Stab Magazine | Meet The Family Who Saved Surfing On The World's Sharkiest Island

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Meet The Family Who Saved Surfing On The World’s Sharkiest Island

Father-son duo, Patrick and Jeremy Flores, go in to bat for their island home.

news // Apr 7, 2016
Words by stab
Reading Time: 6 minutes

Watching perfect tropical waves go unridden for days on end will send you mad very quickly, says Reunion Island’s Jeremy Flores.

“I remember driving in front of it and it was pumping everyday for 10 days and there was no one out,” he recalls. “I didn’t even look at it after a while because it was heartbreaking.”

Five years of constant attacks and encounters had left seven dead and 16 seriously injured on the island. It prompted the French government to ban surfing in Reunion Island, not that many of the hardcore locals took any notice. They continued to surf, and they continued to get attacked.

“Some people were so passionate about surfing on Reunion they go here or there and take the risk and the attacks keep on going even when the percentage of surfers went so low,” says Jeremy. “It was just a little group of surfers, and this little group kept getting attacked too. Imagine that! It was getting ridiculous!”

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The number of surfer kids in Reunion Island who’ve lost pals to sharks is higher than anywhere else in the world.

Reunion’s reputation as a shark hotspot crippled the island. Tourism stopped, surf shops, surf schools, restaurants, and hostels closed down. The local economy began to bottom out. Locals, meanwhile, became too afraid to even set foot in the water, let alone paddle out to one of the reefs and surf.

Jeremy was travelling the world competing on Tour while this was happening. Eventually he had to see it for himself and organised a trip there with good friend Dean Morrison. Four people had been killed at this point.

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It certainly isn’t difficult to see why Jeremy loves this place.

Initially they refused to buy into the panic and continued surfing the ultra-playful lefts of St Leu, the reef once used by Rip Curl for a World Tour event in 2006 (won by Mick Fanning). But a few days after they left, there was another attack at a nearby spot they’d been surfing.

“We were surfing every day there for a week, and he got attacked in the middle of the day in the middle of the crowd,” says Jeremy. “He didn’t do anything wrong at all… afterwards, people started realising, people started yelling, this is getting out of control, you know?”

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Elio Canestri was 13 when he paddled out and never came back. His friends will never forget.

When one of the most promising surfers on the island, 13-year-old Elio Canestri, was killed, it boiled over. A couple dozen sharks were killed with a further plan to cull 90. Jeremy blames the declaration of a nearby Marine Reserve and the banning of traditional local fishing practices for the problem.

“At the start of the story there was this Marine Reserve in this 15km area, so they prohibited fishing about 10 years ago and it really created a fish park all of a sudden,” Jeremy says.

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Do you love Jeremy? Stab does! This swooping bottom turn is just one of many reasons. Another is the basis of this article.

“Unlike in America or Japan, and big countries like that, where they fish with nets and it’s just a massacre (they take the net out and fish anything they get), in Reunion it’s traditional fishing, one line in the water, three or four lines per fisherman. But now it’s prohibited.

“I think that is the main problem. Just to have fishermen and boats in the area, I think it was scaring the sharks away. All of a sudden there were no more fisherman around, the Bull Shark started getting territorial, it took over the territory. It started killing everything. I remember growing up you’d see dolphins, turtles, reef sharks, everything. Now everywhere you go there is nothing left. The bull sharks are really territorial, you never see any turtles. I think everything started from there. That is my opinion.”

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Crude? Maybe. But if it works, then who gives a fuck? These are the shark nets that Jeremy’s pops, Patrick, is responsible for introducing.

The actions of the local community in killing and catching and releasing sharks received widespread condemnation from the global green community. Environmentalist groups and activists kicked off a global media campaign against various members of the local community. The controversy shocked Jeremy.

“It was becoming a trend, a new thing to be a shark lover all of a sudden,” says Jeremy. “All this came from people who don’t really know our island and how much we love it, how much we surfers protect the environment… what people forget is that not only in Reunion, but most of the places in the world, surfers are the main environment protectors. We stay our whole life in the water, any chance I get to help in any way to protect the environment, I’m 100% in.” Jeremy also adds that he now has a hard time “believing in green organisations.”

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The Vigie leaving the water. These guys are badass. They patrol the lineups – from underwater – with spearguns and knives.

“It’s all about profit, attacking tight little communities in this hard time… the real criminal and where they kill everything, is in Japan, in China, in America where they kill a huge amount of sharks and whales. They came to Reunion and started making a huge deal because a few surfers catch a few sharks to tag them. Because scientists want to track sharks to see their movement and why they come to shore. At that point it was the only way. There was so much drama and it was getting political. It was sad, for everyone, for family members of the people attacked and for the Reunion community.”

The problem was complex and needed a complex solution. Something that went beyond the simplistic idealism of the far left.

“These same (green groups) were saying, You surfers don’t have the authority to play your little game on your boat, you should just go in the lagoon. Killing sharks is not the solution, but staying out the water is also not a solution. Being on the island and not being able to go in the water is not a solution at all.”

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It’s as simple as this: Jeremy’s dad rallied and introduced this shark net, which allows surfers to enter the once-unsurfable water. Not a lot to argue with there.

Jeremy and his father, Patrick, got involved. Having spent the last 17 years travelling the world, they were able to bring a global perspective to the issue. Through contacts in South Africa they came up with a blueprint for a cutting-edge shark net that would let most sea life through but keep the bull sharks out. Patrick ended up being elected as the member for their local area because of it.

“My dad, he ain’t no genius but he’s travelled to a lot of places with me, and he sees how the government in South Africa does it. He got elected in our area, which is crazy ’cause my dad was just one guy who loved all the good stuff, all the partying, he’s definitely not a political guy, but he got elected because people had had enough. He had nothing to gain but saving surfing in Reunion.”

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A paddle out, prior to Jeremy’s contest, to honour those who the community have lost to attacks.

The nets were installed, allowing the surfing community to return to the water. To mark the occasion, Jeremy held a surfing contest in honour of the victims; An event he describes as the single greatest achievement of his life.

“That was the best thing I have ever done,” he recalls. “It was the proudest moment I’ve ever had. Just to see kids get back in the water and get the rush and go for a heat in 100 percent safety, and their parents on the shore were crying watching their kids back in the water. I was like, ooooh my god, this is way more a than a sport. It is way of living, it is crazy.”

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Jeremy does it for the kids. “That was the best thing I have ever done,” he recalls. “It was the proudest moment I’ve ever had.”

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