Eyes wide open
If there’s one positive aspect to the recent surge in shark activity in southwest WA and northern NSW, it’s the many myths that have been busted.
For decades, ocean users operated in a knowledge vacuum, our only protection a loose assembly of theories that hinted at outcomes such as the likeliest time for attack, or attempted to explain shark behaviour so we could work around it.
Yet as shark interactions increased in number and spread in scope, researchers were able to cross-check new data against old lore, and what they found wiped the slate clean. The time of day, the turbidity of the water, or the phase of the lunar cycle accounted for nought. Same with most other myths. In fact there were no obvious patterns in the data, no environmental links to account for interactions.
The only commonality researchers have been able to find is in one aspect of shark behaviour. To wit, most attacks are by ambush with sharks approaching their victim from behind and catching it unawares.
The environment may change, as does the time of day, even the time of year, but the way a shark approaches its prey is predictable. A small percentage of attacks are ‘bump and bite’, where a shark assesses the size of prey by first bumping into it, but statistics tell us that most attacks are by ambush.
In terms of safety, it ain’t much, but it's a starting point.
In 2013, Shanan Worrall was diving for abalone 160 kms east of Esperance, on the remote western edge of the Great Australian Bight. By early October he’d been at sea for two months, hadn’t seen anyone besides the crew of the boat he was working on, when another vessel motored into the bay they were working. Aboard was renowned spearfisher and abalone diver Greg Pickering, who nine years earlier had survived a shark attack at Cervantes, north of Perth.
On a placid, blue sky morning, the peace was broken when Pickering, working at a depth of fifteen metres, was attacked by a great white shark. Pickering later told the media he didn’t see the shark. "I heard the sound, the thrashing sound, of teeth on bone...I thought 'that is probably a shark', but I didn't see it - I heard the attack."
Pickering ended up head-first inside the shark’s mouth, its jaws latching onto his torso and face and causing severe lacerations. When the shark inexplicably released him, Pickering had the presence of mind not to swim directly to the surface, instead he rose slowly to avoid getting the bends, however his fight for life would continue for many more hours yet.
Pickering’s deckhand frantically signalled to Shanan Worrall who responded, and for the next three-and-a-half hours rendered first aid to Pickering, stemming the bleeding and keeping the badly injured diver alive. At first they worked on Pickering as he lay on the deck of his boat, the boards awash with blood, they then managed to get him ashore at an isolated beach near Poison Creek, before commandeering a four wheel drive out of the bush, intercepting an ambulance halfway back to Esperance. All the while they held Pickering together, not to mention the state of their own emotional wellbeing.
The Global Shark Attack File, a comprehensive database of all shark interactions, records Pickering’s attack thus:
Pickering’s rescue was a marathon effort. The crew of another diving vessel, who were close by and witnessed the attack, came to the aid of the diver and his crew and controlled blood loss. They towed the man and his boat to shore where an ambulance from Condingup with four-wheel-drive capabilities negotiated a rugged track to reach him. The ambulance transported him to a hospital in Esperance. Then the Royal Flying Doctor Service flew him 700 km from the hospital in Esperance to Perth, he underwent surgery in the Royal Perth Hospital.
Greg Pickering survived the attack, yet he wasn’t the only person affected by the events of that day. When he tried to return to the water, Worrall experienced adverse physical reactions. “I’d throw up and cry uncontrollably,” explains Shanan, “even in clear, knee-deep water.” This went on for weeks. He knuckled down, tried to push it aside. “I tried to get Aussie with it,” says Worrall describing the stoicism of our national character, but it felt like the ocean was rejecting him. Something needed to change.
Worrall tossed in his career as an ab diver, not a decision he took lightly, and moved to Margaret River. Yet despite trying to make a fresh start, he still found himself on a downwards trajectory. “I recall the day I tried to re-enter the water,” says Worrall. “I’ve put on all my dive gear and I was going to get some crayfish. It doesn’t sound like much but it was a significant moment for me. I had to build up to it...but then the helicopters started coming across the bay. Something wasn’t right.”
“One of my great friends, Chris Boyd, was hit up at Ellensbrook Ridge.”
Chris Boyd was killed by what was strongly suspected to be a great white shark while surfing at Umbies. In hindsight, Boyd’s death marked an unofficial beginning of the south-west shark cluster; many more interactions, some deadly, occurred in Western Australia’s south-west over the following years. Worrall, however, was fighting his own personal battle.
Sometime after Boyd’s death, Worrall isn’t exactly sure when, he was in the back shed siliconing fake eyes onto the back of his wetsuits - something he’d done ever since he began diving commercially - when his wife came out and asked: “Does the average punter know about this?”
What Worrall’s wife was referring to was the practice of drawing large eyes onto the back of wetsuit, hoods, or even dive tanks, for protection from sharks. It’s something the abalone diving and spearfishing communities have done for a long time, and it’s what Worrall was doing when he and his wife realised the broader implications.
The fake eyes create a line of sight towards any shark approaching from behind. In the course of our conversation, I hear Worrall repeat the phrase ‘line of sight’ many times. In context, the term doesn’t strictly refer to sighting a shark, but how a shark behaves after it’s been sighted. “Anyone that’s spent time with sharks on a professional level,” explains Worrall, “knows that line of sight changes their behaviour.”
“Once you’ve made eye contact and made your presence known, their behaviour changes.”
The same rationale has been used by farmers in Botswana, who paint eyes on the buttocks of their livestock to stop lions - who, like sharks, are ambush predators - from killing them. This year, the farmers were at the centre a study by the University of New South Wales.
"Lions are ambush predators that rely on stalking, and therefore the element of surprise, so being seen by their prey can lead to them abandoning the hunt," said Neil Jordan from UNSW, one of the studies researchers.
In nature, ‘eye’ designs are found on some butterflies, fish, and birds to protect them from larger predators, however no mammal naturally produces them. The UNSW researchers found that cattle painted with artificial eyespots were significantly more likely to survive than unpainted or cattle within the same herd. In fact, no painted ‘eye-cows’ were killed by ambush predators during the four-year study.
Though nature provides many examples of ‘eye’ designs used to protect animals from ambush, the theory is little known outside the dive community. With statistics piling up, Worrall sensed an obligation to tell others what he knows. So he created Shark Eyes, large adhesive eyes to stick on the bottom of surfboards that create ‘line of sight’ to anything swimming below.
Shark Eyes gave him both protection when he was in the water, and also a newfound purpose. He began to enter the water again, and was on the road to healing, though he hadn’t quite considered how rocky the road would be.
“I come from a place that shuns surf photographers,“says Worrall. “I’ve spent my life running from the media, but now I have to hold up a sticker, look people in the eye, and say this will help mitigate risk.”
“It’s been one of the hardest challenges of my life.”
It’s not just the media spotlight that torments Worrall, but controlling that media message so people have realistic expectations. “No product will offer 100% safety from sharks,” says Worrall. “But then seat belts don’t offer 100% safety in car crashes yet we don’t question their use.”
I play Devil’s Advocate with Worrall, asking about Shark Eyes' efficacy on overcast days, low sunlight, or in dirty water. I’m not the first skeptic, far from it, Worrall’s heard it all before, but his time spent around great whites informs his understanding of their behaviour.
“Even in dirty water, sharks will still visually assess before they go into attack mode. A shark won’t blindly bump into something with its teeth. It’s generally cautious. It’ll make a risk assessment, and most likely circle the prey a few times without the victim knowing it.”
Only days after Worrall and I first spoke, Matt Wilkinson was approached from behind by a shark who inspected Wilko, made a quick assessment, then rejected him as prey. “It was a classic encounter,” says Worrall. And what’s more, Wilko had no idea the shark was there and was sizing him up. It was only later when he saw drone footage that Wilko became aware of his brush with fate.
To date, most shark attack mitigation devices have been either magnetic or electronic, each type devised to irritate the Ampullae of Lorenzini, a shark’s electroreceptor organ. In 2017, the WA state government offered a $200 rebate for any device that’s been ‘scientifically proven’ to deter shark attack, which left the rebate open to just one product, the $500 Freedom SURF by Ocean Guardian. Six months after the program was introduced, only ten surfers from the Margaret River area had taken up the offer. The lax response was put down to a mix of economics, cumbersome technology, and an enduring myth that the electronic charge emitted by the Freedom SURF attracted sharks.
Despite Shark Eyes being far cheaper than the rebate itself, they didn’t qualify as, at that point, they hadn’t been scientifically tested. “Traditional testing will not work with Shark Eyes,” explains Worrall without apology.
By ‘traditional’ testing Worrall is referring to experiments using baited boards to attract sharks, “which”, says Worrall, “alter the natural environment. So you’ve already changed the shark’s behaviour.”
“To be able to capture an interaction in a truly natural environment is such a hard thing to do.”
Yet despite being unable to test Shark Eyes by orthodox means, interest in the product keeps building. Already, fishery departments from two state governments - Western Australia and South Australia - plus the Western Australia Police Department, have purchased sets of Shark Eyes.
John Totterdell works with Western Australia’s Cetacean Research Centre and he’s also one of Shanan’s customers - that is, he’s purchased a set of Shark Eyes.
I ask Totterdell about the lack of scientific testing and he replies that while Shark Eyes haven’t been specifically tested, it’s been found, notably by famed shark researcher John McCosker, that when mannequins were used in various experiments, sharks almost always approached from behind or from underneath.
Like Worrall himself, Totterdell used to mock up fake eyes on his equipment when diving, but these days he sticks Shark Eyes on his dive tanks for the underwater equivalent of having eyes on the back of his head. I got the sense that scientific testing - or the lack of - is a non-issue for Totterdell. Experience carries more weight.
Worrall, however, is aware of the awkward position he’s in. He knows the theory of Shark Eyes is sound, others in the diving fraternity also know it’s a viable theory, yet to take the product further he has to play the media game, convince the public that it works, and by and large that means having Shark Eyes scientifically tested. “I’ve got no interest in using any other marketing ploy to sell the product,” says Worrall bluntly.
Worrall’s recently had approaches from a number of state government agencies, but the cogs of bureaucracy turn slowly, applying for funding or accessing grants can take years, and it left him wondering whether to expedite the process by paying for the tests himself. During our last call, Worrall tells me the decision is made, he’s begun testing. However, that opens up yet another conundrum. “Independence is definitely an issue,” admits Worrall.
In recent years a number of shark deterrent products have been promoted using dubious claims, and there’s a risk Shark Eyes, despite the diving pedigree, could be perceived as being in the same class without undergoing third-party testing. It’s something Worrall is acutely aware of.
“I’m not looking to sell a false sense of security,” says Worrall who’s spent enough time around sharks to comment on them with a reserved authority, “I’d never say Shark Eyes are a hundred percent effective because there are some sharks, like humans, that just have a different personality; they don’t act nice.”
“But nature doesn’t lie, and the surrounding anecdotal evidence is strong, so I think it’ll be hard to say they don’t have some merit.”
The anecdotal evidence includes using the eyes to protect himself while diving in sharky waters - which is a hell of a testimonial - but these days Shanan Worrall is increasingly driven by a duty to protect others.
“The obligation to pass on this knowledge is a must,” says Worrall.