Friday, 21 March 2014

The Sai Kung Shark Attacks, Early 1990's

As the summer gets closer and the sea temperatures start to rise, it becomes prime time for shark activity in local waters. Don't get me wrong, the shark activity seen in HK is now a rare thing and usually involves some sort of juvenile species that may or may not have begun life in one of the remote bays or mangrove forests that fringe some of the less-developed areas.

Several factors could be at play here such as water quality and abundance of fish life - both have a direct effect on whether or not HK waters are attractive to larger species of fish. HK's sub-tropical climate sees the sea water temperature swing from warm tropical in the summer (it gets to about 30°C July/August) to cool temperate during the winter months (around 15° - 17°C) and this wide range of temperature means at any point over the year various types of sharks would have no problem inhabiting local waters, and probably do, it's just that they are rarely if ever seen. 

However, up to and including the 1990's the presence of sharks in local waters was a given and proven beyond any doubt by a number of fatal attacks by one (or more) unknown species of shark just off the east coast of the territory.

So what actually happened?

The years between 1991 and 1995 marked Hong Kong waters as the most dangerous in the world courtesy of a series of fatal attacks occurring in and around the eastern waters of Sai Kung District. In the space of a 4 year period, 10 people were either killed or went missing in incidents that point to a large shark (or sharks) patrolling the eastern waters. Perhaps the most shocking fact is that the last three attacks occurred within just a two-week period. The reason you now see shark nets around all of the Govt gazetted beaches (i.e beaches which the Govt has life guards and changing facilities) is because of these attacks. Let’s look at them in quick detail.

7th June 1991

A 65 year old female was swimming at Silverstrand Beach in Sai Kung early in the morning. Silverstrand is an area of water (it's a bay, but quite an open one as you can see below) just off the Clearwater Bay Road. It's very popular with people for all sorts of water-based activities, including swimming. It’s not clear if there was any witnesses because the attack is thought to have occurred anytime between 0600 and 0720. One of the possible culprits considered for this attack is a Tiger Shark. The victim was bitten in the abdomen and also had one of her legs severed in the attack, so without doubt it was a big shark.

Silverstrand beach now has a shark net

Juvenile Tiger at Okinawa aquarium

28th June 1991

There is a report of an unnamed fisherman, killed when he had his arm bitten off somewhere in Sai Kung. The file has scant info so it’s not clear where he was, how he was found and how he managed to get his arm bitten off whilst fishing (pulling in his catch?).

29th June 1991

Another death, this time a 22 year-old male who is listed as just being attacked and killed at Basalt Island in outer Port Shelter. Basalt Island (aka Fo Sek Chau) is uninhabited and hard to get to even with a boat, so what was this guy doing there? I've dived around Basalt island on many occasions and suspect that if this report is correct then the victim was either one of the many rock fishers that stand on the cliffs with their rods, or he was scuba diving.

Late May 1993

Silverstrand Bay once more and a female goes missing and is never found. No one can find a trace of any body and so it is assumed that she has been taken by a shark.

1st June 1993

In Sheung Sze Wan, just around the corner from Silverstrand, a male swimmer, aged 42, and a hairdresser by profession, is attacked and killed after his leg was bitten off.

12th June 1993

A 61 year old male is attacked at Silverstrand after ignoring a shark warning that had been issued. He had his arm and leg bitten off. This was the last attack of ’93.

1994 – date unknown

A female is playing volleyball with her friends when she is grabbed and mauled by a 5-7 metre tiger shark. Of course, sharks are incapable of launching attacks at beach goers unless they are physically in the water, so I think it's safe to assume she had gone to retrieve the volleyball or was having a swim. There is also no information about what date this was, or whereabouts. I am also a bit skeptical about people being able to positively identify the species given the lack of any other recorded data.

1st June 1995

A 44 year old Physical Education teacher, and former Asian games competitive swimmer, is attacked whilst scuba diving near to Silverstrand. No one sees the attack but he is reported missing after failing to return home for the day. His car is found parked at Hang Hau and his friend ends up finding his body – still in full scuba gear – with a leg bitten off in just three metres of water.

2nd June 1995

A 29 year old male hairdresser is attacked whilst swimming at Sheung Sze Wan. Although not immediately fatal, the attack – witnessed by beach-goers – involved the swimmer screaming for help before being dragged under water. He suffered severe tissue loss on his upper thigh and died as a result of his injury. He had been swimming despite the shark warning being issued and only 24 hours after the previous day’s victim had been found. Various reports put the sharks size at around 2 metres.

