Lauren Hill On: Shark (click) Bait
Presented by Sanuk
Like almost everybody else, I survived the Summer of the Shark.
In case you weren’t paying attention to international news headlines in 2001, the Summer of the Shark (SoS) refers to a sensationalized over-reporting of statistically average shark encounters along the East Coast of the USA during that year.
Apparently, there was a slump in media fodder, so sharks became the hot topic, splashed across the nightly news headlines more often than not. There was footage of sharks 'swarming off the coast of Florida – in alleged 'epidemic' proportions. More likely, this was just what the annual shark migration had looked like for a long time.
I had just started surfing at that point, but I remember being flummoxed by the reporting because I saw sharks in the line-up all the time, before the shark hype. Even as a 14-year-old girl, they didn’t seem overly threatening. If they hung around, we went in. Sharks were just there, part of a healthy ecosystem along my home island’s coastline.
Yes, there were several deaths attributable to sharks that year (5) and that was scary, but the media coverage was disproportionate. Significantly fewer people (less than half) died in 2001 by shark bite than in 2000. Not American media at it’s finest, but probably at it’s most revealing.
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A couple of weeks ago on the NSW Far North Coast, amidst spring sunshine and apparently some of the best sandbanks in quite some time, I was sitting amongst a pack of 10 or so other surfers at one of the legendary points. There was a pretty active bait ball some 100 meters deep of the pack; everyone was still a little edgy and hyper aware from all of the shark activity of the previous months. Nevertheless, spirits were high; stoke was as prevalent as the sets that kept peeling down the point. And then, a dorsal. It sliced through the sparkly surface pushing little ripples away.
I immediately thought it was a baby whale, but then the dorsal surfaced again. A big one. A straight one. Dave Rastovich saw it, too. So did a handful of others in the line-up. After seeing it, my immediate response was to start laughing (not because I wasn’t concerned, but because I sometimes respond in emotionally inappropriate ways), and pull my legs up onto my board. The giant boil it left when it went submarine (and presumably out toward the bubbling wellspring of fish) was indicative of its size, or so we speculated for the next hour between sets.
"After seeing it, my immediate response was to start laughing"
The consensus was that it was the biggest dorsal fin any of us had seen; probably in the 1-meter range, a White. Yes, we all hung a little closer together after that, but nobody went in. It was a fascinating, totally normal encounter with a totally essential ocean faring species. It was pretty exhilarating to see such a massive top predator in the wild, really. Kind of awe-inspiring.
Every American knows that Australia is a deadly place. For the first two years that I lived here, the most common question from friends and family at home was ‘but aren’t you scared of the deadly snakes/spiders/sharks/dictatorial politicians?’
Seriously though, the thought of being eaten or bitten is deeply, primally scary --- which is why it captures our imaginations so wildly out of proportion with its likelihood. In the last calendar year, an average of 3 people died everyday in car accidents in Australia. Every DAY. Most people don’t think twice about jumping in the car, much less texting and driving --- probably the most dangerous things that we do. More insidiously, sixty-two Australian women have already been killed by their “partners” or family members this year so far. And there’s no moratorium to cull misogynists.
Unlike the ‘Summer of the Shark,’ we are in the midst of an above average year of reported shark encounters. There are many factors that potentially contribute to this: more reporting, more people in the ocean, the humpback population being re-established after whaling, overfishing, access to previously isolated areas, chumming waters for spectator sport and other human behavioural elements.
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But it’s too soon to know whether this is a lasting trend. Ecosystems aren’t static entities, they ebb and flow. We might just be at the high end of the averages at our new population levels. This makes it difficult to make definitive statements about what’s happening in the complex web of oceanic ecosystems. It also makes it challenging to know how to respond, because our instinctive emotional response calls for much more radical action than the scientific data suggests.
This country is spacious and wild and not yet paved by an onslaught of mega-malls, McMansions and superhighways from coast to coast like where I come from. Ecosystems are still largely intact. We still have food chains to be a part of. Sometimes that’s scary, but it feels worth it considering the lifeless alternative.
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