Sharks and Ocean Swimming

A few random thoughts of mine on sharks and ocean swimmers, prompted by discussions with friends about a shark sighting at a nearby beach 5 days before a planned swim there with a group of friends last summer.  This post is nothing more than a description of my approach to the fact of sharks being in the ocean in which I swim all year round.  I have no relevant qualifications and I am not an expert on this topic.  As the research on point continues and the learning on the topic evolves, it is inevitable that some of my views, theories and half-baked ideas described below will change.

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This is a shark sighted off the Lorne jetty on 12 December 2016. It’s a single frame from a video taken on someone’s mobile phone.  It stimulated  some discussion amongst my swimming friends at our home beach not too far distant, because we had long planned our annual xmas swim (followed by lunch) at Lorne on a date 5 days after the sighting.  The original plan was to start the swim at the boat ramp near the jetty, which is about 100m or so from where this shark was sighted, and to swim the Pier to Pub ocean race course which is 1000m or so plus or minus depending on the tide.

Generally, much more thought and talk is given to sharks in general terms than to actual sharks, because experience with the latter is not common.  Fear drives a better story than facts. This has allowed exaggeration and embellishment to distort the facts; the idea of a shark is freely available and is not restricted to the observed features and behaviour of a particular shark.  A ‘massive’ shark with killer instincts that relentlessly hunts and eats humans is much better fodder for shark yarns than the reality of a cautious, intelligent and highly evolved apex predator which does not eat everything it sees, and which prefers smaller prey to marine mammals and humans.   Most people have never seen a shark in the sea.  Fewer have seen one while they were in the sea.

But someone with a mobile phone did see this one from the Lorne jetty, and took brief footage of it.  It is indistinct in form and detail, and indeed its swim was unremarkable being parallel to the jetty then out to sea towards Point Grey and the Southern Ocean.  But in the absence of anything more specific as to appearance or behaviour, in the minds of some it can quickly become ‘every-shark’,  replete with qualities as unconstrained and varied as the imaginations of those who see or hear about the footage.

For what it’s worth, I believe the shark sighted was a great white, in the order of 8-9 feet. It was reported that it swam near people in the water by the jetty, and ignored them.  I reject the hyperbole of journalists who in relation to this shark threw all caution to the wind and delved into their journalists’ thesaurus of shark-story words, coming up with the usual “massive” and “4 metres long” and “close call” and “shocked locals” and “stunned onlookers” and “shark menace” etc.  My favourite was the “one-kilometre long jetty” at Lorne.  200m is the actual figure, but when you are a journalist in shark-reporting mode, it seems all things grow.

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I took this photo from the back of a boat about 40 nautical miles south of Port Lincoln in South Australia.   It too is a great white.  I was mesmerised by its perfection, agility and power.

My first impression on seeing the great white in the next picture (from a diving cage designed for viewing great white sharks) was that it effortlessly emanated poise and supreme confidence.  Of course it did.  In design, function, aesthetics and presence the great white is patently perfectly evolved.  There is no room for improvement of this creature.  This probably explains how it has survived a number of the world’s mass-extinction events.  It is perfectly streamlined and its tail and fins in appearance and function reminded me of the control surfaces on an aircraft.  The tail is just the final point of delivery of the great power it possesses to move at surprising speed through the water.  The shark’s body (I keep wanting to say fuselage) seems to be all muscle and propulsion  from the gills back when accelerating.  For cruising, a  slow but powerful sideways movement of the tail suffices.

