Monday 28 July 2014

'Provoked' shark attacks?! Man, someone's sick of living

Does this shark look like it's grinning to you?
I am doing some work for my friend Andi at the moment, you may remember her from this post some weeks ago, "'I've decided to become a woman' - interview with my transgender friend."
It is to do with the hazards involved with life on the coast, mostly to do with swimming and rip currents.

In my research I did some comparison work and the most iconic danger to do with the ocean is of course shark attack.
So I went to have a look at the numbers and when I did I came across this eyebrow raising little piece of information.
On the Taronga park zoo website we learn that:
"Analysis of all unprovoked case histories from the Australian Shark Attack File indicates that 29 percent are fatal."
Now you may think that I was referring to the 29% fatal bit, but no.
What really made me sit up was the "unprovoked" bit.
AKA: does this mean there are some people out there who provoke sharks?
Turns out there are.
When I first read it I had an immediate mental picture of someone sticking up two fingers and saying, "you're just a fucking shark, yeah c'mon, do you want a piece of me, yeah come and have a go if you think you're hard enough."
But of course, it's not like that, though I have no doubt there are people out there stupid enough to do just this.
But for the record, a 'provoked shark attack' is defined as:
"Provoked attacks are caused by humans touching sharks. Often this involves unhooking sharks or removing them from fishing nets.
However, recently there have been a number of incidents involving divers who were attacked after grabbing or feeding a shark while underwater."
So as this indicates these 'provoked' attacks are generally to do with legitimate water activities.
However, even here I stared bug-eyed at the 'grabbing' a shark underwater.
This definitely invokes the Darwin Awards for those dying in ways that are so stupid that they deserve to be removed from the gene pool.
When I showed this to Scott, my work colleague, he then told me that there is YouTube footage of people 'riding' sharks.
“WHAT?!”, I exclaimed, then halted to pull my uvula back into my throat.
So I went and looked and sure enough, there are some ten-tonne idiots in the world.
I don't want to particularly promote this activity, but if you search for 'riding sharks' then you will find some people who are either desperate for money, or have found a new way to commit suicide.
But before we continue with this little discourse on sharks, I want to bring in a bit by Billy Connolly here.
Billy as many would know is a great Scottish comedian.
He is one of those people that only has to say, "I think it's going to rain", and you start laughing.
I also think he's great because he gave up the drink, I as you know if you've read much here, have also done this, and it's really hard.
So well done Billy. (and me, I guess)
Billy was in Australia for a tour, and had rented a house at Palm Beach Sydney for the duration of his tour.

Billy rented a house like this at Palm Beach.
I'll put down here what he said as best my memory can serve and hope it comes across okay.
Billy was in the local chemist shop one day, and on the counter was a honey jar, within which was a truly frightening looking spider.
Black, horrible, and made you jump just looking at it.
Billy said to the girl behind the counter, "What's that?"
She replied: "It's a funnel web spider, we keep one here so people know how to recognise them."
To which Billy said: "Are they dangerous?"
The girl replied blithely: "Oh yeah, most venomous spider in the world."
Then Billy said: "Do they live here? [in Palm Beach].
And the girl said: "Yes."

