«If we don’t fight for what we love, we’re no one and nothing on this planet» – what it means to be a freesurfer on Réunion Island.
Imagine growing up on a beautiful tropical island in the middle of the Indian Ocean, surfing incredible waves from morning to evening, feeling free, safe, happy and at peace. Then imaging waking up to a reality in which entering the ocean is suddenly prohibited and the only way to surf legally is to get a license and do it under the guard of a shark vigil. Since 2011, 24 shark attacks have been reported on Réunion Island, out of which 11 were fatal. A lot of surfers have left the island or quit surfing, but there are a couple who, despite everything, continue to do what they love doing the most. Some time ago, I had the chance to have a very honest and touching conversation with a man, who was born and raised on the island and who continues to surf inside and outside the guarded areas. He agreed to answer a few questions on condition that he remains anonymous.
What is it like to be a surfer on Réunion Island?
Due to the shark crisis the ocean has been closed and the community has been completely divided into surfers and the rest of the commune. We are considered outsiders, you don’t talk about surfing unless you’re with your friends. The locals don’t want to talk about the crisis anymore, it’s been going on for more than eight years and we still haven’t found a longterm solution. It’s heavy, the crisis really destroyed us. I used to be a very nervous person but with all the attacks and after loosing one of my best friends, I had to learn to become calmer and do a lot of work on myself, including meditation and breath work. The island used to be full of surfers, but officially we’re only about 400-450 left now. If you want to surf, you need a license and you need to be part of the surf league so that you can surf under the guard of a shark vigil. Everything else is illegal and you can even get a fine.
What does it mean to surf under the guard of a shark vigil?
You surf in an area that is watched by a minimum of two free divers, a boat, a jet ski and a drone which observes everything from above. The shark vigils will make sure that the surfers are safe and in case a shark approaches the area, they alert and evacuate the beaches. To do that they need to find a spot that has a minimum of 10m horizontal visibility which provides waves that are no bigger than 2.5m. It’s been a successful experiment, there hasn’t been any attack inside the protected areas, but scheduled surfing is nothing like freesurfing. The entire aspect of freedom and independence is missing. Also, it’s very expensive and we don’t know how long they’re going to be able to run this experiment.
Did you ever consider to quit surfing?
Yes I did. After the attack of my friend I stopped surfing for six months and even considered leaving the island. I got depressed. I understand that people decide to leave the island to live and surf elsewhere, but I can’t leave my island, especially not with this situation. Should I ever leave, it’s because things have turned back to normal again.
What made you realize that you weren’t going to stop?
My friend and I both stopped surfing after the loss of our friend. He went abroad to study and I stayed on the island. I wasn’t doing well. When he got back, we watched the waves. It was really frustrating to look at these perfect, empty lineups, feeling like you’re inside of an aquarium. So one day we decided that it was enough and we went back in. I haven’t been able to stop it since. If I don’t surf, I go crazy. I don’t know who I am and… it’s the only way for me to pay homage to the friends we lost during the crisis.
How does your family feel about you surfing outside the protected areas?
I have to lie to them. They don’t know where I surf and when I surf. Obviously there’s been times where they saw me come back from the ocean being all wet. They’re not stupid. It’s hard. I’ve seen the pain the parents of my friend had to go through after the loss of their child, and I don’t want my parents to go through the same.
Do you manage to stop thinking about sharks once you’re out there?
There are moments where I manage to be fully focused and present. Whenever I’m on a wave I’m just there and enjoying it. But as soon as you have to paddle back out to the peak you start to think about it and you feel stressed. We never feel safe out there.
What’s your wish for your island?
I want our ocean back. I wish we had a little genie that would allow us to get back to our old life where we didn’t even think about sharks. We always knew that they were out there, but we coexisted peacefully. It would be my biggest dream to be able to surf the way we used to do when we grew up. From morning to evening, all over the coast, feeling safe in the water. I also wish that people start to actually care about us because we’re in a shit situation. If people want to criticize what’s happening, ok, but they need to know what they’re talking about. I wish people would stop commenting on things they don’t understand and calling us shark murderers or hypocrites as soon as we enter the water. It really hurts, especially in regards to all the friends that we lost during this crisis. It’s not normal what’s been happening, we feel left behind.
Anything one can do to support Réunion Island?
We need international support to prove to the French government that all of this needs to stop. We need to find a sustainable solution, so that all of this terror comes to an end. We’re just small associations that are spreading the information, but people need to continue talking about it. If we don’t fight for what we love, we’re no one and nothing on this planet.
Anything else you’d like so share?
Loosing a friend or a brother is very hard. Nothing will ever stop me from continuing to make their memory live in what I do. I’ll never stop surfing.
More infos about the shark crisis: