Did someone say shark? By Glen Outhred - Perth Scuba Dive Instructor
Sharks… The topic that has been at the back of heads and under our noses ever since November last year. If you are like me and the rest of the Perth Scuba crew, we would love to see sharks on our dives, no matter if they are reef sharks as harmless clown fish or the more feisty bull sharks. I love getting close to my fish friends but then, I probably wouldn’t go poking a tiger shark in the eye.
I know that many open water divers going through their course are curious and sceptical about sharks but once they learn just how misunderstood they are, they really can be great to dive with. Obviously we need to be respectful of these amazing creatures. The number one reason why animals attack is out of defence. Most shark attacks are caused by mistaken identity, research shows that when humans are swimming on the surface from below - we represent the same colour and shape of a helpless seal playing on the surface. Research indicates that some sharks have vision which is not as advanced as their sensory “vision” (The way predatory sharks sense their prey). This makes mistaken identity a very unfortunate bi product of the mixture of average vision and shadows and shapes which indicate to a shark that there is a potential meal above them. Once a shark bites – they find it very hard to process a human body because we are too bony and not very tasty, humans are the spam and tofu of a sharks diet. Because sharks find us very distasteful and horrible they will take a bite and spit it out once they discover we aren’t the fillet mignon they thought.
Because sharks don’t have the ability to touch, squeeze and feel before they bite, and unfortunately the only way they can “test” something to see whether it is edible – is to bite it. They usually leave their victims in a very bad way due to the fact that there is probably a couple of tonnes of pressure in those “test bites”.
Up until 2003 - Western Australia was known as the safest state in Australia to dive in terms of sharks but unfortunately that with recent events this is no longer the case. The reason for this turnaround? There a number of factors that contribute.
For starters there are more people in the water than ever before!
In June 2012 Western Australia saw an increase of 43% for national travellers compared to May 2011 and also an increase in interstate travellers. As Australia’s population is generally along the coast, travellers come here for the fantastic beaches WA has to offer and to enjoy the beach life.
There are also more of the cute fur seals to play with which (again unfortunately) can represent 20% of the diet and prey for Great Whites. Roughly 150 years ago fur seals were hunted in the south coasts almost to the point of extinction. Now their numbers have increased to the point where we have fur seals at Rottnest Island and dotted all along the west coast.
Another contributing factor to the number of sightings and visits from Great Whites is the increase in the number of whales travelling up and down our coastline. The number of whales in migration has increased to numbers not seen for over 100 hundred years! Just after WW2 humpback whale numbers had reduced from 18,000 to 3,000! Now more recently humpbacks have started to gain their numbers back. As well as an increase in travellers, whales and fur seals the Western Australian population has gone from 300,000 in the war to nearly two million today! With this increase in numbers there will surely be more sightings of sharks and with more seals and whales there is something for them to feed on. Technology, media, the ability to use spotter planes and many more ways of detecting sharks today do not necessarily mean there are more sharks, but it means the sharks that are there – are being detected.
Since records began in 1791 there have been 877 shark attacks in Australia, only 216 of these were fatal. If you consider these figures matched by the number of people that get in the water every year it is safe to say it is a very small percentage that you would get attacked by a shark but very similar to a lightning strike, no one knows when or where the next strike will be. Nearly every attack on humans have been by spear fishers or surface attacks such as surfers or swimmers. For us divers, we are the safest as long as we are being respectful and wary. After all you wouldn’t like it if you found a stranger in your home would you?
The revised statistics for Shark attacks based on recent events in WA puts the odds of being attacked by a shark every time you go into the water in WA to 0.00000005%. The odds really aren’t that bad when you consider that on the same weekend that the recent attack took place, 4 people were killed on the roads and then on the following Monday another 2 people were killed. This total is more than the number of shark fatalities this year (a year which is unprecedented anywhere in the world).
Whilst the fear of sharks is definitely highlighted in the community, media hype to the point of hysteria and everyone with one eye on the ocean these days, it’s easy to see why there are more sightings. The true statistics show that per capita, the shark attack numbers have actually dropped in recent years.
One of the things which comes to mind when discussing shark attacks is also the simple fact that for an investment less than $500 – they could have been prevented. Shark Shields and ESDS Shark deterrent systems work. These companies have invested millions of dollars into their products to test and improve and re test to ensure that they work. It would only take 1 bite – only 1 from anywhere in the world where someone was using either of these systems correctly and it would be the end of that company and the products it has developed for ever.
