“Many people continue to think of sharks as man-eating beasts. Sharks are enormously powerful and wild creatures, but you’re more likely to be killed by your kitchen toaster than a shark! — Ted Danson
We’re now into a record 10 days of beach closures along a stretch of the NSW coastline as two to three metre [six to nine feet] predators, fattening up on dolphins in the warmer waters, interrupt summer fun in the sun.
Sightings like this are unprecedented, as are the beach closures, and the commentary has even described one Great White shark sighting “reminiscent of the movie Jaws” as half-eaten dolphins wash ashore!
Newcastle City Council later confirmed an initial sighting of a five-metre [16-foot] shark, weighing about 1700 kilograms, giving it the girth of a small elephant, was seen cruising along the coastline for the past week.
Summer surf carnivals were also brought to a standstill amid more sightings further south, but the question on all Novocastrian lips is this: when will it be safe to get back into the water?
It seems, not any time soon, given continued sightings as well as a scare attack on Friday for holiday-makers on the south coast after a teenager spear-fishing near Mollymook Beach was bitten by a shark.
And it seems December through to February poses the highest incidence of sightings and attacks. There’s an interesting list on Wikipedia of fatal shark attacks in Australia since 1791, recording Port Jackson as the site where an aboriginal female was “bitten in two”! The next sighting happened 46 years later, in 1837, when a 12-year-old boy washing his feet one evening was injured by a shark. Of course, looking at this list, it is evident recordings weren’t kept up to date in those 46 years based on the huge number of incidences that followed.
In the United States, the list goes back as far as 1642 and may be the earliest recorded shark attack in the New World. Wikipedia reports: “The victim was presumably killed and eaten by a shark on a stormy evening while attempting to swim across the Hudson River at the Spuyten Duyvil, Riverdale, New York City. A witness to Van Corlaer’s death stated that ‘the devil’ in the shape of a giant fish swam up and proceeded to ‘seize the sturdy Antony by the leg and drag him beneath the waves’.”
Since 2011, there have been numerous articles suggesting a spike in shark sightings and none more so than the unprecedented attacks in 2013 in Hawaii, which prompted a two-year study into the migration of tiger sharks to the area.
This surge in attacks has vexed vacationers since 2001 with even online health blog http://www.webmd.com asking whether our oceans are becoming more dangerous?
It says the greatest number of recorded incidents have involved white sharks, followed by bull, tiger, and, in Florida, the black tip shark.
So how can we humans avoid being attacked? Emergency physician Richard Nateman tells WebMD that: “Humans are not really what [sharks] want. When they get a human, that’s a mistake.They do want fish, so the best strategy for avoiding a shark attack is not looking like a fish,” he explains.
Sharks usually won’t attack someone who’s standing or in a vertical position. “They want to attack horizontal things because they know fish are horizontal,” Nateman adds.
Even though the risk of attack is low, here’s some tips to take steps to further limit that risk from Nateman and Erich Ritter, PhD, a senior scientist with the Global Shark Attack File in Princeton, New Jersey.
- Swim where lifeguards can see you.
- Swim where other people are around.
- Know how to do CPR.
- Avoid swimming during dusk and dawn. This is when sharks have the best vision and are looking for food.
- Avoid murky waters, harbour entrances, channels, and steep drop-offs. “Murky water is attractive to sharks because it has more nutrients,” Ritter explains. “Steep drop-offs or anything that increases the current has more available food … so that brings in more sharks.”
If you do encounter a shark, what should you do?
- Stay calm but “don’t carry on”. “Sharks … can sense your speeded-up heart rate,” says Ritter. If the shark has seen you, never ever swim away from it. Stay still. Even if they bump into you, do not move. That’s how they check you out.
- Stay vertical. Don’t struggle and splash. You don’t want to look like a struggling fish.
- If a group of people see a shark close by, they shouldn’t huddle together. Instead, try to stay at least a body length away from the next person.
Finally, stay out of the water until you’re told it’s safe to get back in! Good advice.
Judy Wilkinson is a freelance writer and blogger who hopes to swim without sharks this summer along all the beaches Newcastle has to offer!