With media ready to whip up a frenzy over shark attacks, debate rages on whether we should cull the ocean's greatest predator, writes Susan Johnston.

If there is such a thing as a collective national nightmare, then Russia's might be footsteps in the night and Africa's a low growl in rustling grass. But Downunder, our bad dream is oceanic visceral terror. It's not spiders or, in Australia, dingoes or snakes spook us , but sharks.

Most people can imagine what went on behind the privacy of the wave that obscured pro surfer Mick Fanning from television cameras at July's J-Bay Open final in South Africa. While the rest of the world held its breath, waiting to see if a man emerged dead or alive, we were picturing panic, teeth and blood.

Australia's 35,000 kilometres of coastline and estimated 12,000 beaches make the shoreline not just a national emblem but a popular destination for international tourists and for most of those who live there. The country's love affair with the coast is part of what makes it Australian. Yet last year, two surfers were savaged by great white sharks - 32-year-old Mathew Lee at Lighthouse Beach in Ballina, and 51-year-old Craig Ison at Main Beach, Evans Head, also in northern NSW - and both underwent surgery at Gold Coast University Hospital. In August, tradie father-of-two Dale Carr, 38, was attacked at Lighthouse Beach, Port Macquarie, on the mid-north coast by a suspected bull shark.

In response to the spate of attacks, the NSW Government announced new shark monitoring measures to protect its northern coastal communities. The $250,000 campaign will involve water surveillance by experts, as well as the tagging and tracking of sharks. A Shark Mitigation Advisory Group was also recently formed and members of that group - as well as NSW government officials - held a National Shark Summit in Sydney in September. That summit proposed trials of cutting-edge technologies such as shark-tracking phone apps and shields that can be attached to surfboards or swimmers' ankles and create electric fields to repel the predators.


Shark attacks are on the rise from an average of 6.5 incidents a year between 1990 and 2000 to 15 incidents a year during the decade to 2011.

In the past 12 months alone, there were five fatalities in Australian waters. But the increase in shark attacks does not necessarily mean there are more sharks, or they are coming in closer to shore or even that sharks are any hungrier for human flesh.

"Sharks are incredibly difficult animals to study," says the University of Wollongong's Dr Leah Gibbs, a leading researcher in shark hazard management.

"We just don't have the data on whether there are more sharks, or even where they are going.

"We're certainly hearing more anecdotal evidence saying people are seeing more sharks closer to shore, but this is as much to do with the attention given to shark sightings and the fact that there are simply loads more people in the water." Gibbs also argues that "risk" is "fiendishly difficult to calculate" because we don't have an accurate idea of how many people are using the ocean, or the activities they engage in.

Bond University's Dr Daryl McPhee, who in 2014 published a paper, Unprovoked Shark Bites: Are They Becoming More Prevalent? (short answer: yes, but shark bites are still "extremely infrequent"), says there is no real evidence shark numbers are increasing or that they are changing their behaviour and coming closer to beaches.

"We can't say for sure we're seeing more sharks near beaches, but the communication of shark sightings is certainly more instantaneous and has a larger reach as a result of the 24-hour news cycle and social media."

Like Gibbs, McPhee argues that the migratory nature of most shark species makes population estimates difficult. He cites studies coming out of New Caledonia that suggest kite surfers, in particular, are at risk in areas where tiger sharks prey on birds "because their skipping behaviour on the water mimics the behaviour of sea birds".

McPhee adds that the risk of an unprovoked fatal shark bite "is considerably less than drowning while swimming at the beach". However, the vivid nature of shark bite skews risk perception: "As individuals and as a society, we tend to focus on low-incidence but high-consequence events." It's not drowning that causes nightmares; it's being ripped to shreds, drowning in water and blood.

Surfer Mick Fanning, of Australia, is menaced by a shark during the final of the JBay Open. Photo / WSL, Kirstin
Surfer Mick Fanning, of Australia, is menaced by a shark during the final of the JBay Open. Photo / WSL, Kirstin

According to Richard Bennett, author of The Surfer's Mind, our fear of sharks is bound up with our fear of loss of control. "It's the reason we might not have the same level of fear when driving on the roads or even walking down the beach under coconut palms - when both activities are more likely to result in human casualties - because we have a perception of control," says Bennett, a performance psychologist who became known as the "surf psychologist" through his work with surfers on the World Surf League circuit in the early 2000s.

