Fish Hoek shark attack: What happened

Report by the City of Cape Town on Great White's attack on Michael Cohen


As a result of the incident at Fish Hoek beach yesterday, 28 September. The City of Cape Town has compiled a report of the incident which is below for information:


At approximately 12.30 on Wednesday 28 September 2011, a 43 year old male, Mr. Michael Cohen was bitten and severely injured by a Great White Shark near Clovelly Corner, Fish Hoek beach while swimming. The victim sustained severe injuries which included the loss of his right leg and severe damage to his left foot.

The purpose of the review is to establish:

  • The facts and ensure that the correct information is provided to authorities as well as the public
  • Assess whether any reasonable actions could have been done to prevent the attack
  • Identify areas / aspects that need to be improved to reduce the chance of further attacks
  • Provide a detailed account of the events for the record

Shark Bite Details

The following account of the events leading up to the attack, the attack itself as well as the emergency response has been compiled based on interviews conducted on 28 September with all parties involved.

Although the accounts from various witnesses vary to some degree, as expected following a traumatic event, the following may be considered as an accurate description of the events leading up to as well as the shark bite and emergency response thereafter.

The Shark Spotters first sighted two Great White Sharks at 9.15. The alarm was sounded and the beach closed and the white flag raised. Once the sharks had moved back out the bay the Red Warning Flag was raised as per standard safety protocol.

At approximately 10.50 Shark Spotters re-sighted two Great White Sharks for the second time within Fish Hoek Bay. As per protocol the shark siren was again sounded, the beach cleared of swimmers and the shark flag raised. In both cases, sms notification of the sighting was distributed via the Disaster Risk Management (DRM) notification system.

At around 12.25 the mountain Shark Spotter saw a swimmer enter the water near the Clovelly Corner area. The spotter tried to sound the alarm, but due to a Eskom related city-wide electricity failure the alarm did not sound. The spotter notified his colleague on the beach as well as Monwabisi Sikweyiya, the Shark Spotting operations manager by radio. The beach spotter began to run toward Clovelly corner to warn the swimmer while Monwabisi drove to Clovelly corner.

Just after 12.25, according to eye witness Kyle James, a large shark casually and slowly approached the swimmer. At this point the swimmer was swimming parallel to the beach in a southerly direction just off the brown water emanating from the Silvermine River mouth. The shark approached the man from behind who was unaware of the sharks' presence. The shark lunged for the swimmer, shook him once, then let go and moved off 5 to 10 metres away.

Two beach goers, Mr. Douglas Drysdale, 61, from Glencairn Heights, and Mr Hugh Till, 66, from Fish Hoek entered the water and assisted Mr Cohen to shore. Before entering the water they called emergency services. At this time, Monwabisi Sikweyiya arrived on the scene and immediately began first aid measures. Monwabisi removed his own belt and applied it as a tourniquet, elevated the victim's leg and removed his shorts, which he used to stem the blood loss.

Monwabisi immediately called Mr Ian Kloppers of the NSRI and EMS services who initiated emergency response. A helicopter was dispatched while Monwabisi and the two rescuers stayed with and stabilised the victim. SMS notification of the attack was distributed to City officials and relevant authorities via the DRM notification system and City officials were alerted of the attack within 4 minutes of it occurring.

Once emergency services landed on the beach, the victim was stabilised further and medi-vacted by helicopter to Constantiaberg Hospital.

The manager of the Shark Spotting Programme was on site and coordinating a response within 5 minutes of the attack. City officials from Environmental Management, Sport Recreation and Amenities as well as from Law Enforcement were all on site within 20 minutes of the attack taking place. A scientist from the Shark Spotting Programme and Save Our Seas Shark Centre was on site within 20 minutes to record and collate information on the incident. Fish Hoek lifesaving club members were alerted to the attack within 10 minutes of the event taking place and launched their rescue rubber duck.