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I took this shot of a great white in all its natural glory in the ocean off Neptune Island in South Australia.  I was in a cage fixed to the back of a boat, breathing through a regulator connected to an air hose and compressor on the boat, and wearing a full length 7mm wetsuit. This shark was reliably estimated to be just under 4m in length. Compare its girth and general profile to the shadowy scrawny little thing in the photo taken from the Lorne jetty (bearing in mind that these two photos are not to the same scale).  A feature of the great white is its substantial girth as it matures.  The bronze whaler looks much more dolphin-like in body shape.  A mature great white is unmistakeable.
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The great white in this photo had just seized a piece of food in its mouth.  The tuna gills it sought (thrown into the water by the boat crew) were just in front of the cage I was in.  You can see from the photo that I had moved back in the cage from the gap between the bars.  This was an involuntary movement when it appeared the shark had too much speed and momentum to turn and avoid the cage, and for a moment it seemed possible that it would wedge its head in that suddenly disconcertingly large gap between the horizontal bars of the cage.  But it turned at the last possible moment with perfect judgement and dexterity to seize the food and despite its speed and close proximity, didn’t so much as brush the cage as it swept past and then dived.  I felt the water it disturbed flow around me.
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The fin in this  photo is not a shark fin.  But it occurred to me at the time that this is what it would feel like to see a shark from the surf ski.  I enjoyed the illusion in this totally safe circumstance.  The fin is a pectoral fin on a large Southern Right Whale in front of the SLSC at my favourite beach.  It was swimming slowly on its side in quite shallow water.  Some local fishermen say they do this to scrape their body on the sand.  This whale was around 40 feet long (a photo was taken of me from the beach on my 18′ ski beside the whale – it was more than twice the length of my ski). This photo is a still capture from a GoPro video.  The fin turned and moved towards me, then slowly sank under the water as the whale approached.  The whale then surfaced near me with its head raised – clearly apprehending me – before dismissing me and sinking slowly and majestically below the surface again as it headed out to sea beside the harbour wall.  I saw every detail on its head as it surfaced.  It is the single most memorable encounter I have had with any wild creature.

When a shark is sighted somewhere near an area where frequent swimming occurs,  swimmers seem to divide as to who cares and who doesn’t care that a shark was sighted a day or a few days ago.  My view (shared by many that I know of) is simple – shark sighted Monday evening, swimming is OK from Tuesday on.  Friday is fine.  Most experienced ocean swimmers I know share this view.

As things turned out, the planned xmas swim 5 days after the shark sighting went ahead as planned.  No sharks were sighted, nor was the topic raised on the day, and the weather gods smiled on us (the forecast easterly conditions did not eventuate).  We swam in brilliant sunshine, with a long-period rolling green swell propelling us in regular and perfectly timed instalments towards the shore.  The shore break was good enough to body surf, and the rip in the corner was easily avoided.  The group deemed it a safe and reasonable time and place to swim, and we were right.

Managing the risk that sharks can pose is something most ocean swimmers think about, even if they do not talk about it all that often.  People who don’t swim in the ocean a lot seem prone in my experience to raising the topic in conversation while actually swimming.  More than once I have been asked by such occasional and concerned swimmers,  while swimming some distance offshore, what I do to manage the ‘shark risk’ (as they see it).  I invariably respond that I am doing it right now – swimming with another person, thereby halving the chance of me being the one eaten by the shark.  I’m not sure what comfort it gives, but it usually ends that conversation.

I have played in the surf since I was a young boy, and absorbed information about sharks along the way, some of it reliable, some not.  Deciding what is reliable and what is not can be quite a challenge.

In responding to the risk of sharks, I generally draw on the following idiosyncratic bunch of ideas (untested, most not evidence-based, many possibly wrong) and experiences –  they’ll do me until something better comes along:

  • not all sharks are a problem
  • not all sharks that can be a problem are a problem all the time
    • (inserted in June 2020). On 3 May I was swimming about 180m offshore at Apollo Bay in glassy water when to my left about 20m away I saw a shiny dark dorsal fin (not large but certainly not small) moving in the opposite direction to me. I saw it surface, stay level then subside not to be seen again by me. It did not change direction or speed as it passed me. I did not see any dolphins in the area, and the movement and and behaviour of the fin owner was not consistent with dolphins I have encountered while swimming. I swam straight to shore at a respectable pace, keeping any eye over my shoulder as I did so. I learned later that the salmon schools had arrived in the area. They swim up and down the gutters and sandbars parallel to the beach. They attract a lot of fishermen, and from time to time, sharks (typically mako, blue, bronze whaler). I cannot positively identify what it was that swam past me, but on reflection and a bit of research, I believe there is a distinct possibility it was a mako shark. If it was, it would clearly have sensed my presence, and yet it did not show any interest in me at all. I assume that it would have turned earlier if sought to investigate me as prey.
  • merely being in the water in close proximity to a shark species known to be a potential problem, is not necessarily a problem
    • (inserted in June 2020). In late May, a young fellow I know was surfing at an exposed reef break east of Apollo Bay. The surf was bigger than double overhead. He fell from the top of a large unbroken wave and his board broke, leaving just a small part of the tail of the board with the leg rope attached. He landed near a great white shark which he described as bigger than a cow. His father is a shark fisherman and he has often gone out as deckhand with his father. I trust his identification. He of course swam straight to shore (over 200m) with a friend he had been surfing with. The shark left him alone. As he said, “It could’ve had me any time it liked”. He want for another surf later that day at a mellow break close to shore, to ward off any reaction that might see him reluctant to return to the sea in the short term if he deferred his next surf. He has continued surfing the same areas. His shark encounter certainly eclipses my fin sighting!
  • shark at your favourite swimming place?  I generally wait until the next day to resume swimming etc.  This has occurred very infrequently at my home beach with a Mako sighting just offshore where we swim.
  • I believe that anyone who swims regularly in the ocean in Victoria will have swum in close proximity to a shark without knowing it.  I recall a day on the Vic west coast in 2015 when the surf was unusually large and perfect.  Every point and reef from Torquay to Johanna had a crowd of surfers in the lineup.  On that single Saturday there were sightings of sizeable sharks at three surf breaks (Bogalley Ck, Cathedral Rock and one of which I’ve forgotten the name) which caused surfers to leave the water.  Not one person was attacked or nudged.  I don’t believe this was a sharkfest due to crowds in the water, but rather that there were a lot of observers in the water on the one day conducting an inadvertent census of the distribution of sharks along that stretch of coast.  As they say, the sharks are always in the water.  Interestingly, in August 2017 a surfer at Cathedral Rock was given a good nudge and had his board bitten by a large shark believed to be a great white.  The surfer was not injured.  He did leave the water though.  I am confident Cathedral Rock will continue to be surfed as regularly as it was before this encounter.  The news report on this incident can be read at:

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-08-29/surfer-fends-off-shark-near-lorne/8852186

