Jaws, Revisited: Series Of Shark Attacks Haunts Reunion Island

"They're going to need a bigger island..." Surfers on this Indian Ocean island are (mostly) staying out of the water after the fourth deadly attack. Up close, very close, with those targeted.

The bull shark is an uber-predator...
The bull shark is an uber-predator...
Cécile Deffontaines

SAINT-LEU - It rose from the abyss like a colossus, zeroing in on its target. “I can still see the eye and mouth, right here, 50 centimeters (20 inches) away from me. He was chewing on my shin.”

Yes, Fabien Bujon looked death straight in the eye off the coast of the Indian Ocean island of Reunion: it came in grey and copper-like skin, with a white belly and a ferocious glare. A real life “Jaws.”

“I was sitting on my board. He came from the front like a pit bull. He immediately caught my leg and started gnawing on it," Bujon recalled. "The scientists say he was just tasting, but he seemed to have decided he liked it.”

The 40-year-old surfer tells about how time stops, minutes turning into hours, very much like a disaster movie. “I pulled on its gills, a sensitive area. He didn’t like that so he left. I thought he was going to come back. I didn’t feel the pain. It’s only when I wanted to grab my board that I realized I was missing a hand! Blood was flowing everywhere. I rolled over and saw my leg bone…then I told myself: “No! shit..” For half-a-second I considered just giving up….then I pulled myself together. I had to swim. I had to save my life.”

From land, people saw Bujon get dragged down “like a cork,” with a red tide soon washing up on the black shingle shore of this tropical island.

Sharks, surfers like the same rough waters

Eddy, Mathieu and Alexandre, all regular surfers on the island, died. On May 8, a 36-year-old honeymooner boogie-boarding became the fourth killed in a shark attack in the waters off Reunion in the past two years.

Six others have survived attacks, but at what cost? Fabien is limping and needs clutches, waiting for prostheses. Eric, a tourist from Marseille, started surfing again…with one foot made of polyester. The luckier ones only crossed the animal’s path, like the man who found the shark bites in his kayak or 16-year-old Arnaud who had his surfboard gnawed on in the middle of the afternoon while hitting the waves at the popular Roches-Noir break point.

Reunion island, which is part of French territory, has long been a desirable getaway for tourists and pleasant home to some 800,000. It was also a favorite destination for some 8,000 surfers each year, especially along a 35 kilometer-long strip west of the island with the best sandy beaches and the finest hotels. And that's just where the sharks arrived.

On a late April afternoon, as some tourists were trying to catch the last sunrays, a post near the beach read: “NO SWIMMING” in red, capital letters. It has been a year since the “shark orange” flag had a day off.

The problem comes from the strong currents and the powerful waves -- something both surfers and sharks like is an agitated sea.

“The beach is closed two or three days per week, every time the swell becomes too powerful. We feel like it depends on what mood the people at city hall and the lifeguards are in,” grumbles a restaurant owner whose business dropped 30% last year as the crisis was peaking.

“Only two surf schools are left, out of 18,” adds Pierre Giovannangeli from Mickey Rat surf shop in Saint-Leu.

They know your scent

The sharks quite often show their fins near the shore, at which point the warning flag is hoisted immediately. It shouldn't come as a surprise on this rock of an island, lost in the middle of the ocean.

Something has changed nevertheless. In the past, the only ones roaming these waters were the silvertip sharks and nurse sharks. Big fish in their natural habitat. “They vanished ten years ago, the bull sharks kicked them out,” says an underwater spear fisherman. The bull shark is an uber-predator: it can swim in a few centimeters of water, swim upstream rivers to deliver its babies and loves briny waters, full of organic particles.

On Reunion Island, urbanization has devastated the seaside. The treatment plants are overflowing in the gullies. When there was an attack, the “water stank,” and hard rains were falling.

It’s very clear to local fishermen that these creatures have settled here and multiplied, and human flesh was on their menu. They put the blame on the protected natural reserve, which was widened in 2007. The fish in this area would attract the large sharks very close to the beaches.

“If man had become their favorite prey, there would be attacks every week,” says Marc Soria, in charge of the Charc study program. "Sharks aren't fond of human flesh since it’s not salty. These accidents are more the result of confusion: the surfer resembles a tortoise.”

Floating alone on the surface, the surfer on his board has all the characteristics of a sick animal, a godsend for the shark. “Give him troubled waters on top of that and you will be in big trouble! He doesn’t screw around when he’s attacking, he can drag down half a body.”

Eye for an eye, tooth for tooth

We used to know little about the shark. Now the ocean predator is the subject of countless studies. Specimens are fished and released with a tracker bug in their abdomen. Scientists mark their coming and going with listening stations scattered along the coastline.

“Most of them live in the deep sea, they do not find habitats near the coast,” notes Soria. But at least one large female is regularly seen in the Roches-Noires -- and the death toll speaks for itself.

The surfers have had enough, insisting "an eye for an eye, tooth for tooth." After the attacks, shark hunts were organized secretly. The state itself eventually agreed to allow shark fishing. Some 20 specimens are getting “sampled.” A female was autopsied: she was pregnant with 42 pups. Though hunting the creature may help appease minds, it doesn't solve the problem. “If you kill a shark, another one will come and take its place!” says Stéphane Girard from the Sea Shepherd environmentalist association. "These animals are endangered species, we cannot sacrifice them for our leisure’s’ sake.”

Reunion inhabitants, who have always feared the rough ocean around them, do not see shark hunting as the solution. “I’m against this practice. We are the ones intruding his element. We are the ones who need to pay attention!” says Aurélie, a 21-year-old student.

For the locals, surfing is a “metro’s” thing, those whites from metropolitan (mainland) France who come to exploit the sweet life under the palm trees. “Surfers are going in even when the red flag is up and they are the firsts to complain,” says Aline, 35, a Reunion native.

Still, before and after the hot hours, at dawn and when dusk falls, the surfers sometimes still go into the water in groups, with watchers taking shifts, scanning the surroundings waters for fins while others ride the waves. But many don’t have the will anymore.

“I went out to go surfing about 50 times. Almost every time I turned back,” says an experienced surfer. “Sometimes just because there was a cloud blocking the sun, or the gully was overflowing and the water seemed dirty. I might have gone in eight times since July, and only in small waves. I’m not admitting it to my students. I was surfing one day in Trois-Bassins. I saw that place where the kid died nine months ago. I watched him grow up, he always had a smile on his face. I stayed in just 10 minutes and I got out of the water. How can you surf there?”

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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