A dive into the food chain
Without a lot of fanfare the modern age has seen an historically unprecedented gulf emerge between humanity and the natural world.
Within a generation or two, Western society has largely disconnected from the imposition of nature on our lives: People escape the summer heat with air conditioning, the tyranny of distance with automobiles, and the tenuousness of seasonal food supply with industrial agricultural. There is no necessity for the modern human to involuntarily interact with the wild planet in any meaningful sense. This disconnect has led not just to a poverty of the human spirit, it has begun to reverse the ability of humans to assess and cope with the ordinary mortal threat posed by a natural world which is ambivalent to our survival.
For many people, surfing is an opportunity to acquaint themselves with nature in a most undiluted fashion. We revel in this opportunity to brush against the elements in their rawest form and our lives are enriched for the experience. Yet it is now obvious that many surfers have still not come to terms with the true extent of the consequences which may unfold when we take that happy plunge into the surf.
Following years of heavy fishing pressure, the numbers of white sharks went into decline and interactions with humans were rare beyond the coastline adjacent to the Great Australian Bight - surfers in and adjacent to the Bight never lost their appreciation of the threat posed by white sharks. For surfers in the other surf zones, the probability of death by white shark receded with shark numbers.
Like the whales before them, protection of the white shark appears to have reversed the decline in shark numbers. Whether or not this apparent recovery in shark numbers can be scientifically attributed to the recent increase in attacks is yet to be established. In the meantime, surfers around Australia are now becoming accustomed to a new reality, one in which they discover that their section of coastline may not be the safe haven from white sharks which they’d previously assumed it to be. The recent shark attacks on the North Coast of NSW have followed on from a pattern of attacks established previously in South West WA.
My own surfing experience straddled the reemergence of white sharks as a genuine presence in WA's South West. Within the span of a few short years, my friends and I went from surfing and diving without any real regard for shark attack to weighing up the threat every time we entered the water. Initially, this registered as a siege mentality, the idea that we could just steel ourselves through this period of enhanced danger until normalcy returned and the spiked increase in shark threat was revealed as a short term aberration, or that government would somehow intervene.
In retrospect, it was naive to imagine the attacks would, not just increase in frequency, but the range of locations would also increase. This deluded thinking was a blessing when I began regularly visiting the North Coast of NSW and was again able to enjoy being able to enter the water without the idea of sharks weighing on my mind.
It took a few years before I saw my first East Coast white and then a few more before I saw another. It’s always a thrill to see these supreme creatures when there is no direct threat and I felt lucky to be amongst the relatively small number of people who had seen one. Within a surprisingly short period the number of people who have seen a white in the flesh began to grow rapidly. Whilst the advent of social media can account for greater communication about sightings, it was obvious that the sheer numbers of sharks must be increasing. Soon enough I was personally spotting more white sharks in a year than I had in the preceding decades combined. The attacks started to occur around the Ballina/Byron region and it all started to feel very reminiscent of the new shark reality which dawned in the South West a few years into the millennium.
The region I surf - between Port Macquarie and Coffs Harbour - had still avoided a fatal attack. Whilst interactions between surfers and whites happened with semi-regularity in the area, I felt there was still a feeling of safety amongst surfers in the area. That same feeling which had no doubt existed in Ballina prior to the first fatal attack. Which brings me to this year, when it seemed the numbers of sharks I saw increased yet again. This was starting to concern me as I surf alone the majority of the time. Whilst I don’t believe that surfing amongst a crowd offers any protection, the fact that others may be present to lend assistance in the event of an attack is undeniable. When I’d be surfing solo and another surfer would join me I’d sometimes lightheartedly mention that I was happy to share the lineup for this reason. This seemed to promote looks of bemusement as though I was talking about a situation which was so remote as to be virtually impossible.
A few weeks ago I went through this exact situation at a fortuitous little sandbank which had formed in an unlikely and hard-to-access location. I’d spied the bank forming on a fishing expedition weeks previously and paid regular visits to track its progress. I’d always take my rod as the spot usually held fish. It also held sharks which I saw every time I visited. The last trip without a surfboard found a lovely new surf break. Sand had been pushed into a long and shallow bar which was starting to reveal itself on the change of swell direction. A large school of salmon was easily visible in the clear shallow water at the head of the bank. So was the white shark which was lazily corralling the school into a tight ball before making strikes through its middle.
Over the next week, I surfed the bank several times on my own or with just a couple of others, then the weekend brought a dozen local surfers out to enjoy the waves. Nice people who live in a small surf community. Before the crowd had grown during the day I’d been out the back on my own waiting for a wave when I’d seen a shower of fish spray a few metres away and took an educated guess as to what had alarmed them. One of the locals paddled back out and I remarked what I’d seen and we discussed the shark situation at this remote spot. I mentioned that if shit ever got real there was a tourniquet in my backpack on the rocks. He found this a bit alarmist. I felt that perhaps his attitude would be different if he knew people who’d been killed by sharks, knew people who’d been mauled, and knew people who’d pulled victims from the water.
