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South Africa’s Deadliest Year for Sharks

A great white shark off the coast of South Africa. [Image via Wikimedia Commons]

Editor's note: Happy Shark Week! All week long we'll be re-capping some highlights from Shark Week programming. Today we review last night's "Killer Sharks."

 Last night’s Shark Week episode, “Killer Sharks,” tells the tale of Black December, the label South Africans gave to the period from December 1957 through April 1958 because of the rash of shark attacks that occurred near Durban.

Unlike the other episodes that have aired so far, this one takes place completely in the past, and so the entire episode consists of dramatic re-enactment with a few authentic clips interspersed where possible.

Seven deadly shark attacks happened in the area, and all the while Dr. Harris, a marine biologist, worked hard to get to the bottom of them. He discovered that it was not merely one rogue shark causing all the problems, but that there were hundreds of them in the area. But what was bringing them so close to the tourist beaches?

It just so happened that December 1957 marked the beginning of the perfect storm for shark attacks: whaling vessels offshore were attracting sharks to the area; rivers were flooding and washing livestock out to sea, introducing new food sources and making the water murky; and there were more tourists than ever in the water due to recent resort development.

In other words, this event was extremely unusual, and highly unlikely to occur again (in fact, it remains one of the worst in history, over 50 years later). The average number of fatal shark attacks per year worldwide is four, which is lower than the number that occurred in South Africa over the four month period in this episode. 

What’s more, as Dr. Harris said in this episode, shark research was in its infancy in the 1950s, and we have come a long way since then in our understanding of these creatures and what environmental factors may trigger such behavioral changes.

Check out more shark attack statistics, tips on how to avoid a shark attack, and take action to protect sharks!


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