Laury Le Coustour surfing Saint-Leu, Reunion Island.

Laury Le Coustour surfing Saint-Leu, because the passion never left. Photo: Steph Peyriguer

The Inertia

When I got a call from Laury Le Coustour, he’d finished drinking a cup of coffee and was sitting in a rocking chair on his back porch. For me in Los Angeles, a gloomy spring day had given way to a chilly desert night, but I answered the video call to find a bright tropical paradise on the screen in front of me.

That’s because he was calling me from Réunion. Though the island lies about 420 miles east of Madagascar, it is an overseas department of France, which explains Laury’s unmistakable accent. The largest of the Mascarenes, Réunion only takes about four hours to circumnavigate by car. The island is relatively young, compared to Oahu or nearby Mauritius, comprised of two volcanos shooting straight out of the Indian Ocean. Most importantly, Réunion is directly in the path of swells from South Africa, providing it with some of the best surf on the planet.

Laury and his brother opened a surf shop in Saint-Pierre three months ago. He tells me it’s the first new one on the south of the island in 17 years. “The situation has been so bad for getting materials, surfboards and everything, that there were no surf shops anymore,” he said. “Now it’s just starting again, so we decided to open something.”

The shop is named Joots, after a nickname for La Jetee, the famous break that Kai Neville and co. visited in 2010’s Modern Collective. Réunion had already been known as a premiere surf destination, back when perfect lefts from Saint-Leu started to appear in ’90s surf magazines. However, Jordy’s part in Modern Collective was an explosion that announced La Jetee as one of the best air waves in the world.

Then there was the Shark Crisis.

Réunion had always been known as having a heavy shark presence, particularly tigers and the fearsome bull shark. In fact, the Réunion creoles (a term used to describe those born on the island, regardless of race) were traditionally taught to fear the water. As Daniel Duane reported in his podcast Shark Attacks in Paradise, Réunion had virtually no culture of watersports until French mainlanders, called Zoreilles, introduced them following the surfing craze of the ’60s. However, once surfing did come to the island, a dedicated community bucked the Réunionese custom of avoiding the water in favor of chasing the perfect peaks scattered along the coastline.

Then, in February of 2011, a shark ripped off surfer Eric Dargent’s leg at Roches Noires, signaling the beginning of what would be known as the “Shark Crisis.” From 2011 to 2019, there was a massive, and unexplained, rise in shark attacks on Réunion in which over 24 encounters were reported, 11 of them fatal. It was truly a horrific time in the island’s history, a period in which surfers, citizens, government officials, scientists and animal rights groups were at odds trying to figure out just what to do.

Reunion Island from the air.

One of the most picturesque coastlines in the world. Photo: Laurence Fusco//Unsplash

In 2013, two years into the crisis, the Réunion government banned surfing and swimming on most of the island. Except for certain supervised areas, anyone entering the clear blue water around Réunion was subject to a fine. Almost everyone stayed out of the ocean due to fear of sharks, deference to the law, or both. But there were some surfers who kept up the search.

Laury was one of them. “There was a small group of 5-7 people on the whole island that kept going surfing every day,” he explained. Surfing communities in general are small and close-knit, but on Réunion especially so. In the face of the bloodshed they’d all witnessed, they learned to rely on each other. Call groups formed to check the surf and request backup when they ventured into the water. “For 10 years we had to call friends to surf Saint-Leu, otherwise you’d be alone on perfect waves. It was empty everywhere,” said Laury. “You would be scared. All the guys that continued surfing, they all witnessed attacks.”

Laury saw one attack himself, although he didn’t want to go into detail. “We’ve lost some friends around us. It was a nightmare, but the passion goes on and we still go. We were still aware of the risk. At that time it was Roulette Rousse, Russian Roulette. It can happen to you.”

But the sharks weren’t the only thing after them when they returned to the lineup. Though the surfers and swimmers were on the frontlines of the shark crisis, the rest of the Réunionese were also deeply affected. A decline in tourism became an economic burden for many. Long-standing tensions between the Creole and Zoreilles were exacerbated, and people were simply afraid that they would see another person brutally killed on their doorstep. So when others saw this small group of surfers seemingly spitting in the face of danger and paddling back out to where the sharks still laid in wait, they thought they were insane. “You would go in the water and people would shout at you,” Laury explained. “‘You’re crazy, bro.’ ‘You’re going to be shark attacked and it’s going to be a bad advertisement for the tourism here.’ ‘Your meat is good for sharks only.”

