You might want to leave your surfboard and snorkel at home. Using them on Réunion Island (say it like this: “ray-union”) can be risky business. I know that sounds weird considering that we are talking about a beautiful serene tropical island, but it’s a fact. The island is a French overseas department about 420 miles east of Madagascar and 110 miles southeast of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Not too many people are even aware that it exists, but people are becoming aware of the tiny island due to its reputation of being the world’s shark capital. Some people joke around and say that sharks need a nice island getaway just like everyone else, but the number of shark attacks in the waters around the island is not a laughing matter. The authorities have banned all swimming from a large part of the island because bull sharks, which the French call “les bulldogues” (bulldog sharks) are common in the waters surrounding Réunion Island. The bull sharks are large and aggressive and the odds of being attacked are one in 100. Does that sound bad to you? Maybe not, but if I tell you that the odds of being attacked in California are one in seventeen million, suddenly the odds look pretty high on Réunion Island. And these bull sharks are vicious: they thrash, trash, and tear. The attacks are extremely gruesome. Some people call them the pit bulls of sharks.
Oddly enough, Mauritius has not had the same problem and it’s only 110 miles away. Some say that Reunion located along a “shark highway” between Australia and South Africa, but that is probably too simplistic. Researchers have been trying to come up with an explanation, but it seems that it’s not going to be a simple answer. Locals attribute the lack of attacks around Mauritius to the wide coral reef that surrounds the wide white sand beaches of Mauritius. The shoreline of Réunion Island is steeper in many places, so the sharks may be living closer in due to that geological feature. Also, there are differences in underwater topography which may be a contributing factor. The waters off the shores of Réunion Island tend to be murkier in part because of the volcanic black sand beaches and deep rough water, environmental factors that the sharks tend to favor. Some believe that overfishing also brings sharks in closer to shore in search of food.
The waters around Réunion Island have long been considered a haven for surfers. Sadly, the shark attacks pretty much ended all surfing on the island for a number of years. There are small areas that are protected because of the work of a group of locals, lifeguards, and scientists using a couple of methods of deterrence. For one thing, they have been hooking the sharks and shooting them. Of course, that practice is not without controversy, but decreasing the bull shark population has helped, along with other measures, such as fencing and constant patrolling, to protect the swimmers and surfers.
Réunion Island is an idyllic location for a perfect tropical getaway and it’s a shame not to take advantage of all the island has to offer. We asked our guide today about the shark concern, but she downplayed it a bit and seemed to imply that often people ignored warnings and surfed or snorkeled in risky locations. One of the most famous and best surfing location is also one of the riskiest areas for shark attacks. She admitted that the shark problem is bad for tourism, which is the island’s second largest source of income after the sugar cane business. So if you go, consider confining yourself to water sports that can be enjoyed in the clear waters of your hotel’s swimming pool.