The Sai Kung Shark Attacks – early 90′s, Sai Kung
The summer has arrived and no doubt we will start to see some shark activity in our waters again along with the associated overreaction by the Govt offices responsible for safety on our beaches and seas (that will be the L.C.S.D and the A.F.C.D). That coupled with an increasing amount of publicity surrounding the shark fin trade – of which HK is the world hub it seems – and I thought it was a good time to look into the infamous Sai Kung shark attacks of the early and mid-90′s.
I have a vested (possibly even morbid) interest in this kind of thing because I am a regular diver in HK waters and am also a fan of sharks (and the marine environment as a whole – of which the sharks are an integral and important part). I’ve dived with several species around the world – though only the docile types such as black and white tip reef sharks, grey reef sharks, nurse sharks, leopard sharks and a very lucky encounter (a truly unforgettable moment) with a massive whale shark in the Seychelles. In other words I’ve seen that there is more to these creatures than just a big gaping mouth, sharp teeth and severed limbs.
So what actually happened?
Between 1991 and 1995, Hong Kong waters were the most dangerous in the world thanks to this series of fatal attacks occurring in and around the eastern waters of Sai Kung. 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 thing is that the last three attacks occurred within just a fortnight. 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 down to 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 a largish bay just off the ClearwaterBay Road and is popular with people for all sorts of water-based activities, including swimming. It’s not clear if there was any witnesses to the attack as the time was estimated to have between 0600 and 0720. The file lists the possible attacker as 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.
28th June 1991
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 (Fo Sek Jau in Cantonese) is uninhabited and hard to get to even with a boat, so what was this guy doing there? Rock fishing or scuba diving perhaps but the file makes no mention.
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
Sheung Sze Wan – just around the corner from Silverstrand and 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. Now, first I can only assume that they were playing volleyball in the water because I haven’t heard of any shark attacks that have been launched up a beach (though try telling that to the LCSD when they close the beaches after shark sightings…).
1st June 1995
A 44 year old PE teacher, and former Asian games competitive swimmer, is attacked whilst out 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 at Siu Chuk Lam – 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 – seen by witnesses on the beach – 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 in deep water 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 done by 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 1946. But it was the frequency and ferocity of the attacks – all fatal – that made people stand up and examine how they may be stopped.
Despite numerous opportunities to properly investigate the attacks, 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, despite many witnesses and even video footage of sharks taken by the G.F.S (a helicopter is always scrambled when a shark is “sighted”), we still have no idea as to the size type and number of sharks involved in the attacks. Ignorance, it seems, is bliss and the Govt’s lack of knowledge of sharks in general is exposed time and time again when non-threatening species are lumped in with the more dangerous types and beaches are closed. The best example of this was when a whale shark appeared south of HK Island in June 2008 (and surprise surprise wound up dead) and the Govt closed all beaches within a ten mile radius…WTF!! Two things here 1. Whale sharks eat plankton 2. Never heard of any shark mounting an attack up a beach – plankton eater or not.
The problem is that the fatal attacks were, and still are, really bad PR for the sharks plight in HK and I suspect there may be a bit of deliberate propagation of this to keep the shark fin wholesalers happy – after all, how can you feel sorry for a creature and be moved to do something about its protection if you think all sharks are mad crazed man-eaters and the Govt doesn’t do anything to persuade you otherwise.
Moving to the present and it’s true that there haven’t been any attacks since the last one in 1995. The Govt will probably see this as a vindication of their installation of the nets and I can understand why. But, when you realise that people have been diving and swimming outside of the nets for the past 15 years without any further incidents then we really need to take a deeper look into other possible causes for it.
The nets only cover the 32 gazetted beaches in the territory, but there are a whole bunch of other non-gazetted beaches that people regularly use without incident. Could it be that there just aren’t any sharks around anymore? This is certainly feasible – not only do we have a voracious appetite for shark fin soup but HK waters are pretty much a wasteland these days having been over-fished for years. Perhaps the few sharks that do come in to our waters don’t hang about too long because there is nothing left to eat. Who knows? The fact is we had a perfect opportunity to learn more about them and blew it.