  • reef sharks (black tip, white tip etc) in the tropics won’t hurt you
  • the main worry  for humans in Victorian waters is the great white, followed perhaps by the bronze whaler.  Makos and grey nurse sharks should be given respect
  • the tiger shark and bull shark are a definite problem but they like warmer water, and are not a problem in Victoria
  • spearfishing near sharks is asking for trouble
  • swimming near a seal colony is pleading for trouble
  • wildlife behaving erratically (schools of fish bolting or jumping out of the water, birds in a bit of a state low over the water, sea creatures suddenly swimming away and not returning etc) is a warning sign worth assessing and responding to
  • dawn and dusk in the water are no riskier than midday and midnight
  • dogs don’t attract sharks any more than humans do
  • urine doesn’t attract sharks, but blood does
  • estuaries are not shark haunts per se, but nutrients could flow into the sea at such places and thereby support a food chain at the top of which you could find sharks
  • sharks are colour blind
  • sharks have many sensory systems apart from sight, some of which are much more spectacular than vision in their efficiency.  But I am aware of study which concluded that the portion of the shark’s brain which processes vision is large, leading to the speculation that sight may be more important than hitherto believed. I consider the jury is still out on this.  I am aware of a reliably witnessed incident on the west coast of Victoria where a shark stalked a surfer, and at one point it swam at speed in a straight line for a distance of 300m from well out the back to a surfer in the shore break.  Vision could not have had anything to do with this unerring homing in on a target.  Incidentally, it didn’t attack, and the surfer was not aware of the shark’s movements until told about later.
  • sharks can sense minute electrical currents in the water, as well as vibrations, and they have a wonderful sense of smell. They can also hear, taste and touch of course
  • you won’t see the shark that is about to eat you
  • sharks are much more cautious and intelligent than their reputation suggests. When I was in the shark cage off Pt Lincoln in 2015, of all the creatures large and small which were interested in the food being thrown in the water to attract the sharks, the shark was the only one that didn’t make a bee-line for the food and eat as if there was no tomorrow.  The sharks circled from afar, assessed, swam beyond our view in bigger circles, approached more than once before retreating and circling again, often from differing depths and angles, and after all that, some sharks came and ate and others gave it a miss.  The ones that ate didn’t amble up to the food and nibble politely – they all accelerated from 20-30 metres away and hit the food at high speed with their mouths open, departing the immediate vicinity equally quickly. It looked very tactical.
  • if you see a shark in your vicinity which appears to be a threat, swimming away will improve your chances of being eaten. Best not to act like prey – face it, get in a tight group if you have company, hitting it might be of some use if you get the chance (but great whites have been seen to chew a moving boat propeller which rather suggests that my best right cross might not be noticed).  Mick Fanning’s famous great white encounter at Jeffreys Bay in South Africa included him striking the shark, and the surfer at Cathedral Rock reported doing the same thing.  In Mick’s case, my view is that the shark was sizing him up, but became tangled in his leg rope which caused it to struggle briefly before departing quickly.
  • the risk is greater further off shore (there is sound evidence for this, based on statistics and details of all known shark attacks on humans in Australian waters)
  • there may be some refuge in or above heavy kelp forests (Wayne Lynch is the source of this idea, based on an actual encounter he had with a great white on the Vic west coast)
  • once in the water, there is really nothing you can do about the shark risk. Do all the inquiring and assessment (surfers, fishermen etc) from the shore, and only swim/surf if happy the risk at that time is low.  Local (informed) knowledge is in my view a very reliable guide as to shark risk at a particular location.
  • sharks don’t hang around where there is not a food source. But in travelling between food sources, they pass through other areas (such as Lorne, Apollo Bay). Sharks clearly hang around seal colonies.
  • grey skies and grey water pose no greater risk of shark attack than any other sky or water colour.
  • low visibility in the sea can be spooky, but I don’t think sharks rely on this to stalk prey – they are completely on top of their game in clear water and murky water
  • patterned and coloured wetsuits are a waste of time in reducing shark risk (there is a fair bit of work being done in this regard in WA, a place that truly needs a solution now – but I don’t believe anything conclusive has come out of it yet).
  • black wetsuits are no riskier than any other colour
  • some of the electrical repellant devices seem to be offering some promise, but the science isn’t in yet
  • many adventurers lay false claim to being scientific in testing various shark repellant devices and material – real science in this field seems to be in short supply
  • swimming in a close group lowers the risk of a shark in the vicinity attacking at all.  I believe the reason to be that a group of swimmers does not appear to the shark like any prey that it is familiar with (and of course the herd defence clearly lowers the risk for a given individual).  An ocean swimmer was taken by a large bronze whaler at Tathra New South Wales in April 2014.  She had been swimming with a group, but left the group to swim back to shore alone:

http://www.theherald.com.au/story/2198846/christine-armstrongs-husband-describes-fatal-tathra-shark-attack/