"We've been gifted with an intellect and intuition that's enabled us to create ways to gain a sense of command around our environment. In Western society, we drive around in cars that are far more likely to kill us than sharks, yet we don't have this instinctual, survival-instinct fear about cars that we have about sharks."

Bennett says though the human brain has evolved, at the raw level we are still members of the animal kingdom. It's when we find ourselves in situations where we are vulnerable and at the mercy of the natural world that our "lizard"brain, that part of the intellect that operates at a primitive level, kicks in.

"Suddenly the human is not the apex predator in the situation. Our survival instinct is our strongest instinct, and we experience raw fear about being taken by a shark because we have no control. It comes down to the level of primal instincts."

To put the issue in perspective, according to figures collated by the Surf Life Saving Association 87 people drown on Australian beaches every year, while there were only 1.1 fatalities a year from shark attacks over the two decades to 2011. But when you wade out into the ocean, the prospect of drowning is rarely the first fear that comes to mind.

Paul De Gelder's fear instantly kicked in when he was grabbed by a highly aggressive bull shark in Sydney Harbour on February 11, 2009.

"I think it's an innate fear embedded in the human psyche about being eaten alive," he says. Certainly he thought he was a goner when the shark ripped off his right hand and right foot, necessitating no fewer than 300 blood donations - 150 litres in total - to save his life.

"I thought, this is it, I'm dead. I'm going to die right now."

But, remarkably, he didn't, although the next day he wished he had.

"I wished the shark had killed me. I just wanted to be dead so I didn't feel that pain any more." Six years on, for De Gelder the attack is as vivid as ever. "It was like coming face-to-face with a minibus full of teeth. I've never felt such awe-inspiring fear."

The former navy clearance diver (now 38 and living at Balmoral Beach on Sydney's Lower North Shore) has conquered the two greatest fears of his life - public speaking and sharks - by becoming a motivational speaker who makes shark documentaries.

Paul de Gelder lost an arm and a leg when he was attacked by a male bull shark while working as a Navy Clearance Diver in Sydney Harbour in February 2009. Photo / Getty Images
Paul de Gelder lost an arm and a leg when he was attacked by a male bull shark while working as a Navy Clearance Diver in Sydney Harbour in February 2009. Photo / Getty Images

Amazingly, De Gelder has footage of his attack, which he shows at lectures and workshops, because the divers were trialling new equipment as part of a counter-terrorism exercise. "We were swimming alongside the wharf [at Garden Island, the Sydney naval base] towards a ship, to see if unmanned video and sonar equipment could detect us." The footage is "a little grainy" but clearly shows the shark shaking De Gelder for eight to 10 seconds before releasing him, minus a hand and foot. "I looked down and saw it had removed my hand but somehow my medical training kicked in and I started swimming back to the safety boat, keeping my right arm out of the water because I knew I had to keep that wound above my heart [because of blood loss]. I was swimming through a pool of my own blood and luckily the rescue boat got to me before the shark got to me again. By the time the boat got back to the wharf, there was about an inch of blood in the bottom of the boat. One of my mates had to put his hand inside my leg, to pinch closed an artery that was squirting blood. It was a tough day for everyone, not just me."

To date, De Gelder has counted 30 people who have passed out at workshops while watching the video of his attack - 28 men and two women.

Mercifully, he has not experienced post-traumatic stress, nor suffered flashbacks or nightmares "I went back surfing at Bondi, on one leg, three months to the day after the attack," he says. Now fitted with a prosthetic forearm and lower leg - and still a member of the reserve dive team at HMAS Penguin - De Gelder believes his psychological recovery was in large part due to his stubborn streak. "I'd fought tooth and nail to achieve this amazing life, and I just refused to give up.

