself.
Tags: 1950s | animals in history | death | explosives | ocean phenomenon | picasso self portraits | sharks
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