Nick Carroll: Don’t Let the White Shark Bite Turn Normal

13 Jun 2020 27 Share

Nick Carroll

Senior Writer

A screenshot from Viktor Bojovich's encounter in the Forster area. Full vid below.

A screenshot from Viktor Bojovich's encounter in the Forster area. Full vid below.

COASTALWATCH | NICK CARROLL

Understand the shark, yes. Accept a death toll, no

As we’re all aware by now, last Sunday morning 60-year-old surfer Rob Pedretti was attacked by a white shark off a beachbreak near Kingscliff. Rob was taken to the beach by two fellow surfers and subsequently died on the beach of blood loss.

Rob’s death was the first of its kind in the area for over five years, since the death of Tadashi Nakahara at Lighthouse Beach in Ballina. It began an unusually active week in shark world.

Almost to the minute Rob’s death was being reported, a new study into white shark behaviour was being released.

The study analysed the diets of 40 mostly juvenile white sharks caught off the NSW coast over the past decade in the DPI’s shark meshing program. The analysis was done using stomach contents and it’s only the second of its type in the world.

It was run by Richard Grainger, a Ph.D student at Sydney Uni, with help from Vic Peddemors of the DPI.

When you look at their work, it quickly becomes clear that the studied sharks were not random feeders. They targeted slower-moving pelagics, mostly Australian salmon, and reef-grazing fish, along with cownose and eagle rays, other smaller stingrays, and Port Jackson sharks. The males seemed to eat more rays than the females, and only a small number had hit on mammals, those being dolphin calves.

This study also seemed to roughly match the other of its kind, done in South Africa under the Natal Shark Board. The fish prey were different species, but the diet balance seemed similar.

Richard is a very smart guy, but he doesn’t fit the “disinterested academic” mould. He grew up surfing and diving around the mid-north coast, and saw sharks the way anyone who surfs there does. But he sounds very engaged with this subject, and plans to follow it up with stable isotope testing of shark tissues, which provides a better picture of shark diet over time.

He’d also been fitting cameras to tagged sharks in the smart drumline program, to see what happens after they’re tagged and released. The research from that is still being written up, but he did tell me he’d lost a camera off a shark well out to sea. It was gone for a year, before washing up near Gladstone in Queensland. “A nice fisherman found it and gave it back,” he said. “We retrieved the footage.”

Then Viktor Bojovich, a spearo in the Forster area, published a Go-Pro recording of an encounter he’d had while diving.

The video might be most amazing for its air of sheer everyday-ness. It shows Viktor’s gun moving with a school of fish as he waits for something worth fishing. Then the shark swims into view, an older juvenile, a bit over two metres long. According to Viktor’s account, he’s seen this thing maybe 20 times before; it’s part of the reason he bought the Go-Pro.

Viktor’s gun tracks along with the shark as it does what Viktor says it’s done in the past, sorta checks him out then moves away. Viktor’s description of it: “Curious but not aggressive.”

Viktor is OK with it to the point where he stays down and eventually spears a nice little jewfish.

Then you see maybe what the shark was waiting for those other 19 times. With the jewie captive but well out on the line, the shark comes in and hits it. Easier than catching your own.

You can see Viktor’s fins in frame as he kicks back up to the surface and hops in the boat. He and his mate pull in the jewie minus a large chunk, and end up chucking some of it back to their fellow predator, which takes it and heads off.

The whole thing felt almost transactional — you do your thing, I’ll do mine.

Then there was the reaction. Around the Ballina/Byron area, when Tadashi was killed back in early 2015, it’d been seismic. It spread out from the epicentre — the attack scene itself and the dreadful trauma exerted upon those present — across the whole water-going culture and everybody associated with it, from surfers, lifeguards, regular ocean swimmers, and fishermen, to clairvoyants, hippies, scientists, bureaucrats and politicians, eventually washing up on the steps of State Parliament, where pretty soon, millions of dollars were found and pushed into shark mitigation and research … some of which underpins Richard’s study.

This time? I happened to be up there, drove around and talked to a few people. The reaction was anything but seismic. Nobody shrugged it off; one or two said they knew Rob. There was a lot of respect for the rescuers and how well they’d behaved in those awful circumstances, and concern for their future well-being.

But nobody seemed surprised, or agitated. Instead I heard stories of sharks they’d seen, or stories they’d heard. At Lennox, Phil Myers told me about Greenough being out fishing recently and having a very large white come up and just sniff around the boat, circling it for ages. In Byron, two people I bumped into totally at random told me about encounters they’d had, one while surfing Broken, one near his boat off Julian Rocks.

It felt as if that in the backs of their minds, they’d somehow expected this news.

It made me wonder — are we beginning to normalise this animal? And if so — what does that mean?

On the one hand, it might turn to good. We’ve all seen enough drone footage now of juvenile whites swimming around near surfers without bothering anyone to know they’re not killing machines fixated on human flesh. Like Richard, we might begin to gather enough information on the white shark’s life to figure out when it’s dangerous to people and when it isn’t, and where. In studies like his, the white shark is just an animal. Not a terrible Devil of the Deep, or some random fate to be suffered because “it’s their domain”, or some angelic vision of wilderness. Just another animal roaming about the joint eating stuff.

Like Viktor, we might learn to discern the risk. Again, in his world, it’s just an animal, behaving a certain way. He’s making a call on it, and it’s making its own calls on him. Only the jewie paid the price.

On the other hand — we might let our guard down. Normalise a certain amount of surfer deaths, the way we’ve normalised a certain number of car crash deaths… as long as it doesn’t happen to us, of course.

Personally, I’m a fan of the one hand, but not of the other. A human versus an agitated three metre white shark is not a fair fight, hell it’s not even a fight. Let’s keep that guard up.

(If you’re interested, you can read the shark diet study here)

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