Actual Eye Witness Accounts


Ashley- Shark Spotter account

The man was swimming parallel to shore in front of the river outfall at the time of the incident, in shallow water no more than 50 meters from shore. There were two Great White Sharks in the vicinity, a smaller one about "2 - 3 meters" and a larger one "4 -5 meters". The larger shark was swimming towards the swimmer on the inside of the swimmer between the swimmer and the shore in very shallow water. The second, smaller shark was a fair distance away from the swimmer.

The shark swam past the swimmer into deeper water and made a large circle around him at a relaxed pace. The shark swam up behind the swimmer and then bit his legs. Contrary to preliminary reports of multiple bites, there was only one bite and then the shark released the man and swam away. At that stage Ashley stopped tracking the shark and concentrated on the swimmer and two rescuers who had entered the water. They pulled the man to shore where Monwabisi started administering first aid to the victim.

Kyle James - eyewitness walking by at the time of the incident

Kyle was walking from Kalk Bay to Clovelly when he saw a man swimming in Clovelly corner. He then saw a dark shadow about "3.5 - 4 meters" swimming slowly behind the swimmer. He recognised the dark shape as a shark. He describes the shark as swimming slowly up to the swimmer and when it was about 2 meters away it "jerked forward" biting the man on the legs. He described the shark raising slightly out of the water and giving one bite and then swimming slowly away again. He said the incident couldn't have lasted more than 15 seconds.

He describes the shark swimming slowly away and then pausing a few meters away from the victim. After the pause the shark kept on swimming slowly away. Kyle saw a seal (possibly two), close to the victim at the time of the incident and thought that the seal was "trying to help the man". However, seals are highly equipped physically and behaviourally to avoid sharks. This observed behaviour is more likely explained by the seal avoiding the shark and using the man as a refuge like they do with kelp and other floating objects

Environmental conditions

At the time of the attack, seas were calm, visibility was good and the wind was blowing in a gentle south-westerly direction. The shark was visible to the spotter at all times since the first sighting of the day at 10.50.

Status of Equipment at the time of the attack

The following was verified through this review:

  • The shark alarm was in working order and had been sounded at 10.50
  • There was a general electricity outage at the time of the attack
  • All radios were in working order
  • The shark flag was flying
  • All general beach shark signage was in place and functional

General Information

The victim was known to the Shark Spotters and had previously repeatedly ignored verbal warnings by the spotters to adhere to the shark warnings and beach closures.

The victim's car was parked in the main parking area at Fish hoek beach indicating that he had accessed the beach from the well signposted area where the shark warning flag was flying.

He had informed the car guards of where his car keys were hidden in the event that something happened to him.

Victim was wearing navy blue swimming shorts and black goggles, and had bangles on one arm and a watch on the other.

Victim was swimming between the shore and breakers (not behind breakers).

General awareness on Great White Shark seasonal migration inshore

As has become standard operation each year during August the City and its partners issues a media release reminding Capetonians of the expected seasonal increase in Great White Sharks closer to shore as they start to spend less time at the seal colony and more time inshore. The City and NSRI released the information on 29 August 2011. Following the release numerous radio, TV and print interviews were conducted to create awareness around the issue to better prepare sea water users.

History of shark attacks in Fish Hoek within last six years

Tyna Webb, fatal, November 2006

Lyle Maasdorp, no injury, surf-ski bitten, September 2008

Lloyd Skinner, fatal, January 2010

In the interest of public safety, it should be noted that in the case of Tyna Webb, Lloyd Skinner and Michael Cohen, shark warnings were in place prior to all of these events. Public adherence to shark warnings remains a constant challenge in preventing shark attacks.

Additional relevant information

Reports from staff indicate that members of the public continue to ignore shark warnings. Shark Spotters reported that on the morning of 28 September people in Fish Hoek were verbally abusive when asked to leave the water due to the shark sightings before the incident. The shark spotters report that there were members of the public who refused to leave the water at adjacent beaches after the incident when the beaches were officially closed. Adherence by the public to shark warnings remains a constant concern.

