It's Not About Sharks, It's About People
Story by Jock Serong for Surfing World Magazine Issue 367
The Observer Effect
There’s a scientific principle which says there are some things in the natural world that you can’t observe without simultaneously influencing them. This is known as the Observer Effect; grounded in physics not biology, it nevertheless seems an apt way to think about the current crisis engulfing the north coast of New South Wales.
I’d travelled to the north coast to watch people watching the water for sharks. That’s more or less what was happening there: eyes on the sea like never before. There’s an inevitable feedback loop to this behaviour: people do indeed start seeing sharks. Which tells them there are more sharks in the water, which causes more people to start looking for sharks. And so on.
The notes that follow are a record of my conversations with the watchers. As near as I could, I’ve left their thoughts unchallenged by background research or my own opinions. It’s possible that what I wound up with is a story about people, not sharks.
SEE ALSO: Lauren Hill On Shark (Click) Bait
Belongil, 10:30 Friday night
Standing on a wide grassy bluff overlooking the sea, brushed by a light offshore under a full moon. The light on the Cape to the south sweeps round. Nothing but the gentle lapping of a small swell on the banks. Brightly illuminated in the moonlight, the ocean looks benign and welcoming.
As the plane had touched down I’d switched the phone on and read about the month-long recovery of Craig Ison, attacked by a great white at Evans Head a month ago. The story featured photos of his mangled limbs: gone was the easy-going forgiveness of victims past. He wanted nets and drumlines, and he made clear he’ll never get in the water again. He tried to give words to his ordeal: it was otherwise unimaginable. His adamance – about sharks and about himself – felt entirely understandable.
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North Wall Ballina – lookout carpark, Saturday dawn.
English tourists shivering as they wait for the sun to appear on the eastern horizon. The spray of breaching humpbacks – so many of them - turns orange in the early light. There are fishing boats working in and out of the rivermouth. Inshore, North Wall and Speeds are two or three foot and clean. There are countless banks between the rock wall and the point up at Trestles. There are no surfers in the water.
The surfers are in their cars, and huddled beside other surfers’ car windows. They’re scoping, like surfers everywhere along the coast right now, their conversation interrupted by the universal asides – aww, check this one – but none of them are moving. It’s as though they have some pressing commitment, or a foot in plaster. It’s surreal.
I chat to a guy of thirty-odd, relaxed but firmly remaining in his driver’s seat. He’s talking to another guy who hasn’t surfed in three weeks. He says the first guy – the one in the car – is a major local shredder. That guy says he’ll go out at present “only if it’s really, really good.” They agree the situation’s gnarly. First guy is “generally against culling, I have been for years, but now…I’d agree with it for one or two sharks if they know they’re the ones responsible.
“Matt (Lee) got mauled over there (pointing) and Tadashi (Nakahara) was killed there (pointing 200 metres along).” How would it feel to be able to point to two such marks at your local, within a short paddle of each other?
A boat hangs around, maybe half a kilometre off Boulders. They think that’s the “tagging boat”, though they don’t get how it’s helping. “Maybe long-term, but it’s not doing much for us right now, is it?”
They don’t want to overstate it because surfers never want to overstate anything, but they seem helpless.
In the air: pelicans, a light plane, a drone.
They reckon the tagging boat has got a couple of small ones (there’s an assumption in everything said that the unspecified sharks are great whites). It’s rumoured the tagging boat has seen several much larger sharks.
A barrel spits. Someone hoots. No-one moves.
There are random padlocks clipped onto the barrier wires on the lookout, Pont Neuf-style. Lovers. One of these guys says he might’ve surfed through these times a few years ago, but now he’s got a couple of kids. It’s always interesting how kids change people’s thinking about risk.
At 7am, an hour after sunrise, two lonely figures paddle out at North Wall. One immediately gets barrelled. A big pod of dolphins cruises south towards the surfers.
The guys in the car think we’ve fished out all the inshore fish but protected their main predator. We’ve protected the whales too. Maybe the balance is out. The watchers don’t like the bird activity. They don’t like the heavy rains with their muddy brown runoff, the smelly water that follows, “dead cows floating out the rivermouth.”
There’s apparently guys doing home-made stripey sprays on the bottoms of their boards. Which reminds me: Blakey’s left me a board to use while in town. It’s yellow.