Funnel Web Spider, ughhhhh!
So Billy replied: "BUT I LIVE HERE!!"
Then, and I'm paraphrasing Billy here, "She then went on to say that thing that never fails to annoy me, 'you won't have any trouble with them if you don't annoy them'."
To which he then amplified: "I stared at the girl in wonder, who, I wondered, could be so pissed off with life, that they would go out and annoy a funnel web?"
"Are there," continued Billy, "people who go out in the back yard, turn over a log, find a funnel web, and then roundly abuse it?"
If so, I can honestly join with Billy and hope such people get bitten by the damn things.
I can assure you that in my work with gardener Johnno in the gardens of Sydney’s Northern beaches, which included Palm Beach, we spent a lot of time worrying about, and doing everything we could to avoid these black death bringing spiders.
The idea of deliberately finding one and annoying it doesn't bear thinking about.
For the record, the biggest animal problems Johnno and I had in the area were ticks and ants, annoying and painful, respectively, but not life threatening.
Anyway, I bring that in because the idea of provoking a shark seems to me to be in the same category of "I'm sick of living."
So to move more generally onto sharks and their danger or otherwise.
The first recorded death by shark attack in Australia came in 1791.
It was an indigenous female on the north coast of NSW.
It is not recorded if this attack was provoked or not, but I suspect (strongly) not, as the indigenous peoples of the area have survived here for forty thousand years, and you don't get that sort of longevity by provoking sharks.
Since 1791 there have been 973 attacks, leading to 229 deaths with 575 injuries.
In the last 50 years, there have been 57 recorded unprovoked fatalities due to shark attack, which averages just over one (1.14) per year. 
The last fatal attack in Sydney Harbour was in 1963.
To compare: there are an average of 121 deaths per year from people drowning at Australian beaches.
The most hazardous activity leading to drowning deaths is rock fishing.
But when was the last time you heard people shivering in fear with the idea of going rock fishing?
So sharks are dangerous animals but of course the numbers of deaths due to them is vanishingly low.
Another comparison of course is with road fatalities, in 2013 there were 1,193 deaths on Australian roads.
I mention that because my elder brother is phobically scared of sharks.
He even has some concerns that I live in Byron Bay, he seems to have some idea that the sharks are massing in the shallows just waiting to have a bite at any unattended human leg that strays across the high tide mark.
But as I have repeatedly tried to tell him, you are (sadly) a thousand times more likely to die in a car accident on the way to the beach, than you are actually in the water.
And since I live on beachside now, and walk to the surf, my odds of having an vehicular accident are thus insignificant.
And to add a bit of humour here, I was quite taken by this wit who wrote into Viz magazine, saying:
“I read that most car accidents occur within a mile of home. So now I park my car a mile and a half away from my house and walk the rest.”
And bringing this to national relevance there is of course the current government policy in Western Australia of killing sharks.
To say this policy is lunatic is barely hinting at the idiocy of it.
Much has been said on the topic, but I'll just add my two cents worth.
Following the death of seven people within a three year period, the West Australian government introduced shark kill zones off parts of the West Australian coast.
The main problem as I see it is that you cannot know if you have removed the danger.
Shark spotting patrols are notoriously ineffective, there was even a test search using a shark outline made of wood and it was only spotted one out of every five plane passes.
So if you kill ten sharks in the summer, does that mean you've got them all?
If you kill a hundred sharks every summer, does that mean you've got them all?
I don't think so.
So what are the shark numbers in Australia?
The answer is nobody knows
We do know reasonably well about neritic [Live in one place] sharks.
The Grey Nurse is a good example of this, due to it's placid nature and localised living, we know their numbers are down.
However the numbers of the ominously titled 'large pelagics' are much harder to read.
Pelagic means that they move around on the currents.
Great Whites breed in the colder waters of South Australia and Western Australia, but move north in the winter.
Some even get as far as Byron Bay if the currents are cold.
But because of this mobility, trying to count the beasts is impossibly hard.
This is evidenced by the website of the federal department of environment which tells us:
"Study into Great White Shark populations is very difficult (Cailliet 1996) given the uncertainty about their movements, the uncertainty about rates of emigration and immigration from certain areas and the difficulty in estimating the rates of natural or fishing mortality.
Accurate population assessments are not yet possible for any region (Bruce 2008). At the time of its nomination for listing as a protected species in 1996, it was proposed that the Australian population numbered less than 10 000 mature individuals (EA 1996).
The population status in Australia, and globally, is, however, poorly known owing to a lack of robust abundance indicators. Quantitative stock assessments are not possible (Bruce 2008)."
Which is my point really, if we don't even know how many there are to start with, how do we know how many there are after we have killed a random number of them?
In Western Australia this year there were 172 sharks caught, of which 163 were Tiger Sharks.
Fifty of these were greater than three metres in length, and so were killed.
Thus the Tiger Shark numbers in Western Australia are now ?-50 giving us a new number of ?
Whatever their numbers, reducing it by fifty is hardly likely to mean that a western Australian beach goer can now say, "Oh, good, there are fifty less Tiger Sharks than before, I'm certain not to be attacked now."
Added to which of course is the other issue that the seven fatalities were thought to be caused by Great Whites, none of which were caught.
So now we’re killing sharks that are completely other to the deaths.
So I hope Greg ‘F^&%-ing’ Hunt, the federal environment minister, takes heed of this and other writings on the topic, and gives a thumbs down to any more culling of sharks in the waters off Cottesloe Beach, WA.
For myself, in all the years (22) I have been surfing, in Sydney and Byron Bay, I have only ever seen one shark.
So here is the story of that day.
I was surfing at the far end of the continent at a rocky cove called Little Wategoes Beach.
The surf was quite small and the water clear.
I was lying on my surfboard, just kind of lazing about between sets when the water beneath me changed colour.
Just for you non-surfers, and other inland dwellers, one thing you really don't want to happen when you're out there is for the water to change colour.
It usually signifies that the depth has changed drastically, and the floor of the ocean is rising up to meet you.
Bringing with it rocks, reef and gods knows what.
I refer to a change in water colour as an "eye-widener", or an "eye-widening-moment" or EWM.
However with this incident I was quite a ways offshore, and know this bay well, and so knew the sudden change to darker shades beneath me wasn't a depth change.
I focussed in and to my utter horror, divined that it was a three-metre long Tiger Shark.

This is about what I saw.

It passed directly beneath my board, and thus I had a good, hard look at it.
I pulled my hands and feet out of the water - a feat of balancing that would have got me a job in any circus, I might add - and watched it go by.
Far away in the furtherest reaches of my nearly frozen brain my zoologist training kicked in and I was able to tell that it was calm of demeanour and therefore not interested in making a meal of me.
I was pretty certain it was heading around the cape to the richer fishing areas on the Southern side of the lighthouse.
However, whatever its travel plans, I wanted to be wherever it wasn't in the shortest space of time imaginable.
So keeping as calm as I could, I stealthily, and with great trepidation, put my hands and legs back in the water, and began the smoothest paddle I could come up with.
One cause of shark attacks is people swimming and splashing in the water by the beach, which it's thought mimics the sound of an injured fish thrashing around.
So with silky smoothness, I got the flock out of there.
I wanted to head straight for Little Wategoes beach, but the sweep current (which the shark was nosing into) pushed me further out and around the point.
So I had to now paddle across Wategoes proper.
I wasn't too happy about that (to put it mildly), but there was no way other to get to shore.

