Treat predators with respect
AFTER yet another tragic shark attack in WA it may be time to remind folks of the reality of surfing with sharks.
Firstly, my sincere condolences to all family and friends of all victims of any shark attack, both past and present. The fear of being eaten alive is about as primal as it gets. But does that justify our reaction to these incidents when they occur?
We surfers have an odd relationship with sharks. It seems we prefer to believe they are just harmless, inquisitive creatures which are not interested in us at all. But that's not what I have experienced, so let's explore that.
Sadly, when a shark attack tragedy occurs in Australia, we are met with the howls of those calling for the death of the shark responsible or even culling.
I suspect it is the attitude that sharks are harmless, which gets folks in a panicked state of mind, once an attack takes place. Why? Because people keep saying sharks are harmless, peaceful creatures.
My personal experience is that we don't get rogue sharks; they are just unpredictable creatures that may or may not attack us. But we humans don't like that idea. It challenges the delusion we have chosen to believe so we can all feel safer in the water.
A shark is a shark. Fact: juvenile great whites eat each other in the womb. Only the strongest and most aggressive survive to be born, this no fluffy play thing.
Does this mean we shouldn't surf or swim? Of course not, but if we want to feel safer, we need to understand the reality of the situation, not deny it. If you spend time in the water regularly, chances are you will eventually come face to face with a shark.
I don't remember when the idea that sharks are not interested in humans crept into surfing mythology, but I do know that those who've surfed for years know exactly what sharks are, and how unpredictable they can be. It is a fact of life in the ocean that sharks, can, do, and at times will attack humans. To teach otherwise, and pretend it's not so, is to deny reality.
I personally have had more close encounters with sharks than I could mention here and the vast majority of these experiences appeared innocent and benign enough. Yet I have also seen a four metre tiger shark lift its head out of the water, mouth agape and take good long look at my partner from only a metre behind her in the surf. Time stood still for a few seconds then.
I have had more than one massive great white sit right beneath me, only to leave in a flash and then return just as quick. I have had my board bumped numerous times by a shark. I have been charged by a bull shark, in knee deep water. I actually had to turn the damn thing away with my board. It meant business, it was an attack situation.
I have survived these encounters without physical damage and hope to survive any more if they happen.
Staying safe around sharks
Here are some things that thankfully have worked for me when dealing with a shark encounter:
* Check if it's a shark. A dolphin's tail is horizontal and moves up and down. A shark's tail is vertical and moves from side to side.
* DON'T PANIC! This is important: people say sharks smell fear, I don't know if that's true. But I do know that sudden movements tend to annoy them. So stay calm. Ever heard the saying 'let sleeping dogs lie'? Well, let cruising sharks cruise.
* Try to keep an eye on where it is and what direction it is moving. Look for the closest route to shore and calmly head towards the shore. BUT! Only if the shark is not between you and the shore. Wild creatures do not like their escape route blocked. If you are between the shark and the open ocean calmly move in the opposite direction to the shark give it room to head back to deeper water. Then calmly head for shore.
* There is a belief that splashing, slapping your board, punching and gouging at a shark or even charging the shark and intimidating it will help. It is fact such tactics could alter the outcome of an attack once an attack has begun. HOWEVER this information is convoluted. If a shark is just cruising past, any of these behaviours could actually provoke an attack. Unless an attack is imminent, try to stay calm. Do not attempt to intimidate it; frightened wild creatures do not always flee. They may feel compelled to attack to defend themselves.
Ben 'Bear' Bennink is a former professional longboarder and retired NSSA master coach. He writes for Pacific Longboarder Magazine and is semi-retired in Byron Bay where he is editor of inbyronbaytoday.com.