They work, they are relatively inexpensive – (Lee jokes that they are a lot cheaper than a prosthetic leg) - and most of all – they give you protection and peace of mind to you and your loved ones.
You wouldn’t walk a tightrope without a net, why would you dive without a shark shield when they are so readily available? Some divers have reacted to the latest series of attacks by not diving or giving diving up. Why? Why give up something you love and enjoy doing? (not to mention the investment you made in learning to dive and those of you who have purchased equipment). All that you need to do is spend that extra $475 to make you 100% safe.
Ever since the movie Jaws, (which author Peter Benchley has said he regrets writing since finding out how much it has affected and changed the public opinion of sharks), the media has hyped up shark attacks even though the amount of deaths on our roads or even coconuts falling on people’s heads have significantly more victims than shark attacks.
The media is also now asking the question of our government “Should we hunt Great Whites off our coast line?” This is something that could be debated for years without actually coming up with any clearly defined answer. The community is so divided that it is almost a 50 / 50 split. Not only does the government risk losing the support of half of the people who are passionate about their view – but it can be seen by the international community as either too harsh or too spineless to make a stand. Considering that Great Whites are on the critically endangered list, the final decision, once made - could impact both sharks and people. The Government has a Duty of Care to protect the citizens if it is within its power to do so. However in this case – it would require temporary removal of Great White sharks from the protected species list. This has never been done in Australia before and it is guaranteed to cause more debate and quickly become a political hot potato.
There are so many things that need to be considered by our government in making this decision as once made – it will be very difficult to turn back.
The division of the people puts most into a category of FOR or AGAINST the “culling” – (which is such a bad word for it as it is surely more selective than that). To make an informed decision – or as informed as one can based on information given to them by a somewhat biased media or biased water user, you need to look at the affects of both sides of the argument:
Those in support of a “cull” site the following reasons:
Tourism: The damage caused to the WA tourism industry is already immeasurable and with no action – one way or the other – this is getting worse by the day. This affects the economy and all tourism destinations such as Margaret River, Dunsborough, Albany which rely heavily on tourism dollars.
Duty of Care: As I previously mentioned – having the ability to prevent another shark attack by removing the sharks deemed to be the ones responsible for the attacks and not doing so with another fatality occurring could lead to the government being accused of having “blood on their hands”.
Water Sport Lifestyle: The recent events, media coverage and general public fear is preventing many people from doing what they love to do. Their recreational sports and activities are heavily impacted because of these sharks. Kids are being robbed of their childhood activities and enjoyment of the ocean. Parents are too afraid to let them swim in the ocean and in most cases are too afraid themselves.
Water Sport Industries: Diving, Surfing and other water based businesses are suffering in a big way due to the negative media and the overall impact of people not doing what they used to do in the water recreationally. These industries employ a lot of people and are a significant part of the retail and training sectors. (and it employs me too).
Overall the people in support of a cull are mainly people who have had their lifestyles changed due to the action of these few shark attacks. The exception is water sport based businesses, of which many are on the fence with the decision due to the fact that they too love the ocean and respect everything that lives in it, but run the risk of losing their livelihoods if there is nothing done to reduce the impact of the attacks or the attacks themselves.
People who are against a cull site the following reasons:
Sharks are in their domain. We have no right to chase and kill them for doing what they do naturally when we are in their water.
You never know whether you got the right shark(s)
They are an endangered species, and should stay protected.
Is culling going to make a difference? – you get the sharks in the area at the time – but they will return as they travel such long distances and are all over the world.
They are an APEX predator – take them out of the food chain and it causes an imbalance in the marine habitat structure.
I personally think that we should leave them alone and let them do what they do naturally. We have been responsible for fishing out the oceans to a point that we are now an easy target. The shark only does what it knows to do. They are endangered and they are a very important part of the ecosystem.
Why cull something because it attacks in its own environment when there is a solution as easy as shark shields?
But that is my view and I am sure that there are many good arguments for and against my opinion and views about this issue.
The debate will continue I am sure and in the end there are no winners. 5 people have lost their lives in the last 10 months doing what they loved doing. Their families have to live with the grief of losing someone in such horrific circumstances.
I just hope that this is a freak run that has now come to an end and that we never have to see shark fatalities like this again.
That’s it for me guys, blow bubbles, no troubles J