"I'm a firm believer in facing your fears. I grew up around the ocean and it's always been a huge part of my life. I'd never move away from the water. You know, people get so upset about shark attacks, but it's like anything you do that's inherently dangerous - you've got to mitigate the risks.

"Check to see if any sharks have been spotted in the area; try to avoid either side of dusk or dawn, which is prime shark-hunting time.

"There are a lot of things that can kill you. The majority of sharks are harmless - the ocean is their place, not ours. I'm totally against culling. I wasn't in the past, but I've had the opportunity to learn a lot more about sharks. I know most of the sharks caught [in netting] are on the beach side of the net. Netting does more damage than good; a lot of other animals get caught in them."

It's not drowning that causes nightmares; it's being ripped to shreds, drowning in water and blood.


For researcher Leah Gibbs, the term "shark attack" can be emotive and misleading. "More precise terms such as 'sighting', ';encounter' and 'bite' do more to describe an interaction," she says, and would do more to develop understanding not only of shark behaviour but of the risks of entering any marine environment. Better terminology, too, would help "reduce the chance of reaction motivated by fear".

It only takes one shark attack to induce fear. Fear is largely the reason some Australian states introduced shark-control programmes as long ago as 1937 (first in NSW; Queensland began its programme in 1962, after two fatalities, and Western Australia in 2014 after five fatalities during a 10-month period).

Shark control programmes employ various methods of culling or "catch and destroy" tactics, including the use of netting, baited hooks (known as drumlines) or, most recently, eco-barriers.

The Eco Shark barrier, an open-weave flexible nylon barrier that allows other marine life to pass through but not sharks, is undergoing a three-year trial at Western Australia's Coogee Beach, due to end in 2017.

Increasing numbers of marine biologists, human geography academics, conservationists and scientists in the field of shark-hazard policy oppose culling.

According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's "red list" of threatened species, a quarter of the world's sharks are threatened with extinction. Even Australia's federal Department of the Environment, which is responsible for overseeing the policy, must surely appreciate the irony of the statement on its website declaring "the main threats faced by white sharks in Australian waters are from interactions with commercial and recreational fisheries and shark control programmes."

Fanning (left) is hugged by American surfer Kelly Slater. Photo / WSL, Kirstin
Fanning (left) is hugged by American surfer Kelly Slater. Photo / WSL, Kirstin

Last September, the West Australian Government ended its shark drum line policy after a recommendation from the WA Environmental Protection Agency.

Between January and April this year, 172 sharks were caught, 68 of which were shot.

Southern Cross University marine biologist Dr Daniel Bucher argues that killing sharks is not the best way to go.

"It's a bit like saying, 'We want to go for long walks on the African savannah but we don't want to be killed by lions or leopards, so let's kill all the big cats - and a whole lot of other animals by accident - so we can walk safely'." Bucher says dangerous sharks move large distances anyway, so if you kill one today, there's as much chance another one will arrive tomorrow.

According to University of WA shark biologist Dr Ryan Kempster, there is no evidence drum lines and shark nets work. "[They're] outdated programs with no scientific support ... shark control does not have to be lethal to be effective."

Kempster's research involves the development and testing of new forms of electronic shark repellents.

Fellow researcher Gibbs agrees that kill-based approaches are questionable, citing research carried out in Hawaii between 1959 and 1976 when nearly 5000 sharks were killed in culling programmes. There was "no measurable reduction"in the rate of shark bites over that 17-year period, or indeed in the years since culling ceased.

But Graham Young, executive director of centre-right think tank Australian Institute of Progress, is an outspoken supporter of culling programmes. In the days after the Fanning incident, he wrote an opinion column in the Courier-Mail declaring that "sentimental environmentalist arguments"should not obscure the fact that human existence has always involved the trading-off of animal rights for our rights. We would not have come this far if we were not prepared to kill".

Young suggested Fanning's remark about being a human in a shark's domain was "silly" and ignored the reality of evolution. But Fanning, like Paul De Gelder and millions of ordinary Australians, does not plan on quitting the shark's domain any time soon, evolution notwithstanding, fearful or not.

- News Limited