Living With Sharks
"...a wave came and lifted us both up and I could see the tail of the shark sticking two feet out of the water. I could also see Jevan's board was inside of the shark and the board looked quite small." - From the coroners report into the death of Jevan Wright.
The first time I ever went to Cactus I travelled solo. While there I fell in with a trio of lads from Victoria, one of whom had quite the mouth on him. One evening he stayed out in the surf till long after dark and returned to camp bragging about the empty waves. Ronnie Gates, the camp owner, was at our fire and I heard him mutter under his breath, "fucken idiot."
You won't win the admiration of locals by surfing early or late out on the Eyre Peninsula. Unlike city surfers, who encounter sharks so rarely that they are little more than an abstract threat, EP locals live with the reality and understand the danger. In fact, the week after I left Cactus a local surfer, Andy McBain, was bitten on the hand by a bronze whaler. To tempt fate in such a way as our big-mouthed Victorian friend was the ultimate folly; surfing late was stupid, but bragging about it was disrespectful.
It takes a certain mindset to enter the surf each day and know you've got company. I've done it during trips down to South Australia, and to be honest I've got a kick from the heart-in-mouth adrenalin shot. I've enjoyed it because it is a temporary departure from my regular surfing experience, however, I'm sure my attitude would be different if I dealt with it every single surf.
The fear of sharks touches on our most primal human instincts. We can rationalise it all we want yet it never fully removes the fear. And more than most surfers, South Australian's have a right to fear sharks. In the last 40 years there have been 37 attacks in South Australian waters, 16 of them fatal. In a telling piece of trivia, the makers of Hollywood horror flick, Jaws, filmed all their underwater footage in the waters off Port Lincoln.
Shane Smith is a surfer/photographer from Port Lincoln, "Sharks are in the back of everyones mind around here. I don't think there would be a local who doesn't know at least one of the many [victims] that have tragically been taken over the past 20 years or so."
Smith has done his own rationalising of the shark threat, "It's probably more of a risk actually driving on the highway up the coast than being in the water surfing." Yet when I asked Smith about photographing surfing from the water he said he doesn't do it much, the reason being "quite obvious."
Understanding the risk is even more pertinent to those that have survived shark attacks, and it's worth noting that most survivors inevitably return to the water. In South Australia the late Phil Horley of Penong, better known as Sharkbait or just Sharky, was attacked in 1977 while surfing Outside Castles. He was also 'bumped' a few more times in later years yet kept surfing. Andy McBain was back in the water not long after the stitches were removed from his hand. Howard Rodd, who witnessed the latest attack on Peter Clarkson near Coffin Bay was himself involved in a tragic incident in 2000. Following that he 'vowed never to go to sea again.' But he did and on Thursday he watched his mate get killed.
It says much about the human spirit that despite understanding the risk, or in the case of attack survivors, experiencing it firsthand, we typically return to the water. I asked Smith about this and his answer gives a clue to how South Australian surfers overcome their fear, "It's funny, the first surf after an attack is always filled with trepidation but after a few waves things start to slip to the back of your mind."
On the surface it may seem foolhardy and cavalier to gradually disregard a threat in this way just to get a few waves. Yet it's an essential aspect of our psyche that life returns to normal after a tragedy, and if normal means going back in the ocean then so be it. The only thing foolhardy would be to brag about it.