As summer comes to a close in Australia, we can reflect back at what could be termed the summer of the shark.
Which is as much about the increased presence of sharks in our waters, as it is about the wave of media sensationalism that fuels and drives it.
In 2015, the season came much much earlier. The 19th of July to be precise. Which is very unusual, what’s more unusual is that it didn’t actually start in Australia.
It started in South Africa, at the final of the J-Bay Pro when Australian Mick Fanning had a very close encounter with one of the toothy locals. We all watched in horror, as our worst nightmare was streamed live across the globe. The frantic splashing and sudden disappearance of Mick as he was pulled from his board. The world collectively held its breath, as our view was obscured by a wave for eight agonising seconds, to eventually exhale in relief as Fanning swam away unharmed.
Fanning was lucky. Very lucky. Lucky the shark was merely inquisitive (at that moment). Lucky it got caught in his leash and lucky it panicked without chewing its way to freedom.
Not the first encounter at J-Bay, just ask Taj and it certainly wont be the last.
I myself have never surfed J-Bay.
Which, given I grew up surfing down the coast in Cape Towns cold, shark laden waters seems inconceivable. Inconceivable, to have not at least paddled out once to surf the jewel in Africa’s surf crown.
Its not like there have not been opportunities over the years but it has always been too small/cross shore/better options elsewhere or any other excuse available…
The truth is a little bit murkier.
It was 1997 and I was finishing a job in nearby Port Elizabeth. Port Elizabeth is a mere hour north from the hallowed reef of Jeffries bay. A break, that has rightly held an elevated sense of reverence bordering on the mystical amongst local and international surfers. A religion and legend, one that I had personally worshipped in each winter’s edition of the south African surf bible that is Zig Zag magazine. The plan was to finish the work and hit J-Bay for a few waves on the way back to Cape Town.
A day or so before we finished up, I was queuing at a supermarket kiosk and was about 5 people away from the front. When out of the blue, a “bergie” (homeless person) walks up to me, looks me straight in the eye and says “don’t go to J-bay, the sharks will get you”. He then, without a word walked off and never looked back. WTF! I was so shocked that I just stood there open mouthed while he melted into the retail masses.
Needless to say, I never surfed J-Bay that time or any other.
Back to Mick and it looked like the sharks and the terror of them followed him home from J-bay and never left. If you had arrived in the early summer and went by the news, you would think you had just landed at a scene in Amity island.
It seemed almost daily that sharks would get a mention somewhere. Either those that get paid to represent the country or those that swim off the coastline. Some of the “factual’ articles flying around about beach safety based on number of times the siren go off were tenuous at best.
The reality is that there has only been one area on the entire eastern coast line where this has bordered on being truthful and that’s Northern NSW, Ballina/Byron Shire.
Yet the fear permeated much further, it became a regular conversation point between watermen and woman everywhere. Fueled by a persistent media barrage, this wave of angst had these salt soaked, barnacled folk, those that spend a bit of every day of their sandy tanned lives in the water, suddenly gazing tearily into the sea with trepidation. Trade in Sharkshields was so brisk, that the supplier ran out of stock for months and a whole new industry stepped into the spotlight offering everything from patterned wetsuits to bubble net barriers.
Mayor Vaughn: “Martin, it’s all psychological. You yell, “Barracuda,” everybody says, “huh, what?” You yell “Shark,” we’ve got a panic on our hands on the Fourth of July.”
There is plenty of opinion on the sudden increase in shark encounters. The extended warm water, increase in salmon population, inshore baitfish, overfishing of the offshore feeding grounds and migratory whales have all entered the equation. There is even a supposed population explosion – which would be incredible for a species with notoriously low resilience to rebound in a single generation with a reduced food source.
In the end, its all conjecture, we simply don’t know and it is this inability to define something by boundaries and rules that drives our fear. If we don’t know why – then we don’t know when. Add in the near daily of images and footage of sharks swimming in the sea (what a surprise!) and the ‘when’ increases along with the volume of the Jaws theme tune blaring inside our heads.
Its also the only real reason I still haven’t surfed J-bay.
Why was I randomly singled out? Was it the output of a drug addled mind or that of a savant? Were there any conditions attached? that trip? that year? for the next 10 years? on a yellow DHD board on a full moon Monday or on live WSL web cast? I don’t know and it bothers the hell out of me.
In hindsight, its a ridiculous, almost superstitious mindset but that’s what doubt creates. A world, where the rare suddenly becomes the everyday and that everyday, comes out of the dark deep with teeth.
Chief Brody: “I used to hate the water.”
Hooper: “I can’t imagine why.”
Dealing with this nagging doubt is a bit like shining the flashlight under the bed. Just how bad was the Summer of the Shark?
That’s 21 involving people in the water surfing, body boarding or swimming /snorkeling with the other 4 related to water craft.
11 of these incidents actually occurred within the summer months of 2015 & 2016. Which is actually less than the 2015 winter, but got way less media coverage, I guess the NRL/AFL/Union season provides far more click bait then. After all, who cares about sharks when you can have drunk players dry humping dogs.
Looking at the last summer in isolation (Dec-Feb) and it gest even better with only 3 attacks and one injury. So at face value, given the amount of people in the water at that time, its an extremely low number and very reassuring – you have more chance of being injured by lightning (except no one stares at a blue sky afraid of lightning).
Its also seems hugely contradictory to the impression of huge numbers of sharks, menacingly patrolling our beaches looking for an easy meal. So what happened to all those sharks then?
At a guess, they are probably still around, doing what they have always done, before we had the technology and inclination to take interest and track their activities. Without which, we would largely remain oblivious and for some, happily so.
To get a better idea we can turn to technology, to an excellent phone app called Dorsal Alerts. With its 150K users, this free alerting system aims to forewarn its user base of shark presence, logged through both community and official observations. The idea being, to then proactively avoid contact with the animal in question. Its a brilliant concept and with its active user base and integrations, probably the best information source for shark interactions in Australia today.
Thanks to the guys at Dorsal Alerts, we managed to get a peek at their summer data and it makes for interesting reading.
This summer reported a staggering 668 sightings/events – thats more than 7 per day across the Australian coastline. Of these 18 were too close to comfort, resulting in a near contact or contact. The majority however, were sighted and managed without human incident. The sharkiest location in Australia? Far and away Perth with 153 observations.
So what does that actually tell us? does it validate the media hype or present, for the first time ever an aggregated and connected view across Australia of the summer norm?
Probably a bit of both. There have always been more sharks in the water at summer time and often in quite close proximity to us. Its only now that people are actually looking for and seeing them. It is also still extremely rare that you will be attacked by one.
Maybe its time we come to terms with that. Maybe its also time for me to catch that wave at J-Bay.
Has spent over 30 years of his middle aged life trying to spend more time in the ocean. Likes to surf, bodysurf, free dive and pretend he enjoys chasing big waves.