Finishing my surf, I started to walk back along the track to my car. With a clear view of the surrounding ocean I remarked to my friend that it’d be cool to spot a white. Straight away she saw a shark cruising along the edge of the sandbar about half a kilometre from the break and headed in that direction. The shark was eight or nine feet long and at this point only ambling along. Some of the surfers had brought their boat out to the lineup instead of walking and the shark seemed to sense it from some distance and swam towards it. We watched the shark but we were still unconcerned as the presence of sharks is not unusual, until that is the shark lost interest in the boat and made a beeline for the surfers who were roughly 150 metres away.
You could tell the shark was honing in on the surfers as soon as it left the boat. No hesitation or ambivalence, it moved directly. Now we got concerned. Despite being a few hundred metres from the break we started shouting to the surfers. It took a few moments for them to realise we were shouting to them, and by this time the shark had focused on a couple of surfers on the inside - a man and a young girl on a soft top board. Luckily the young girl paddled for a wave and took herself towards shore. The man left behind still had no idea that a large shark was positioning itself to approach him from behind in a couple of feet of clear water.
It was only when the white was within a few metres did the man hear our voices and turned to see what we were yelling about. Just as he turned towards us and the shark, the fish veered around him and swam away. Whether the shark had any intention of attacking or was just curious is impossible to say. No offence to the man involved, but I’m just glad it wasn’t the young girl the shark had focused on as her smaller, less intimidating size may have led to a different outcome.
The next few days I started looking into the existing knowledge of white sharks. Amongst sources I checked was the Dorsalwatch website where I found that tagged white sharks were a regular visitor to the shark tag receiving buoy in the bay at South West Rocks. So regular were they that the receiver had pinged virtually every single day for the last few months - sometimes many times per day. Surely that couldn’t all be different sharks?
I got in contact with Dr Paul Butcher who is the lead scientist on the shark tagging program for NSW Fisheries. Dr Butcher turned out to be a friendly bloke who was keen to answer questions from an interested surfer. He told me that, yes, each ping on the receiver was very likely to be a separate individual as the whites didn’t establish territory in the area. They transited south to north, and they were now returning south in a similar pattern to the whale migration. The sharks tend to head north at the same time as the whales but can lag on their return. Thus, when many whales are already passed on their journey back to the Southern Ocean, the white sharks which were tagged in the Ballina region eight weeks ago are now commencing the return to Victorian and Tasmanian waters and are registering on the South West Rocks, Crescent Head, and Port Macquarie receivers.
Apparently the Forster region had traditionally been the recognised white shark hotspot, but in the last 18 months it was the area around South West Rocks which was now showing large numbers of shark visitations.
I described the situation we’d witnessed and how impressed I’d been with the shark’s ability to sense an object at such a great distance despite the background noise and vibration of rolling surf. I knew that sharks had incredible sense of smell and I’d assumed this was primarily responsible for their ability to locate prey at large distance, with their lateral line capable of detecting movement at the mid range and that the electroreceptors within the shark’s nose only effective at short range.
Dr Butcher explained that it was indeed the electroreceptors within the Ampullae of Lorenzini which allowed sharks to register objects at distance even when they are motionless and scentless. He mentioned the habits of white sharks as he’d observed through drones. Their casual swimming speed of three to four km/h and their inquisitiveness which leads them to investigate any objects they detected from jellyfish to plastic bags, and that their typical modus operandi is to approach within a few metres for a visual inspection then decide whether the object is interesting or not, in which case it will veer away.
Whether the shark we saw approach the surfer was disinterested or daunted is beyond knowing. I’m just grateful that he avoided injury and that I wasn’t witness to such a horrible situation. The only certainty is that not all surfers will be lucky enough to avoid a deadly interaction with these animals as the years roll on. This is not a reason to live in fear. Death is not imminent whenever you enter the ocean. But I think that the pattern of attacks will continue its expansion into regions of Australia where surfers have previously felt they were unlikely to experience becoming part of the food chain. Time of day appears to be irrelevant. Water depth and clarity are not indicative of safety beyond the opportunity surfers may have to spot the fish with enough time to retreat. The likelihood of an attack is predicated more by the sense of safety and confidence experienced by the shark than it is by any feelings of safety the victim may possess.
A new era is upon us where nature is up close and personal in the form of very large fish which may decide to eat you. Surfers are comfortable dealing with the threat posed by large waves and shallow reefs. We have accepted these dangers with magnanimity. Now is time for us to accept the ongoing presence of white sharks and learn to accept them with grace. Petitioning the government to intervene may even lead to an unwelcome intrusion of authority into our freedom. Governments already ban surfing during some large swells and storms and the tendency of authorities to apply blunt restrictions should not be forgotten. The last thing we need is to have surfers receiving fines if they continue to surf in the event of a shark sighting .
Learn some basic first aid in case you ever find yourself with the opportunity to save a life, carry a tourniquet with your surfing kit, and get out in the ocean with an appreciation that it’s the last place on Earth to truly experience life in all it’s irreducible beauty and violence.
// CARCHARODON DUNDEE
Thanks to Dr Paul Butcher.