Surfing returns to Reunion after spate of deadly shark attacks

This handout screengrab file image made and released on July 19, 2015 by the World Surf League shows Australian surfer Mick Fanning shortly before being attacked by a shark during the Final of the JBay surf Open in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa.
This handout screengrab file image made and released on July 19, 2015 by the World Surf League shows Australian surfer Mick Fanning shortly before being attacked by a shark during the Final of the JBay surf Open in Jeffreys Bay, South Africa. PHOTO: AFP

SAINT-GILLES-LES BAINS, France (AFP) - Surfing returned to the French island of Reunion this weekend after years in which a series of deadly shark attacks had triggered an official ban and kept surfers away from their beloved waves.

The Indian Ocean island saw a spate of 18 shark attacks between 2011 and 2015 - seven of them fatal - with surfers and body-boarders making up more than half the victims.

The "shark crisis" led to a controversial ban on almost all surfing in 2013 that almost killed the sport on island.

The number of surf schools dropped from 14 to two - and they were largely reduced to practising their paddling in lagoons.

The number of licenced surfers fell from 1,200 to 400. Most have not risked the waters in years - a major problem for France's surfing teams which have always been primarily drawn from Reunion.

So this weekend's surf competition at the Black Rocks beach in Saint-Gilles-Les-Bains was an emotional return for the island's favourite sport.

The timing was not accidental - held almost five years to the day since a shark attack on celebrated surfer Eric Dargent, who survived but lost a leg.

"It was the start of the nightmare," said Jeremy Flores, the island's best surfer and number eight in the world.

Flores, a white longboard tucked under his arm, addressed the hundreds of spectators to start the competition.

"To those who said we were dead: we are here and we won't give up this business, my friends," he said.

Ahead of the first round of the competition, some 150 surfers took to the water and made a large circle in hommage to the victims of the attacks, the emotion palpable as they raised their hands to the sky and struck the water.

"I am torn between an immense feeling of sadness and joy at seeing young people back in the water at least," said Giovanni Canestri, whose son le Elio, a rising star on the local surf scene, was killed by a shark last April.

He had ignored the ban and went out surfing with friends, when he was dragged off his board by a bull shark less than five kilometres away from the Black Rocks.

After that incident, France approved increased fishing of tiger and bull sharks in the marine reserve off La Reunion, as well as increased surveillance and protection nets.

Others remain bitter.

Fabien Bujon, a surfer who lost a hand and foot to a shark in August 2012 at Saint-Leu, tried to address the crowd on Saturday, saying he did not receive any support from his peers.

"The surfer community has done nothing to help me," said the 44-year-old.

But most people are overjoyed to see their favourite pastime back on the beach - and are already looking forward to the Reunion championship, due to take place in the first week of March.

When Saturday's competition got underway, the waves were poor - a metre high or less.

But the competitors didn't care, they were just happy to be back out on the water.