Often, a local would call the authorities and the surfers would see the lights of police cars appear on the beach, beckoning them in. Many times they fled on foot to avoid a fine, but often the police would just give them a stern warning and let them go, satisfied to simply get the surfers out of harm’s way. However, in the depths of the COVID pandemic, the police became more aggressive, at one point sending a helicopter in pursuit.

“It was crazy. Five meters away, you have this police helicopter chasing you with its nose down and pushing you,” said Laury. He explained the helicopter pilot was actually tilting the rotors down and using the downwash to physically push them towards the shore. Even then, they still stayed in the lineup, but when the aircraft returned for a second run they finally threw in the towel and paddled in. As soon as they made it to the sand, where police cars were already waiting, they scattered. That time they stayed out of the water for an entire week.

Riding waves became a game of cat and mouse, as the surfers of Réunion found new ways to avoid threats from both above and below. Surfers often call trips “strike missions,” but Laury’s descriptions of their forays to the breaks of Réunion often sound like actual guerrilla warfare. One time they went on a night mission, despite the fact that the only thing more terrifying than surfing in shark infested waters is surfing in shark infested waters with zero visibility. I asked him if they had headlamps or glow sticks, like the night surfers I’d seen at the piers in California, but he replied “No, you get your cat’s eyes.”

This might sound insane to the average person, but there was just no stopping the siren song of the waves breaking almost literally on their doorsteps. “I live five minutes away from Saint-Leu,” said Laury. “You were stuck in the house and you would see the waves were perfect.”

Wave off the coast of Reunion Island.

Photo: Rames Quinerie//Unsplash

However, things eventually improved. Over time, Réunion has developed systems to at least ameliorate the shark problem. The government employs SMART drumlines to kill sharks around the island and release bycatch of other species (however, it should be noted that the efficacy of drumlines, smart or otherwise, is still a hotly contested issue). There are also two shark patrols, the VRR and Water Patrol, that employ underwater lookouts, boats, and jet skis to watch over the more popular swimming areas. Finally, the surfers themselves use electronic shark deterrents, such as NoShark and RPELA, that emit electrical pulses meant to overwhelm the sharks’ electro-sensory systems.

Whether by cause or coincidence, the shark attacks seem to have abated. The last attack was in 2019, and swimmers have started to return to the water in larger numbers. Laury told me that now, at a popular beach like Trois-Bassins, you’ll see families with children, and as many as 200 people in the water.

But the sharks are still very much on the minds of Réunion surfers. “You don’t want to forget about them. We are a very small island with perfect conditions for sharks. Lots of river mouths and clean water going into the sea, so they like to be there,” said Laury. “You’ll be cautious, looking around, and you trust your device.”

At one point, Laury gets distracted and flips his phone camera to show me a perfect peeling left, right in front of his porch. “There are so many incredible spots, especially on the east coast, which are totally un-surfed because there’s so many bull sharks. We have all kinds of waves. We have beach breaks, point breaks, long waves, short waves, slabs. In a 20-minute drive you can get to all these spots. It could be a surf paradise, if you take out the bad story.”

Others are starting to recognize that, too. A handful of pros recently traveled there to film, although Laury said that this is still relatively rare. “It’s good to see surfing, and it’s good to see how the waves can be surfed by the pros, because we haven’t seen really good guys surfing here for years. Now you see that guy going deep in the lineup and taking off on big bombs and you say ‘Ah, that’s the way you should surf it.’”

The other reason Laury appreciates seeing new people surfing Réunion’s breaks is because during the crisis, frightened parents kept their kids out of the water. As a result, there are very few groms on the island. “All the other countries have a new generation surfing, and we stopped here for 12 years, so we have a gap with no young guns, no new generation coming,” said Laury.

I asked him if he thought that would change. “We’re surrounded by very good surf spots, and the young people want to be in the water. They still can see the surf, and all the media everywhere, the Olympic games. We see some young guys coming in the water again. They want to feel the passion, too.”


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