The other side of the world: Reunion Island

When I was in elementary school my friends and I used to dig holes in the playground’s wood chip piles, emphatically announcing that we were going to dig straight through the Earth to China. However, we were lucky if our holes were more than a few feet deep and we were sorely mistaken about what was on the other side of the planet from California.

If we were miraculously able to complete our holes through the Earth’s core and come out on the other side, we’d have ended up in a lonely neck of frigid seas in the Indian Ocean, a thousand miles from land. But one of the closest chunks of land from that point would have been a volcano jutting up from the sea called Reunion Island.

Reunion Island is where I am right now, so I can finally say I (basically) made it to the other side of the world. I’ve never physically been this far from home. My year-and-a-half-long travel around the globe has landed me in this tropical spit of land about 400 miles east of the African isle of Madagascar.

Reunion Island is part of France, the citizens are French, and it feels a bit odd counting down the days on my EU visa whilst in the Indian Ocean, but so is the history of French colonization.

My friends here on Reunion (who I met in Indonesia) describe the island as the Hawaii of the Indian Ocean. Hawaii and Reunion both sit at similar latitudes and are paradisiacal islands of volcanic origins. Both serve as tropical getaways for citizens from each country’s “mainland”. I can see the comparison.

The island has many reef lagoons, as seen in the photo in l’Etang Salé les Bains.

But culturally they are quite different.

Reunion Island is unique in that it had no native inhabitants. The French were the first to officially set up shop on the island in the mid-17th century and the centuries that followed saw (forced and unforced) immigration to the island from Africa, Madagascar, India, Europe, and China. The modern-day result is a melting pot of people and cultures, now united under the French flag and language.

Tourism to the island outside of mainlanders from France is nearly nonexistent. There aren’t many budget backpacker-style accommodations and the gradient of the island’s steep slopes makes it complicated to live without a car. The cost of living is definitely more expensive than the last six months of my travel in Asia, but it’s still relatively affordable to live here compared to my home of California.

Beach day at Trois Bassins.

When I told people that I was going to Reunion Island, almost no one knew where it was — except for surfers. When I told surfers I was going to Reunion I was met with wide eyes.

Surfers know Reunion Island, not because it has produced some of France’s top surfing talent (i.e. Jeremy Flores and Johanne Defay), but because of its shark attacks.

Starting around 2011 the island started experiencing an unprecedented amount of shark attacks. All surfers know that using a shark’s environment comes with a certain amount of risk, but what was happening on Reunion was startling. Between 2011 and 2016 the small island of less than a million people accounted for 16% of shark attacks in the world.

Eventually, the local government had seen enough and they flat out banned surfing, more as a symbolic sense of duty than something that they would actually enforce. But still, surfing in Reunion suffered. Many people stopped surfing altogether or moved away to places that were safer to surf. Competitions on the island stopped as well.

Shark warning at l’Etang Salé les Bains.

However, in recent years, shark attacks have perplexingly ceased just as quickly as they started. It’s been nearly four years since the last attack. No one knows why they started, and no one knows why they stopped, at least for now. Everyone on Reunion has their thoughts on why, and everyone has their opinions of when it’s safe and not safe to surf, some ideas more based in fact than others.

The surfers have returned to the water in Reunion, but no one is ready to say the crisis is over. The island has implemented shark patrols at popular surf breaks. Boats, jet-skis, and (sometimes) drones circle lineups from 9am-3pm in search of sharks. And most surfers have some sort of anti-shark device either built into their boards or wearable as an anklet. No one really knows how well they work, but the short-term results at least look good.

I’ve been surfing just about every day on the island, and I can definitely say the thought of sharks is always in the back of my mind. I don’t surf alone and I’ve been told to avoid surfing too late into the evening. I know statistically speaking I’m much more likely to be run over by a bus crossing the street, but there is something about the lack of control in a shark attack that weighs heavy on your mind in the ocean.

My journalistic mind wants to do some digging on the shark issue while I am here, looking into shark measures, the data available, and the science behind why sharks suddenly started attacking humans. But, at the same time, I am treading lightly. I can imagine that the locals are sick of being known only for shark attacks. I am going to ease my way into that story, if at all. I need to get to know the island a bit better and everything else that it has to offer.

For now, I am enjoying island life, soaking up the sun, surfing every day, and struggling through learning French and its complex set of vowels. I’ve been mainly tied to the coast, but I’ve had my eyes set on the trails up on the tops of the mountains, which I plan to visit sooner than later. Life on Reunion is nice, to say the least.

View from my new pad ain’t half bad.
The west coast of Reunion has been cranking out epic sunsets every night.
When in Rome.

5 thoughts on “The other side of the world: Reunion Island

  1. Great tale!
    I never knew the French word for shark and looked up requin: ..”another name for requiem shark”.
    You are a courageous man!

    definition of requin by The Free Dictionary

    The Free Dictionary › requin
    requin. (ˈrɛkwɪn). n. another name for requiem shark. Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014 …


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