13th June 1995

Clearwater Bay is now the scene of a fatal attack on a lone 45 year old female swimmer. Her arm and leg were bitten off in an attack thought to have been a tiger shark. This attack is significant because it was officially (so far) the last known attack in Hong Kong.

These attacks were by no means the first to occur in HK. Sharks have been well documented in the sea around HK and the earliest documented attack occurred back in 1945. But it was the frequency and ferocity of the attacks – all fatal – that made people stand up and examine how they may be prevented.

After the initial attacks in 1991, a local anonymous benefactor paid for notorious shark hunter, Vic Hislop, to come and capture it. Sadly, poor Vic had to abandon his hunt after several weeks of nothing but a case of food poisoning and returned home empty handed. It's still not known, officially at least, who funded his trip.

Despite numerous opportunities to properly investigate the attacks, as well as the offer by locally-based divers and marine life experts, the Govt just stuck its head in the sand and opted for nets because it was a quick and easy solution. So to this day, we still have no real concrete evidence or facts relating to the size, species or number of sharks involved in the attacks. There has been lots of speculation over the years from a single rogue man-eater, to packs of smaller sharks but the fact remains that the Govt lacked the expertise to investigate and was unwilling to take up offers of help from other unofficial, but perhaps better informed, members of the public.

Local theories favoured the idea that sharks often migrate past HK waters at the beginning and end of the summertime - around the time when the sea temperature is above 24°C. Either on a northerly or southerly migration route, it is not surprising that the odd shark may wander in searching for food - perhaps attracted by the local marine culture farms (these are the in water cages where fish are bred for local restaurants) - or whatever. This is plausible and we have certainly had a few cases of migratory sharks in the area over the last few year - whalesharks in fact, one off the coast of Aberdeen that was snared by a fisherman and another one a couple of years ago turning up in Sham Wan at the south of Lamma Island. Okay, they're not dangerous fish but at least it shows us that there are large pelagic fish that bypass HK waters to and from whatever migratory grounds they are visiting.

If you speak to local divers and fishermen, you get to hear all kinds of tidbits of information that doesn't necessarily make the news, such as the frequent sightings of silver tip sharks (have been known to be aggressive) around the Lema Islands (a string of Chinese islands approximately 18km south of HK Island) as well as a 3 metre Bull shark that was known to be frequenting the waters around the Ninepins circa 2008 (in fact a dead juvenile Bull shark was pulled out of the water near Cafeteria  Beach a few years ago). And I have previously read about previous sightings (many years ago, mind you) by fishermen and Govt helicopters of Great Whites off Aberdeen and Ninepins, respectively.

There was also a video posted on Youtube last year of what has supposedly identified as a sandbar shark of the coast of one of HK's islands (see below), but the exact location remains a bit of a mystery. I'm not convinced it's a sandbar shark (dorsal fin seems too small...?), but I defer to those with greater knowledge.


So there you have it, sharks have always been in HK waters and no doubt been responsible for more deaths than have been reported (like many statistics, shark attack stats in HK are only a post-war phenomenon). Thankfully there have been no further (reported) attacks since 1995 and perhaps the Govt sees this as vindication of their shark net policy and indeed it might be, but I suspect it is more related to the local waters being less welcoming for these large fish thanks to worsening marine pollution and a lack of decent food source.

It will be interesting to see what kind of a long-term effect the January 2013 trawler ban will have, given that fish stocks are expected to recover and the water quality may improve a bit now that the seabed is not being stirred up all the time. It's only been a year or so but myself and diving friends have already started to notice an increase in fish as well as an improvement in good-viz days out in the water. I'm sure it won't be too long before we get a decent (i/e confirmed and identified) sighting of a large fish again.

7 comments:

  1. Do you have sources for those 10 attacks? Both the HK Standard and hkoutdoors.com quote 6 fatalities between '91 and '95 but don't give more details. I don't have access to the SCMP to see what they say.

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    1. Hi Malcolm, i think the other "possibles" were from the SCMP archives. You csn register for limited time access.
      Cheers, phil

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  2. Awesome blog, all these horrible attacks make Jaws seem like a joke in comparison.

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  3. Vic Hislop was brought to HK by The Standard - http://twocountriesonecistern.blogspot.hk/2011/10/great-shark-hunt.html

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    1. Many thanks anon, mystery solved. In my defence i originally wrote this back in 2008/9 in a time of greater ignorance.

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  4. How often do you go diving in Hong Kong per year?

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    1. Not as much as i used to and definitely not as much as i would like.

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