The Shark Whisperer
Bull sharks, an aggressive species, often hunt close to shore.
Credit: Alexander Safonov / Getty Images
Buyle, who had volunteered to come to Réunion for three weeks, soon returned home but not without first retooling the spearguns to shoot at double strength. Three days after he departed, Gazzo successfully tagged three bull sharks, enough for an initial test of the tracking system. Schnöller and Gazzo then spent the next month watching tagging data, trying to identify patterns. The bull sharks congregated around Boucan Canot and its nearby harbor, so they returned to the area to investigate, free-diving along the seafloor outside Saint-Gilles marina. What they discovered was an enormous trash heap of plates, food, and refuse that boaters had been throwing overboard at the port entrance north of the beach. The bull sharks gathered off Boucan Canot to feast, and it could be that the humans they attacked were getting in the way.

"We accomplished our goal," Schnöller said, a week later. "We are educating people about the problem, showing why they can't just throw trash in the ocean." Schnöller is also using the discovery as a way to inform local beachgoers and tourists about shark habits, which will hopefully prevent future attacks.

Buyle, in Brussels, agrees it's a useful discovery, but he also says it may have little effect on the number of shark-related incidents on Réunion. "We will never change the shark's behavior," says Buyle. The most important thing is to "respect that the ocean is a wild environment. This is the shark's home. You are just a visitor in it."

Surprisingly, the tagging discovery didn't scare people off but, instead, opened a new cottage industry. Today Réunion tour operators run snorkeling trips near the garbage dump. "The sharks have become an attraction," said Schnöller. Last January, the French government began reopening beaches to the public.

I asked Buyle if he now considers Boucan Canot a safe place to swim or surf. "I'll put it this way," he said, laughing. "Without my wetsuit, goggles, and fins, I wouldn't swim in that water if you paid me a million dollars. I'm not crazy, you know."