A shift in the hunting grounds
In 1975, Steven Spielberg filmed Jaws, a story about a man-eating great white attacking swimmers at a US holiday town. The film version of Jaws was adapted from Peter Benchley's novel of the same name. It was shot on the US East Coast, however all the shark footage was shot in Australia - specifically South Australia.
South Australia seemed a logical choice. In the twelve months preceding the shoot three people were killed by white sharks on the Eyre Peninsula, further entrenching South Australia's image as the shark capital of Australia. An unscripted moment occurred when a great white attacked an empty shark cage while the cameras were running. The ferocity of the attack convinced the producers of Jaws to alter the script, which up to that point had followed Benchley's plot. The rewrite had Quint escaping the attack, opening the possibility to a sequel, which was also filmed in South Australia.
In the years following Quint's cinematic revenge, little changed to dent South Australia's now universal reputation as the shark capital with eighteen more attacks before the turn of the century, eight of them fatal. When, in 1986 Nat Young and Brad Farmer passed through South Australia to write the 'Surfing Guide to Australia', readers were in no doubt as to the danger of surfing in South Oz waters. Sharks are mentioned numerous times in the Yorke and Eyre Peninsula chapters, which are separated by the only non-surf photo in the book. It's a photo of a great white of course, accompanied by the caption: "South Australia is infamous for the size and quality of their sharks."
In the same book but 2,000kms distant, the authors report that most surfers prefer to paddle across the Richmond River at Ballina to reach South Wall.
If you know any South Australian surfers, particularly those who came of age through those decades, you may recognise a peculiar response to the shark threat. Speaking generally, though I can't recall any South Oz surfers acting differently, they were stoically resigned to their fate. They all chose to surf knowing their home waters were dangerous. The environment didn't change around them. The statistics didn't shift.
That acceptance played out, not just in disposition, but also in the public response - or lack of a public response. Because, despite being the shark capital of Australia, there's never been a call for a shark cull in South Australia.
As the new century ticked over and Sydney partied through the 2000 Summer Olympics, two fatalities occurred in South Australia, both of them on surfers. The first was Cameron Bayes who was honeymooning at Cactus and was taken by a great white on the 24th September - twenty years ago today. The very next day, 17-year-old Jevan Wright was also taken by a great white while surfing at Blackfellas.
In summarising his findings into Wright's death, the coroner stated that all South Australian surfers must assume the risk of shark attack, concluding: "I very much doubt that any further warning or other preventative measure will reduce the likelihood that such an event will happen again."
Yet the coroner was wrong. It didn't happen again. Jevan Wright was the last surfer to be killed by a shark in South Australia. To be sure, there have been other deaths. Five to be exact, all but one were divers. It may be tempting fate to write this, but South Australia has become a safe place to surf. It's a remarkable thing to consider, especially as nothing outwardly changed in what was once the shark capital of the world.
Just two months after Jevan Wright was taken, a swimmer was killed at Cottesloe, Western Australia, the first in a cluster of deaths that haunted surfers, swimmers, and divers in the state's south-west. There's since been twelve more fatalities on the stretch of coast between Perth and Esperance, more than double that of South Australia, and, unnervingly, seven of them were surfers.
During this period, surfers and divers rightfully engaged in the public debate and the idea arose that the increased attacks were linked to changes in the eco-system. Namely, the resurgence of whites following legislated protection. That theory, and it may be true, doesn't explain the decrease in incidents on the other side of the Bight. If there were more whites in Australian waters, and if whites were the cause of all South Australian fatalities, then why did fatalities drop in the festival state?
It was a question shark researchers were unable to answer as the issue rose to further prominence following a string of attacks on the opposite side of the country.
It's impossible to say when exactly northern NSW became the latest region to challenge for the shark capital of Australia. In early 2008, Peter Edmonds was killed at Lighthouse Beach, Ballina, and it appeared to be a random attack. After all, it'd been fifteen years since the last fatality, and that was a diver way out at Julien Rocks. Yet hindsight reveals Edmonds death preceded a string of sightings and encounters that seemingly reached a climax in the middle of the decade with the death of two people, Paul Wilcox and Tadashi Nakahara, within the space of six months.
Sightings and encounters remained steady over the following years, yet they again reached a climax with three deaths in the region this year: Mani Hart-Deville, Rob Pedretti, and Nick Slater. Northern NSW is now in the grip of the same fear that once held South Australia. No-one paddles across the Richmond River to access South Wall. Older surfers question how wise it is to introduce kids to the water. The difference is that, unlike South Australians who grew up with their fear, this has been foisted on surfers of northern NSW. It wasn't like this ten years ago.
Again, shark researchers can't explain why they've appeared and are attacking people where they once didn't. Even the pattern of attacks - time of day, the weather, the water turbidity - follows no discernible pattern.
The only thing that's certain is that if Hollywood were to remake Jaws, South Australia is no longer the obvious location for water footage.