“I lived in Reunion Island all my life until I moved to France three years ago,” professional surfer Jorgann Couzinet tells GrindTV. “I had to leave because of the sharks. I can’t really surf there anymore; it’s too dangerous. It would have been impossible to have a career if I [had] stayed.”
The 23-year-old was one of the island’s most promising junior-level surfers and relocated to Hossegor, France, in 2014. 2017 has been his most successful year yet on the World Surf League circuit, with podium finishes in Israel and Australia seeing him rise to second place on the World Qualifying Series.
However, as for every surfer from Reunion Island, the shark issue is ever present. While shark attacks never seem far from the news, it could be argued that no surfing community has been more affected by the issue than the wave-rich, French-owned island located 450 miles east of Madagascar.
In February this year, a 26-year-old bodyboarder became the eighth person to die by a shark attack there since 2011. (There have been 21 recorded shark attacks between 2011 and the time of this writing.) After that death, Kelly Slater weighed in, saying, “There needs to be a serious cull on Reunion and it should happen every day.”
So far, culling hasn’t been used, with the local government opting instead to install a ban on surfing, swimming and bodyboarding that covers more than half the coastline. Once a regular stop on the professional surfing circuit, all surfing competitions on Reunion also ceased as a result of the ban.
At the start of last year, however, a netting and surveillance program introduced with the help of Reunion Island surfer Jeremy Flores and his father, Patrick, has meant two of the more popular beaches and surfing breaks are now open to the public. While the program has led to a massive improvement in safety, surfing there is still very different from most normal surfing experiences.
“I had a three-hour surf training session recently in Reunion Island with two boats in the water and five guys patrolling with harpoon guns,” says Couzinet. “So it’s impossible to train or surf properly. It’s crazy how many waves there are on the island, and if it wasn’t for the sharks, it would be an ideal place to grow up if you want to be a professional surfer.
“However, it’s so sad right now, because it’s impossible to surf [those breaks].”
Hence Couzinet’s move to France to further his career. However, despite being content in Hossegor, Couzinet’s thoughts never stray too far from Reunion Island. Now he is hoping to use his situation as inspiration to achieve his dreams and help those surfers left behind.
“Qualifying for the Championship Tour is the ultimate goal,” he says. “However, I also want to fight for my island just the same as Jeremy Flores and Johanne Defay have done,” he says. “I want to help to find a way to get surfers back in the water.
“Even now I get emotional thinking about the impact the sharks have had. Hopefully I can use my surfing to make sure no one has to leave to succeed like I had to.”