  • if you are swimming where shark attack is even a possibility, having something in the boot which could be used as a tourniquet is not silly.  Many an attack victim has been saved by timely application of a tourniquet.  I do not forget that the surfboard straps kept in the boot of my old beach car could be useful in this regard.
  • at Victorian beaches (putting to one side breeding grounds such as Phillip Island, and  around seal colonies), the risk of any shark attack is low, and the risk of a fatal attack is even lower.  I’ve no idea how to quantify it, but intuitively, I feel that the risk of driving down the Great Ocean Road carries a far higher background risk of death or injury than swimming at a carefully selected beach
  • if your mate is being attacked, don’t hesitate to go and help him or her.  I have never heard or read of a shark leaving the injured victim of first choice to have a crack at a second person.  A shark attack is planned and specifically targeted on an individual.  Sharks have been seen to ignore and swim past a swimmer to reach a more distant swimmer who is the selected target.  I have not heard of a rescuer in the water being attacked.
  • don’t leave the water on every reported shark sighting – establish its credibility, and get some idea of type and size.  I was on the surf ski at my home beach a few years ago and the SLSC rubber duck motored out to suggest I leave the water due to a shark sighting some 800 metres away.  I asked the source, and with some hesitation the lifesaver said it was a tourist driving past.   I said I was happy to keep paddling, and he said he’d do the same, but had to give the warning any way.  To those unfamiliar with the sea, shadows, waves, kelp, fish etc can look like a shark.
  • a small group of hardy ocean swimmers have been swimming every weekday morning (and most weekends) for over 9 years at my favourite ocean beach.  They swim up to 1500m or so, and if the swell is up, often 200+m offshore.  In all that time, there has only been one shark sighted – a skinny little 6 foot blue shark, which was disoriented in the corner of the bay near the harbour wall.  The swimmers that day learned on exiting the water that it had been swimming near them.  It left them alone.  That there has not been a single other sighting , is strong empirical evidence in my view that my home bay is not a sharky spot to swim.  I believe the reason to be that this bay has no reefs or rocks or kelp beds or underwater features such as might attract permanent populations of fish which might in turn attract sharks.  Viewed from the air the uniformly sandy seabed in the bay is clear.  It is something of a marine desert.  This possibly accounts for larger creatures only ever being visitors.  I was in Melbourne when this little shark was seen, and one of the group sent me the photo and the text message in the caption.
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“……..New swimming group member this morning . Right behind us came in very shallow . 8ft long .They say . Didn’t see a thing until out of the water.”
  • more broadly, the last confirmed shark fatality in Victoria was in 1956, at a surf carnival in March at the Portsea back beach.  A lot of people have had a dip or a paddle or a long swim in the ocean in the last 60 years. Some sources cite Prime Minister Harold Holt’s drowning in 1967 off Cheviot Beach near the Rip as a shark fatality, but in my view that is entirely speculative – I am not aware of any sound evidence for this conclusion.
  • in 1985 and 1986 in a summer holiday job I flew low level shark patrols for a Melbourne radio station.  The beaches we covered were down the eastern side of Pt Phillip Bay from Pt Melbourne to the Heads, then down to Anglesea and back.  I only saw one great white in that time, in the bay near Safety Beach near some snorkellers.  I flew low and sounded the siren and they left the water.  But it wasn’t acting aggressively and was simply near them.  There was a team of pilots rostered to do these flights, and over the years of the shark patrols, none of us ever got to clear any of the beaches we patrolled due to a shark in the vicinity.  By the way, the first obvious way to distinguish a shark from a dolphin from above is to observe whether the tail moves left to right (sharks) or up and down (dolphins).
  • when I lived in Pt Lincoln (a known shark capital in Australia) an elderly lady told me that as a child, when she went to swim at the town jetty, she was given strict instructions by her parents that if swimming near the end of the jetty, upon seeing a shark, she was to come into the steps nearer the beach to swim.  How times change.
  • perhaps perpetuating this tradition, when my wife and I first moved to Pt Lincoln (1978) we went for a swim in the surf at Fishery Bay south of Pt Lincoln (later, the scene of numerous shark attacks on surfers).  We were in chest deep water body surfing, and on looking seaward as an unbroken wave popped up, green and clear, we saw the unmistakeable profile of a shark of proper length swimming along the wave.  It was more torpedo like than bulky.  We left the water and walked down the beach to warn a few surfers on boards in the shore break.  They thanked us and said it was a bronze whaler which had been hanging around all morning.  Then they told us that they only leave the water for great whites.  I suspect subsequent events may have lowered the threshold for leaving the water at Fishery Bay.  (See postscript at end of this post)
  • at the moment, and in recent times, Byron Bay and beaches north and south, have an unacceptable shark risk in my view.  I would probably surf at the Pass with a crowd, but at the moment I wouldn’t swim across the bay from the Pass to the SLSC or nearby.  I know there are plenty who think differently and continue to do this swim.  I have yet to hear a persuasive explanation for the sudden and sustained increase in shark attacks and sightings in that part of the world.  I have heard a lot of theories, but nothing more.
  • it remains clear in my view that the shark risk in the head is much scarier than the actual shark risk in the sea.