In the picture I have written "five seconds later I was here", indicating the shore.

This is untrue of course, a writer's hyperbole, but I did want to be out of the water as fast as possible.
However, one community service I was able to do by taking the long way home was warn everyone else.
As I came around the corner of the bay there were other surfers out in the water, and as I steam hammered through, I yelled, "Shark! There's a three metre Tiger Shark out there."
I don't know what I expected, mass panic maybe, the surfers as one cohort to head for shore as I was, but the reaction was completely other.
There were dolphins in the bay that day.
I mention that because one guy looked at me and said, "Nah mate, it's probably just a dolphin you saw."
I stared at him, no one likes to be told they don't know what they're talking about, and it was on the tip of my tongue to say, "It's a shark mate, I don't make mistakes like that, also I'm a marine biologist, so there."
But paddling around in the bay when there was a shark loose in the water is no time to start an academic debate.
So I said "Whatever", and continued my lawn-mower like paddle to shore.
I hit the shallows and didn't stop paddling till I was twenty metres on the sand.
Once safe, I stopped.
I then turned and scanned the bay again, hoping that the guy who told me "it was a dolphin" was now in three pieces having been attacked by the same shark that I had warned him about.
However there was no blood in the water.
Oh well, I can always hope.
So I was scared, I'll admit that, but here's the thing, once safely on shore I didn't immediately call my local member and demand that all sharks be killed.
But the story that I think sums up pure, unadulterated fear, comes from South Africa.
I visited there in 1994 and did  bit of surfing in Cape Town and Jeffreys Bay.
I include this pic of Jeffrey's, J-Bay as it's known, just to show you a good wave.
J-bay curling up clean. (No that's not me surfing,
you can tell because the rider is good at it.)
Anyway my South African friend Bash's father told me this story.
He and some of his mates were surfing one day and were sitting in a loose group out the back between sets.
Next thing without a ripple, the head of a Great White Shark came out of the water, looked around, and then went back down below without a whisper.
This behaviour is known as "spy hopping" and it's thought the shark is looking about at what's on the surface to see if it can provide a meal.
My friend's father, Graeme and his mates knew this, and so he takes up the story:
"Without a word or a conscious thought we headed en masse, as one man to the shore.
A Great White spy hopping.

We hit the beach, dropped our boards on the sand, 'cos we were never gonna use them again, then ran up the beach into the nearest pub and began drinking rum.
We continued that practise for the next several hours, and at the end of it, weren't that drunk.
The constantly pounding adrenalin in our systems took hours to stop flooding through."
Now "weren't that drunk" is of course very subjective, but knowing the fear I evinced at "only" a Tiger Shark, I can only imagine what it's like to get that close to a Great White.
But even then, Graeme, a keen fisherman, never once thought that they should head out and kill every  Great White they could get their hooks into.
And despite all of the above, I can honestly say that the most frightened I have ever been in the water, was not caused by sharks, but by dolphins.
This was also the day I became convinced that dolphins have a sense of humour.
I was sitting on my board at the western end of Wategoes Beach.
It was a small day, with clear water and small clean waves.
I was just contemplating whether to paddle back for another set, or head home.
Next thing, without a whisper of warning, three dolphins emerged from the upcoming wave, and launched themselves over seemingly the end of my board.
It is hard to objectively measure of course, but I would say the nearest dolphin was three metres from where I sat.
It was the closest I have come to involuntary, rapid evacuation of the bowel.
It was that sudden.
I could almost hear the dolphins laughing to themselves in the squeaking language as they hit the water again.
Did they do it on purpose, knowing it would freak me the hell out?
Did they communicate with each other on the way in, saying, "let's scare the crap out of this human, huh?"
Who can say, but I am convinced they knew what they were doing.

I might add, dolphins are a common sight here in Byron, and we regularly surf with them, but no matter who you are, if you see a fin in the water, your first thought is "SHARK".
It's only once you see the animal make the up-and-down travelling motion that you know it's a dolphin.
The dolphin is charterised by the fin going up and down, while the shark has a distinct straight line cruise motion.
My three dolphins were a lot closer than this.

However, if an animal is coming straight at you, as these ones did, you can't get the lateral view, and can't immediately know if it is a dolphin or a shark.
All I saw was a huge black barrel with a dorsal fin erect, and for a millisecond, knew my last days had come, death by shark attack.
So in the end I'll just say that sharks are to be respected for sure, if you are swimming and hear that a shark is on patrol get out of the water.
But don't get out of the water, and then demand that all sharks at your favourite beach are immediately killed.
It's their element, and they have as much, or more, right to it as us.

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