There’s a girl leaning on the barrier wires, talking to a tall guy and occasionally scanning her phone. She looks lean and focussed: focussed on the surf, not the scenery. Clasje Goebel’s a competitive surfer, and is down from North Straddie, studying environmental science and marine science as a double major at Lismore. Caspar Lewis is studying media there and lives on the hill behind Lighthouse Beach. He loves being in Ballina: it’s more of a community than Byron to him. Byron’s where he goes if he wants to party.
I explain to Clasje what I’m doing here. She laughs and takes the phone out again.
“I just had this text from a mate,” she says, and then reads it out.
“The scientist dude who spoke at the Lennox shark meeting says that every single attack happened either just before or just after a full moon & suggests that it’s OK to surf at the moment but really advises to stay out of the water on 30th, 31st& 1st.”
Today’s the 29th. We both laugh. She scrolls a bit and finds another one.
“The shark spotters say every day they spot one at north wall.”
These two consider themselves conservationists and indeed speak with all the terminology one would expect from conservationists, but they’re not partisans. As one of them says, “you gotta listen to the commercial fishermen.”
Either by temperament or as a result of the courses she’s studying, Clasje’s carefully rational. “People think North Straddie’s pretty sharky, but it’s just a healthy ecosystem. I come from a big surfing and fishing family and I’m still surfing.”
We agree that maybe the “shark spotters” in the text message are people who want to see sharks and will interpret any movement that way.
Birds start diving at the water as we speak, and a chopper appears. It’s 7:30.
Walking down the beach just after Caspar and just before Clasje, my mind is set on rationality.
Mind over matter, nothing to see here. Even allowing for the undeniable reality of Tadashi’s death, of Matt Lee’s injuries, of the cluster of other incidents along this coast recently, there’s still ample comfort to be had in the numbers. There are now ten or fifteen surfers floating in the corner beside the north wall.
But there’s that bloody full moon, the ‘scientist dude’ and his list of cursed dates. There’s the whales and the baitballs everywhere, with their diving bloody birds. There’s the yellow board (a phenomenon I specifically believe to be bollocks) under my arm. Crossing the last of the squeaking sand and into the shallows, the water’s so much warmer than down south. Everyone out there appears to be content in their own world. Yet I’m distinctly uncomfortable.
The water’s clear. The sun’s out. It’s fairly shallow. I’m looking at my watch. Half an hour will do. That’s something I’ve never told myself about a surf in three-foot barrels. By the time I reach the pack and find Caspar, the chopper’s overhead and a light plane hangs in the air higher up. The drone’s buzzing around somewhere. The numbers in the water are steadily building, as though the spell’s been broken. It’s a glorious late winter Saturday.
After a couple of waves I’ve successfully distracted myself and dark thoughts are replaced by the ordinary mental chatter of any old session. A bigger set wave appears and I drop late, spearing the nose straight into the trough and hurling myself over the handlebars. The rolling’s not too bad but it’s enough to snap the legrope and my initial reaction is, well, at least I’m separated from the damn yellow board. The explosion of the peak turns the clear water into a fizzing sandy churn. Then a few other thoughts start crowding in like twitchy strangers in a bar. The dates. The baitballs. The full moon. The recent past.
I’m about a hundred metres from the beach. I start swimming, slowly at first. Then my thoughts turn to my legs. If I kick I’ll go faster. But if I kick I might convey panic. The flashing white soles of my feet in the stirred water: I can picture them so clearly. So I start swimming faster. The board’s nowhere to be seen. Faster. I can see a woman on the beach looking straight at me. Why’s she looking at me?
They’re long minutes, but still my best time for the hundred. When my feet touch sand I’m still not satisfied and I run the remainder of the distance. On dry sand, I immediately feel like a fool.
There’s a guy changing into a wettie in the carpark. Maybe fifty, has the hardened look of someone who’s surfed in one place for a lifetime.
“Have you surfed here all your life?” I ask him.
“Yep,” he says, shorts around his ankles. I realise this is a poorly timed interview request.
