Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Shark Attack!

When I first visited Pulau Payar, Langkawi in 2009, I witnessed how tourists were offering bread to those coral reef fishes and there was a session where sharks were fed.  It is a known fact that wildlife feeding will leave an impact to their behavior and diet thus offsetting the balance of their surrounding ecosystem.

I observed some of those Blacktip Reef sharks came very closely to the tourists and I had   the impression that they were not aggressive at all. I was wrong. A recent incident has proven that these sharks are not to be taken for granted.

Some time ago, a guest of mine related her snorkeling experience during the shark feeding session. She was snorkeling and the operator started throwing the food into the water. Seconds later, she was surrounded by those fast swimming sharks. She told me that she was terrified for the fear of getting bitten. Luckily she was left untouched.

For another case, someone really got bitten. It was unlucky for this teenage girl who happened to be a friend of my friend. On 1st June 2011, three Canadian teenage girls went on a snorkeling trip with the Pulau Payar operator, Coral Island. A supposedly fun trip has turned sour when one of them got nipped badly by one of those blacktip reef shark (Carcharhinus melanopterus) during the feeding session. 

What had happened?

The shark feeding session starts after a snorkeling group had their lunch and this is the usual practice of the operator. The reason for this? So that the operator can gather whatever left over food to be fed to these sharks. 

A guide from Coral Island insisted that the teenage girls should have the fun of watching the shark feeding by snorkeling in the water. One of them was doubtful and asked the guide if it was safe to do so. The guide said that it was alright and he went into the water. The  teenage girls thought it was safe after seeing the guide entered the water and they decided to follow. 

Scrap food inclusive of chicken bones were thrown in to feed those blacktip reef sharks. One of them was snorkeling and had her both legs hanging in the water. Five minutes later, an unsuspected shark went directly to her right feet and SNAPPED!
The shark's bite
The bite (zoomed in)
She was immediately evacuated by the operator and straight to Langkawi hospital. A surgery was done on that evening itself. 
First aiders attending to the victim on Pulau Payar before the evacuation
The result of the bite has cost four sliced tendons above the toes and her little toe may require a skin graft operation.
A visit to Langkawi hospital. Victim's feet had a surgery and her tendons stitched up. She will undergo another follow-up as soon as she returns home.

I am not a marine biologist neither a shark specialist and I now know a little more about them, thanks to wikipedia and the resources from the world wide web. A blacktip reef sharks in general is timid and seldom poses any danger to human unless roused by food. People wading through swallow water are at risk of having their legs mistakenly bitten.

After surfing the net, I have found that this is not the first incident of people having bitten by a shark in Pulau Payar. Someone had his finger bitten off while feeding the sharks and a tourist nearly had her finger bitten off by a baby blacktip reef shark while feeding the coral reef fishes. 

It is very unfortunate that this has happened to a young girl who now have to go through unnecessary difficulties. My questions are:

1. Do the authorities especially the Jabatan Taman Laut (Department of Marine Park Kedah) is aware of all of these incidents?

2.  If they are aware, what actions have they taken to prevent such incidents?

Who should be responsible for this? 

I vote for the authorities and the operator. They should know that shark feeding poses a risk to the feeder and yet they allowed these innocent tourists to be exposed to danger. There were past incidents related to blacktip reef sharks nipping tourists by mistake and yet they did not take any preventative measures to ensure such incident do not repeat. Are they going to wait for a fatality of a tourist before taking firm action? It will be too late by then.



  1. Thanks for the story Bill...as a native of Florida (USA) waters...I have a great respect for the unpredictability of sharks. Historically ...even the experts have had mishaps. From what I heard the Black Tips do indeed become aggressive when food is introduced. Just as with 'eagle' feeding/monkey feeding, etc...the eco system AND natural behaviors will morph. I'm not a marine biologist either...but if a shark starts equating humans with any sort of food, it can't be a good thing right? Even the 'babies' have razor sharp rows of teeth. :(

  2. Now I understand why P. Payar Marine Park requires shutdowns to remedy its ecosystem!

    I am amused to hear that Langkawi Coral feeds sharks with leftovers. By any means, such a practise should not be allowed in the first place. Doing so introduces many unnatural nutients into the already stressed marine ecosystem of P. Payar.

    As you've said, animals will be inclined to feed on those leftovers and being apex predators, may tip the balance of the island's reef ecosystem.

    Payar is currently experiencing extreme stress from agriculture runoffs from Kedah mainland and increased visitor numbers, plus the recent warming of the sea. Top it off with leftovers? The reef's days are numbered for sure.

    5 years ago, I've personally seen Langkawi Coral packing and disposing the leftovers on mainland Penang and Langkawi. What has happened is very disappointing and downright unethical. Why change for the worse, Langkawi Coral?

  3. Hi Anonymous June 7th;
    Agree with you there. All wildlife feeding is bad. When have I became Bill?

    Hi JK,
    Natural heritage on Langkawi will change for the worse, most unfortunately. Langkawi Coral is owned by those rich Chinese businessmen, what do they care about nature and environment? It is $$$ that matters.
    Thank you for your comments.

  4. It's unfortunate that they have failed to understand that their business is based entirely on the health of the reefs. They are killing their 'golden-egg laying geese', so to speak. Who would want to spend money visiting and sponsoring the destruction of such precious ecosystem?

  5. Hi JK...
    Who would spend the $$$? Tourists with no sense of love for nature.

  6. Its great of you to highlight the issue. We must not take things for granted &disturbance of ecosystem has it cost. Unfortunate for the girl to get biten by the shark. Agree with you on the action of the authorities to operators & a proper guideline to be written n display on not to feed the fish by left over food. $$$ is not everything

  7. I have corrected the name of the operator who was responsible for this incident.

    The culprit was Coral Island, managed by EkoMegah Sdn Bhd. The victim's Mother shown me the address of the representative from this company.

    Langkawi Coral, the other operator running on Pulau Payar is managed by Langkawi Saga.

    However, both of these operators are responsible for the sharks feeding. Both of them are mega companies that have hotels, duty free shops, ferries, etc. Equally are rich Chinese businessmen that are lack of passion towards the environment.

    The only operator who is against all these feeding thing this is the East Marine. The owner is a passionate diver himself.

  8. We have just returned from Malaysia and went snorkelling to Pulau Payar on New years day. Many tourists were being encouraged to feed the fish despite the many signs clearly stating that this wrong and damaging to the eco-system. I tried to ask people to stop, but the operator did nothing (Lankawi Coral). This reef is being ruined by these operators and the fish unnaturally flock to the boats when they arrive. The excess of bread and food on the sea bed is damaging the reef itself too.

    As experienced free divers we wanted to snorkel away from the crowds but the operator refused to let us aboard the dive boat excursions to other reefs on the island, and would only allow us to swim to the north tip on our own, which we did. We were surrounded by black tip reef sharks which was exhiliarating although a little scary and some of the sharks behaved in a way that did not seem normal, coming far too close at times and seemingly less timid than sharks we have had the honour of swimming near before. I doubt very much we will visit such reefs in Malaysia again

    1. Thank you for dropping in, Jackie. And sorry for the late reply as you can see that I have stopped blogging on this blog.
      Please do not rule out Malaysia completely for diving. The best is Sipadan Island in Sabah, Borneo. Do try out that place. You will not regret it.
      Take care.


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