Catastrophic and unstoppable ... a great white shark off the coast in Mexico.
But among other surfers, the same people will mutter uneasily about sightings, about “spooky” water, about bad feelings that seem to emanate from deep instinct. We’re all scared to some degree, no matter how irrational that fear might be. A long way from shore and all alone, it can be an unsettling thing to look at your own feet, dangling above the abyss.
Surfing in western Victoria, the sharks fall into two categories. There are all the ones doing their biological thing without posing any risk to anybody: gummies, Port Jacksons, wobbegongs, blues, school sharks and many more besides; all of them at far greater risk from us than we are from them.
In the other category, there are great whites. In 2011, I went cage diving to look at great whites in the wild. I learned several things that day. I learned that they are very cunning when stalking prey; that their movements alternate between extreme languor and equally extreme speed; and most of all I learned that the force they exert is massive. Catastrophic. Unstoppable.
Despite that very humbling experience, and the awful tragedy of this week’s news from Gracetown, Western Australia, where surfer Chris Boyd was killed by a shark, I remain opposed to any cull of great whites, which some are calling for. Why? Well, the reasons are many and they have scientific backing. But for a lot of people, the science is nothing but background noise. When I wrote on the topic for Coastalwatch.com last year, my original article was dwarfed by a torrent of angry and emotional comments, arguing both for and against culling. This is the most emotive of all conservation issues.
There are three main justifications for culling in response to a fatal attack. First, the culling is an act of vengeance against the specific animal. Here, the problems are self-evident: how do you identify the culprit in open ocean without killing it pre-emptively? And is there anybody who really believes in the logic of punishing a wild animal? Second, it is sometimes put that a shark which has attacked a human has become a “man-eater” and is more likely to attack again. Killing all similar sharks in the area ensures the recidivist is denied the chance. But there is no evidence for this occurring anywhere.
It made Peter Benchley rich, but it’s nonsense, propagated by the authors of penny dreadfuls in the 1800s and passed on unquestioningly ever since. A shark confined in an enclosed space may bite repeatedly, especially if sick or starving, but that’s an entirely different proposition.
Third, a cluster of attacks (such as occurred along the Western Australian coast last year) is taken as evidence that great white numbers must be climbing, and should therefore be pruned. The mathematical fallacy built into this notion is obvious: there is no demonstrated statistical link between attacks and great white numbers, because nobody knows how many great whites are out there. But the "pruning" argument has political appeal: politicians want to be seen to be doing something, and complex, scientifically-based responses like tagging take much too long for the media cycle.
Our civilising ambition brings with it a certain arrogance: we refuse to believe we are any longer a part of the food chain. But it remains a fact that in some natural environments, there are large carnivores capable of eating us. A more effective means of combating that prospect is by tagging and genetic coding the predator. The risk of shark attack could be dramatically lowered through such scientific interventions: already, instances have occurred where local authorities have been warned of the presence of a large shark when its tag has “pinged” on acoustic posts underwater.
On average, 87 people drown at Australian beaches every year. These are preventable deaths. On average one person will die by shark attack in the same period. And it probably won’t be preventable.
I pondered those numbers when I wrote for Coastalwatch last year: “For the cost of a national shark cull, for the environmental damage it would do, how many sharks could we tag? How many kids could we teach to swim? How many more beaches could we patrol? This is the delicate dance of numbers, so easily skewed by fear."