Boucan Canot beach on Réunion, a tiny French island off the coast of Madagascar, is the kind of place where women sunbathe topless, couples picnic, men in Speedos throw Frisbees, and 80-degree water laps powder-white sand. It's postcard perfect, but for one small detail: No one at the beach can go in the water – it's against the law.
Local officials imposed a ban on swimming in October 2011, and for a very good reason: Boucan Canot, and nearby Saint-Gilles harbor, has become the shark-attack capital of the world. A tourist surfing a mile from Boucan Canot was bitten in the leg hours after arriving on the island. A week later, a shark charged a kayak, hitting it from beneath the prow and sinking it (the kayaker survived). A bodyboarder was dragged underwater and devoured just off a crowded beach. A spearfisherman wading in chest-high water was bitten in the ass. Five violent attacks occurred over nine months, two of them fatal. The worldwide average for shark fatalities is six a year – and a third of that number had occurred in tiny Réunion in less time. It was the most dramatic increase in shark attacks Réunion had ever seen, and it threatened to destroy the tourism industry that supports the island's economy.
Local marine experts believed the problem could be solved only if it could be determined why the sharks were venturing so close to the beaches. This meant finding someone with the knowledge, expertise, and courage to spend an extended period of time in the water with the animals themselves, unraveling the mystery. They called Belgian Fred Buyle, the world's foremost shark tagger, a gifted free-diver able to hold his breath for seven minutes and swim to depths below 300 feet. Buyle has been known to sit peacefully on the ocean floor surrounded by schools of man-eaters. Sharks aren't frightened by free-divers, who, unlike scuba divers, don't create anxiety-provoking bubbles. This enables Buyle to clip tiny transmitters to their dorsal fins so they can be tracked – and swimmers warned when they get too close. The transmitters would work like a missile defense system, warning Réunion officials of incoming sharks so they could order swimmers out of the water. The project, called Sharkfriendly, is a huge step toward implementing the first-ever real-time shark-tracking system.
Buyle and his fellow free-divers have become an indispensable factor in protecting humans from shark attacks – and sharks from humans. Tracking sharks means being able to alert swimmers of their whereabouts, essentially telling people where it is safe to swim. Buyle, a staunch conservationist, wanted to ensure that Réunion didn't follow the example of the neighboring Seychelles and Mauritius islands by killing off its population of bull sharks, a particularly aggressive species responsible for the attacks. He came to Réunion not only to solve the shark-attack problem but also to show that humans and bull sharks can coexist peacefully in the water.
When Buyle arrived on Réunion last November, he was welcomed at the airport by a throng of curious islanders and desperate government officials. Tall and well built, with a clean-shaven head, he carried an enormous duffel bag full of spearguns and diving equipment to a waiting car. "Sharks don't like to eat humans," he said. "That's what was so weird about these attacks. Something was frightening them, bringing them close to shore, and it was probably man-made. That's what I wanted to find out."