He tells me the crowds are “way down.” He says that two or three years ago, nobody even talked about great whites, let alone saw one. “It’s great whites that are the worry. Nobody’s got an issue with bronzies or bulls.” As he goes on, I can see that the shark issue saddens him in a way that transcends sadness for the victims. “We had it all here – the climate, the waves, no biteys. Now we got biteys.” He tells me he’s got mates who are commercial fishermen, “and one guy, he fishes the Pinnacle, just off the back of The Point (Lennox). He’s seeing a big great white out there every other day, and he never used to see ‘em. And these guys know what they’re talking about.”
He’s always been against culling but now – he shrugs – “I’m tending towards it, yeah. Shoot the bastards.” But he immediately agrees that he can’t see how it would help. He tells me he has a mate who has a dental practice, “smart guy, you know, the kinda guy you’d expect wouldn’t say it, but he reckons we should cull em.” His theory is that the great whites are following the whale migration up the coast, gradually appearing further and further north. “And the fish have been fished out offshore*, so they’re coming in closer.” (*Note: a variant on this idea often arises: the fish have been fished out inshore, so the sharks are turning to other sources of food.)
Although he acknowledges the situation is serious, he thinks the jumping at shadows is making things worse. “The bloody chopper circled the rivermouth the other day and then a boat came and sent us in because there was a shark in the river. Of course there are bloody sharks in the river – it’s only a worry when we’re told about it!” I drive from Ballina north towards Byron as the sun rises higher and the day grows into the kind of sparkling beauty that has drawn people here for generations. On the way I slow down to look out at Sharpes Bay, where there are good numbers in the water. Hard to tell if it’s just the bright light that’s chased away the spookiness of dawn, or if the lure of an offshore Saturday is enough to extinguish the worry, but three dozen surfers would be about par, wouldn’t it?
Under the shady banksias of the Broken Head carpark I meet up with Jock Barnes, former QS surfer and a long-time Lennox local.
He’s involved himself in the anti-fracking movement and along the way developed a knack for putting a position succinctly. As he talks to me there’s a constant stream of campervans coming and going, disgorging tanned Europeans with their rented epoxy super-fishes.
Jock thinks hard before he speaks. “On the one hand it’s fantastic because all that activity tells you the ecosystem’s really healthy, but on the other hand it poses a threat. If I have that feeling (of dread) I respond to it. I get out. The problem is that now there’s so much talk, and so much happening, that it’s harder to know if I’m having a truly intuitive moment.
“One of my favourite things about surfing the north coast is that you can get a peak to yourself. But it’s changed where I’d choose to surf - I’d think twice about the walls at Ballina and Tallows because there’s so much traffic coming past the Cape. Two of my all-time favourite spots, Cosy Corner and south wall Ballina, I’m avoiding for the time being. I like to surf by myself, and you just wouldn’t do it there.
“I knew Tadashi from when he first came out here ten years ago. From hearing of his attack, safety in numbers had nothing to do with it. There were plenty of people in the water, and plenty on the beach to help. But it didn’t save him.
“WA’s had a high frequency of encounters, but now it’s close to home and current. But it’s important to understand it’s not isolated to this coast. It’s happening worldwide. We need to be engaging our scientific minds about this. It scares me that a decision could be made without that counsel. But undoubtedly there needs to be some sort of action.
Whatever idea a community comes up with is going to be invalid without intelligent scientific backing. I can sympathise with anyone who’s been affected by these tragedies - as I say, Tadashi was a friend - but we have to step back, take a breath. I just think we shouldn’t be rash about it.”
Danny Wills is draped over the rail on the lookout platform, scoping a huge flat bank up near the point and a hollower shorebreak in the middle of the bay. Neither is crowded. His is an interesting perspective because he’s both a lifelong surfer on this coast and also a retailer.
“Yeah, great whites have never been on the radar up here until now,” he says. “We’ve never been worried about ‘em here. Even when Marty Ford died (in March 1982 at Tallows), that was a tiger, not a white. “I’ve heard so many theories. And I really don’t have one of my own. Maybe more marine parks, protected species. Dad was on the mullet crews and he’s an old fisho. He says he hasn’t seen baitfish like this in years.”
I ask him if there’s confusion between white sharks feeding on mammals (that is, the great migrations of humpbacks passing this coast) and feeding on fish (i.e. the baitfish shoals). “There was footage the other day of a great white at Tallows, definitely feeding on the baitfish. And there was a little – when I say ‘little’ I mean ten foot – white hassling people in the Bay last year.”
