A difficult conversation about Great Whites

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A difficult conversation about Great Whites

September 6, 2011 – 1:59PM

Derek Rielly is a surfer, writer, entrepreneur and raconteur.

There are two things the court of public opinion will hang you for in Australia: suggesting there may be even the slightest chink in the divine-like certainty of man-made climate change and posing the question, is there a case for the occasional cull of Great White sharks?

For better or worse, I’ve surfed for 30 years, 10 of those exclusively in the waves of WA. I grew up in the weak beachbreaks in Perth, lived for a summer at Rottnest, but became a weekend migrant when the magic of a driver’s licence appeared in my fist. I was told that big sharks called the South-West corner home and the cabin of our panel van was always rattled with dusty tales of sharks the size of Kombi vans mowing through salmon on the three-hour drive south.

But it was an abstract fear, a boogieman that was easily shucked. The simple fact was that when I surfed those waves between 1981 and 1991, the only significant interaction with a Great White shark happened three clicks west of Rottnest Island in 1986 when a bite was taken out of a fisho’s transom. Divers were regularly stolen in South Australia, but that was to be expected and part of the dangerous kick of diving in those deep, cold waters.

Yesterday, a surfer was killed in a classic Great White ambush in those gorgeous blue waters of Bunker Bay, tucked away from the maddening south-west onshores there in the fold of Cape Naturaliste.

Last year, at Cowaramup Bay, an hour or so by car away, a surfer was killed in a similar manner: unseen shark, hits fast from the deep.

Three years ago, and two hours further north, a snorkeller was simply taken whole by a Great White.

In 2004, two sharks attacked and killed a surfer at the Lefthanders surf break, just around the corner from Cowaramup Bay.

I see a pattern. Do you? Or am I blinded by emotion and these stats are just a random fritz?

For a few hours last night, I trawled through the online Shark Attack File, a collection of every shark related incident over the past century, seeing what patterns might emerge between 1970 and 2011. You know what? Until 2004, Western Australia was barely on the map for White Pointer attacks, with Whites killing one or two divers or snorkellers a year mostly in South Africa, the USA and with a surprising number in Japan.

So, what happened around the turn of the century?

I asked Mitch Thorson, a 47-year-old real estate agent from Margaret River, and a world-ranked professional surfer in a previous life, what he made of the sudden Great White activity. Was it even sudden? Or was it always there?

”I dive a lot, too, and there’s been a radical multiplication in the number of people seeing Great Whites year round over the past 10 years,” he says. ”After that hit at South Point last year, going through summer, I had so many people come up to me with stories of Great White encounters. Guys snorkelling, even in water two metres deep, being buzzed by 15-foot Great Whites. One guy was chased up onto the reef at Big Rock. A myriad of stories. Some guys won’t surf Three Bears anymore after being buzzed by submarines. Way, way more encounters.”

American-born Nancy Burrow, mother of pro surfer Taj, spent a decade swimming with dolphins in the South-West, never once seeing a shark, but has since pulled back due to the attacks. ”Absolutely more activity,” she says. ”We overfish and then we protect the Great White. It doesn’t make sense.”

Mitch took a call yesterday from a homeowner on the Cape who was readying to sell his Eagle Bay house because of the sharks.

”He’s got a son who’s 14, the same age as mine, and, after the attack at South Point, the attack yesterday and with the guy taken at Lefthanders (all popular surf breaks) in 2004, he just said, ‘I’m thinking of selling my house.’ I told him to hang on and wait for the dust to settle. I wonder about the impact on tourism when, all of a sudden, Margaret River is the place where people get eaten by sharks.”

The solution, of course, is pretty simple. If you don’t like sharks, stay out of the water.

”But, isn’t it our environment, too?” says Mitch, who admits to being kept awake in the dark hours by graphic visions of shark attack. ”I would like to see more research into their activity. I don’t think there’s a shortage of these fish. I’d be interesting to see the numbers and rather than coming out and saying, ‘Let’s get on the program and nail a few’, how about a bit more thought of dealing with this.”

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