Spotted wobbegong shark.
Spotted wobbegong shark.

Swimming with sharks

ASK Wandy Hochgrebe about the reaction from tourists who spot a shark at Julian Rocks and she certainly doesn’t refer to a scene from the film Jaws.

“People get very excited,” she said.

Ms Hochgrebe and her husband Tim run the Planula Divers Retreat in Byron Bay.

The retreat provides visitors with a unique chance to safely see sharks in their natural environment.

The Hochgrebe’s experience of people who have had a shark encounter is a long way from the stereotype of beach lovers fleeing the water.

“Visitors who know a bit about nature and know what sharks are about come to Byron Bay because they know they can see them,” she said.

Ms Hochgrebe said about half the visitors to her retreat who chose to go diving went to Julian Rocks hoping to spot a shark.

She said the grey nurse, leopard and wobbegong sharks were the most frequently spotted sharks, none of which were a threat to people.

The thrill many visitors experience after a trip to Julian Rocks matches recent research revealing sharks are money spinners, not creatures keeping tourists from the ocean.

A study released recently by James Cook University in Queensland showed up to 25 per cent of visitor expenditure in Cairns and Port Douglas was spent on efforts to spot sharks.

Nick Heath, from WWF Australia, said sharks were far more valuable alive than dead.

“A guaranteed shark sighting is worth its weight in gold to the tourism industry,” he said.

But the tourism boost shark that sightings provide is under threat from dwindling shark numbers.

“The grey nurse is critically endangered,” Ms Hochgrebe said.

With grey nurse numbers down to an estimated 500 on the East Coast of Australia, the species has been protected by the NSW Government since 1984.

Grey nurse numbers are not helped by the shark’s relatively low breeding rate. Female grey nurses average one pup a year, partly the result of young pups eating other siblings inside the mother’s uterus during gestation.

But despite the small number of grey nurses left, Julian Rocks remains one of the best places to spot the species.

“Grey nurses can be seen from the beginning of May and sometimes right through to December,” Ms Hochgrebe said.

Though grey nurse sightings will reduce during summer, Ms Hochgrebe said the warmer water was the ideal time to spot leopard sharks instead.

“Leopard sharks are also not too bothered by people,” she said.

With plenty of visitors expected to make a trip to Julian Rocks this summer, Ms Hochgrebe had some tips for divers wanting a positive shark encounter.

“Don’t swim in their path. Breathe slowly to minimise bubbles. Avoid using underwater whistles or flash photography,” she said.

Ms Hochgrebe was hopeful this summer would see plenty more people experiencing a close shark encounter; but one they could remember for all the right reasons.

“I think it’s going to be another good season,” she said.

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