Shark sightings at Fish Hoek of the week leading up to 28 September 2011

24 September (Saturday): 3 shark sightings (10h26, 12h26, 14h47)

25 September (Sunday): 2 shark sightings (11h21, 12h18)

26 September (Monday): 1 shark sighting (09h29)

27 September (Tuesday): 1 shark sighting (15h36)

Shark behaviour before incident

Two sharks had been observed patrolling the inshore areas of Fish hoek since 09h15 on the morning of the incident. The water was clear and the sharks and their behaviour seen clearly. The shark spotter noted that the sharks were spending a lot of time in Clovelly corner near the river mouth and were swimming in "very shallow" water. The behaviour of the sharks was described as being relaxed. At some times they were close together and at other times far apart, but both spent a lot of time in the corner at Clovelly.

On previous days (Saturday, 24 September 2011 in particular) it was noted by the spotters and lifeguards that the sharks looked like they were feeding on something in the Clovelly area. Behaviour such as "thrashing" in shallow water were noted. Furthermore, on Saturday in particular, black-backed kelp gulls (> 30) were observed hovering over the sharks indicative of scavenging of prey remains. On both Saturday and Sunday the sharks also showed a lot of interest in floating pieces of kelp, often swam with their dorsal fins out of the water, and one shark was even described as spy-hopping. Their behaviour was generally described as slow patrolling.


1. Could the attack have been avoided within reasonable means?

It is the position of this review that all shark safety protocols had been followed:

  • shark spotters were on duty,
  • the beach had been closed and cleared at 10h50
  • the Great White Shark flag was flying, and
  •  the Shark Spotters did everything possible to get to the man once they realised he had entered the water.

Mr. Douglas Drysdale and Mr. Hugh Till, the two rescuers who pulled Mr. Cohen from the water helped save his life and should be commended for their bravery.

Further the actions and response by Monwabisi Sikweyiya following the attack which included:

  • Applying his belt as a tourniquet
  • Elevating the injured leg
  • Stemming the blood flow with his shirt
  • Contacting the NSRI for emergency medical response

should also be commended. Without this immediate, rational and professional response by Monwabisi Sikweyiya the victim more than likely would have bled to death on the beach.  

2. Overall Findings

  • All shark warning protocols were followed by the shark spotters as required and stipulated throughout 28 September
  • The immediate, rational and professional response by Monwabisi Sikweyiya to the attack directly resulted in the victim surviving the attack
  • The brave actions of the two beach goers Mr Drysdale and Mf Till who pulled the victim from the water must be noted and commended
  • All emergency response and notification procedures worked. Officials were notified within minutes of the attack, officials were on site within 20 minutes and victim was stabilised and medi-vacted by helicopter to hospital within 40 minutes of the attack.
  • The only gap in the shark safety programme that could be noted was the general Eskom related electricity failure which meant the alarm could not be sounded again when the victim entered the water.

3. Recommendations

  • The Shark Spotting Programme should be commended for its compliance to all standard shark safety protocols during the day of 28 September. Lessons learnt from previous incidents have been applied and training has been effective in improving responses to these incidents. Follow-up first-aid and emergency training that staff have received since the previous incident in January 2010 was well applied, particularly in the speedy response of Monwabisi Sikweyiya.
  •  The success, speed and effectiveness of the emergency response and notification system should be noted
  • The actions of Monwabisi Sikweyiya be noted and commended
  • The actions of Mr Drysdale and Mr Till be noted and commended
  • Back-up battery systems be provided to all shark alarms in the event of electricity outages
  • A designated swimming area at Fish Hoek beach be demarcated on a daily basis by the Lifesaving Club in consultation with the Shark Spotters. Lifesaving club and City Law Enforcement members to actively ensure that all bathers utilise this area. This information about a defined bathing area at Fish Hoek to be communicated via the media.

Further information on the Shark Spotters Programme can be found at

Statement issued by Gregg Oelofse, Head: Environmental Policy and Strategy, Environmental Resource Management Department, City of Cape Town, September 29 2011

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