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International marine experts met this week to discuss the rising number of shark attacks in Australian waters and the technological innovations that may help to prevent them. By Susan Chenery.

Global shark experts meet in Sydney to discuss rising attacks

A great white shark.
Credit: THINKSTOCK

On July 31 Craig Ison was surfing close to the shore in small waves at Evans Head on the NSW north coast when he saw what every surfer dreads. A tailfin. 

“I had never seen a tailfin like that before,” the 51-year-old says. The three-metre shark was swinging around towards him. He and his friend tried to paddle back to shore. From his surfboard, eyes level with the water, he couldn’t see where the fin had gone. “I look up and the shark has launched itself about six foot up in the air, twisting its body around to come down on me. It was game on. Time just slowed right down and went frame by frame. It straightened its tailfin up and I am looking at a shark. All I could see was its teeth, like he was smiling at me. Mouth open, a torpedo with teeth coming at me. Next minute – bang, bang – I have got this shark on my left leg. My hand is just shredded, my fingers are stringing apart.”

Ison hit the shark. “Its whole body was just thrashing and moving,” he says.

He kept hitting as hard as he could. “I thought I was gone and I was going to punch it until I was dead.”

Ison has gone over and over the incident since it happened and now realises the shark’s bottom jaw was in his surfboard, and its top teeth were in his leg. Eventually it let go and sank into the ocean. 

Back on the beach Ison knew to use his leg rope as a tourniquet and to slow his breathing. He lost more than three litres of blood and still has nerve and tendon damage. It will take a long time to recover but he escaped with his life.

The attack on Ison came less than five months after Tadashi Nakahara, a 41-year-old Japanese surfer, was killed by a shark at nearby Shelly Beach. 

Two days before this attack Jabez Reitman had survived being pulled off his board and dragged under the water. 

According to the mayor of Ballina, David Wright, Nakahara’s death “really affected the town, the impact on people was horrific. The people who did the rescues are still shattered.”

Protected species

The great white shark is a protected species in Australia. Perfectly adapted for survival and hunting, it has been known to grow as long as 8 metres and can accelerate to speeds of 56 kilometres an hour. It reaches maturity at the age of 30 and can live to be 70. It’s only predator is the killer whale. Great whites have receptor pores under their noses that detect tiny electric fields surrounding all moving creatures. They can detect blood in water from up to five kilometres away. 

For Mayor Wright, who has 15 kilometres of beaches and four headlands ordinarily filled with surfers and swimmers to worry about, it is threatening the prosperity and reputation of the tourist havens in his charge. People are paranoid and frightened and Christmas holiday bookings have been cancelled at the usually full caravan park.

When Matthew Lee, 32, had both his legs mauled at Lighthouse Beach, Ballina, in July it was the day before the Skullcandy Oz Grom junior surfing event was due to start at nearby Lennox Head. Competitors – 272 in all, from 15 countries – had come for the biggest junior surfing title in the world. Thousands of people were in town. It was to be broadcast globally.

But there were great white sharks lurking in the breakers.

The organisers had jet-skis and safety precautions were in place, with helicopters in the air. But after five heats a surfer was knocked off his board by a shark at the nearby headland. “So we stopped [the competition] then for 24 hours,” says Wright.

On the Wednesday morning, as the trophies were being presented, the helicopter pilots reported that they had seen two four-metre great whites close to the beach. 

Scientists from the New South Wales Department of Primary Industries and CSIRO arrived to tag the sharks but it will take many months for the data collected to be assessed. The experts went up in a helicopter and saw seven great whites sitting in a gutter in the sea floor 10 metres from the surf club on the beach at Ballina. “People were watching them from the surf club, I am not joking,” says Wright.

Everybody has theories but nobody knows why an unprecedented number of great white sharks have come inshore, Vic Peddemors, a leading shark scientist, told Wright. “He said in his experience he has never seen such an aggregation of whales, sharks, bait fish and dolphins all in one area.” 

Wright adds, “I have been on the beach all my life and I have never seen anything like this. Something has changed in the last year or so and we don’t know whether it is permanent or not.”

This year’s attacks follow the death last September in Byron Bay of Paul Wilcox. The 50-year-old ocean swimmer was killed by a great white near the tourist mecca of Main Beach. 

There is some speculation that since Byron Bay closed its whaling station in 1962 there are more whales migrating with their calves. “A whale calf is a lot easier for a shark to get than a whale,” says Wright. “That is what they eat.”

In Western Australia some sharks return repeatedly to seal colonies – a favourite feeding spot – while others don’t.

‘In the dark’

“We don’t have enough data,” says Neil Kennedy, a north coast surveyor and ocean aficionado. “We are in the dark. There is not enough research done. We don’t know whether they come back, whether they are territorial.”

There has been speculation that great whites are coming inshore because the ocean is being fished out by humans. Experts dismiss this, however, pointing out that great whites travel vast distances in search of food. 

Warmer water has been blamed. But, says Wright, “all the information we have is the water is the same. It is still very warm but it was warmer last year. The bait fish area is a dark big blob. Dolphins flying through it. The whales this year have been very close and so have the sharks.” It seems the entire food chain is moving closer to the beaches.

With holiday bookings dwindling, Wright is open to any ideas on how to keep the sharks away. He fears locals may turn vigilante and start hunting the protected species. 

“I have had lots of technology sent in,” he says. “One guy is prepared to pay for a number of these $20,000 drones, which will fly in the wind and rain. It has a camera and will feed it back to a laptop. But you are still going to need people to run these. I have had offers of hot-air balloons, gyros, blimps, you name it. There are technologies using electrical impulses. There is one family who have bought these surf-safe units you put in your board. They run a wire up the board and you put in a tag so part of the board becomes electric. There can be ones for your wrist and ankle, a shark shield that is designed for scuba divers.”

It is debatable, however, whether a great white in attack mode will be deterred by these measures. Wright does not support culling – “they say a great white has to be 10 years old before it can give birth, so it is very slow to increase population” – and hopes the problem will be solved by technology.

Michael O’Grady, surfer and president of the Byron Bay Chamber of Commerce, believes that the NSW government’s $250,000 investment in tagging is “a complete waste of money. A shark can piss off to Hawaii and you never see it again. We want drones and we want gyrocopters. The council are very slow to act. It needs a big shake-up. It is a really pointless argument to spend any money that relates to underwater activities. The only guarantee and protection we can give is aerial surveillance. And drones work. The last thing we need is another attack.”

The NSW premier, Mike Baird, invited experts from around the world to a summit in Sydney this week.

“If they don’t come up with a solution they will put up nets,” says Wright. “The Gold Coast has nets and there hasn’t been an attack there for 30 or 40 years.” But nets also catch dolphins, turtles, and other large non-threatening fish. And the majority of attacks have been on people further out to sea, not close to the beach. 

“There are a number of options,” says Kennedy, “and I think our options need to be integrated. You need to have a gamut of solutions put in place at different intensity at different levels and they need to vary dependent on what ocean user you are trying to look after – the surfer, the swimmer, various groups.”

Experts advise that swimming at dawn or dusk is the most dangerous time, when the water is cloudy and poor light conditions make it harder to see a shark. But Craig Ison says he has seen sharks at all times of the day.

In the meantime, the iconic Australian summer spent at the beach is undergoing a dramatic rethink. The best way to avoid being attacked by a shark is not to go in the water. And that’s an unpalatable reality for those who flock to coastal towns, drawn by the sea.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 3, 2015 as "Shark minds". Subscribe here.

Susan Chenery
is a journalist who has lived and worked in Sydney, London, New York and Italy.

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