One piece of advice I do offer is to do all your contemplating about shark risk on the shore.  Once I have made a decision to swim at a particular location, and I hope that by applying some or all of the above it is an informed and reasonable decision, I stop thinking about sharks for the duration of the swim.   I swim happily without giving them a further thought.  The reason is that in my view there is no such thing as swimming and keeping an effective lookout (from water level) for sharks.  They are perfectly evolved hunters and you will not see them coming.  Even if you did, there is nothing you could really do to save yourself.  It is totally unproductive to think about unseen sharks while swimming – it will only induce a case of the willies.  So having carefully decided to swim on any given day, while swimming you may as well act as though they are not there at all (which given the assessment process I adhere to will hopefully be the case).

In the case of the xmas swim at Lorne following the shark sighting off the Lorne Pier five days earlier,  I together with my fellow swimmers applied the simple reasoning of ‘shark sighting Monday, swim on Friday, no problem’.  I swam the 1200m essentially on my own with another 15 swimmers spread across the southern side of Louttit Bay, and did not once think about sharks.  It was a most enjoyable swim.

I accept that it remains possible that I could be eaten by a shark. It cannot be denied that the only way to eliminate the risk is to stay out of the ocean.  All I have to say about that possibility is that I have seen the prospect and process of dying by slower means with many friends and some family, and something swift, clean and making a good headline seems hard to fault – just not on my next swim though.  As already touched upon,  I believe the (carefully managed) risk of riding a motorbike down the Great Ocean Road carries a higher risk of injury or death (but still at an acceptable level) than swimming a few hundred metres offshore at my favourite ocean beach.

I subscribe to ‘Dorsal Shark Reports’ which on 20 December 2016 published this report of a sighting of a Great White at Fishery Bay yesterday afternoon. It was obviously a truly large specimen.

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The fin symbol is where the shark was sighted at left point, a well known surf break.  Right point, another well known surf break is directly opposite on the other side of the bay, at lower left in this map (just above the words ‘Whalers Way Rd.’ ) – see reports below of an attack there in 2015.
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The end of Fishery Bay Road, looking out to Left Point at Fishery Bay (taken in winter 2015)
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My BMW R1200GS parked on the dunes at Fishery Bay, looking out across the bay towards Left Point

Right Point at Fishery Bay is fixed in my memory by the story I heard (from the crew of the Calypso as we travelled out to the Neptune Islands for a shark cage dive) when I travelled to Pt Lincoln in 2015 of a surfer who was attacked while surfing there a few months earlier. This extract from social media gives a thumbnail sketch of the incident.

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A more detailed report can be found at:

http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/shark-attacks-surfer-at-fishery-bay-near-port-lincoln/news-story/d46b71db569efffe50f7a184fa285760

The surf board with leg rope and severed leg still attached were retrieved from the beach a few days after the attack.

It is a graphic tale of a shark attack and a heroic rescue and survival story, with features which no fiction writer would dare include.

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I wish I had taken this photo, but I didn’t. But it’s such a crisp and colourful shot of a great white that I thought I should include it in this post.
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Similarly, this photo (not taken by me) from the ‘Dorsal Shark Reports – Australia’  shark alert app is worthy of inclusion.

Happy ocean swimming!

Please feel free to respond using the comment link below, with your experiences, advice, half-baked ideas and gut feelings in relation to swimming in the same ocean as sharks.

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