“I did find myself buying into the bullshit a little,” he admits. “A month ago, I stopped surfing for about two weeks. It was too much for me to handle. But surfing in shallow, clear water – no worries. The quiet spots are empty now and the busy places are packed. I won’t go down to the empty beaches by myself anymore.
“Culling? It‘s touchy. Oh man. Definitely, we should get rid of one when we know it’s been involved in multiple incidents. And if my kid had been attacked, I’d say fuck ‘em. Kill ‘em all. You really can’t comment unless you’ve been in that position. Ask Mick – that’d be interesting. I’ve turned down requests to do media about this because I’m scared I’ll say the wrong thing, and that thing’s only an opinion in my head. I like the idea of tagging em. Maybe we should go back to that idea. Something needs to be done. “For sure, it’s having an economic effect on the town. I don’t even know the last time I sold a surfboard. The retail numbers are way down – maybe 20%.”
Mid-conversation a stranger wanders up and says “thirty guys just paddled in at Sharpes because the chopper circled and a boat rocked up. I think they tagged one right there.” So much for the happy crowd I saw.
“Here’s another theory – they’re females, they’re fattening up and they’ll have their young and piss off.”
Broken Head beach, mid morning – two foot, offshore, twenty out.
In the water at Broken Head, the chopper flies over constantly. And when it does, everybody looks at it. Some of them don’t want to be caught looking at it – just a sly incline of the neck for a second. But they all look. Of course they do. It’s not an interest in helicopters, it’s a fervent wish that it’s going to keep flying straight and not make a loop.
There’s good numbers in the water here, despite the ever-present baitballs and diving birds. There’s no real sense of menace under the mid-morning sun. A guy paddles past. Shaved head and neck tatts teamed with a thick biker mo. He looks gnarly enough that I have a hunch which way he’ll go on this.
Me: Scuse me mate. Random question – are you in favour of culling sharks?
Him: Shut no, bro.
Me: My God, you’re a Kiwi.
Him: End proud of ut.
Me: Do sharks worry you?
Him: Not one fucken but. Luv and lit luv, eh bro.
Down the street, the chopper maintains its overhead vigil. By now I’m feeling like Ray Liotta in Goodfellas: Now I’m sure we’re being tailed. My plan was to go to her mother’s and unload the guns…
Into a surfshop to replace the legrope. When I ask whether he’s still surfing, the proprietor scratches his head and laughs. “We all used to avoid each other. Now we wanna hang out. Sharks bring people together!” More seriously, he says the mood in town is affecting his board hire business quite badly, but that clothing sales march on unaffected. He thinks the mood will pass, and sooner rather than later.
Fletcher St, Byron Bay – half-full café, no apparent wind – 1:00 pm
Perry Bartholomew and his business partner Rob Dalton have owned the Byron Bay Dive Centre for twelve years, long enough to have a good base against which to assess the impact of shark sightings on trade. Both Perry and Rob are surfers as well as divers, giving them a rare under-and-over perspective on vulnerability. Perry’s also a kiteboarder and a father of three children aged ten, eight and five. He has pale green eyes and a lethal poker face, and he approaches the interview cautiously (he later laughs off his reticence, explaining that he just can’t stand being misquoted).
“I’m certainly thinking about sharks at the moment – from both a personal and business perspective - but not to the level that I’d discourage my kids from having adventures in the ocean. I feel more comfortable about them diving and snorkelling at Julian Rocks than surfing inshore.
“I haven’t looked at our launch records to assess whether it’s affecting business - I can’t control it, so why analyse it? I reckon snorkelling’s changed but diving not so much. Divers are more accommodating of sharks than surfers - they feel less vulnerable (whether they actually are or not). I think the noise and bubbles you create as a diver are a deterrent to sharks too.
“I’m pretty comfortable with the whole thing. There’s definitely a spike in incidences, but to me there’s always going to be a place and a year where the highest number occurs. This year there’s been a lot of baitfish in the Bay. It’s not sharks that keep me out of the water – it’s life.
“I’m an emergency services worker, a fireman. The things I see – God, there’s so many things that can go wrong in your life, and you’re worrying about the ocean? These people rang up a while ago and cancelled their snorkelling - they were going to drive down from Brisbane. It was unbelievable. I felt like telling them I’d been to a quadruple fatality on that road the previous night.”
I mention to Perry that a common refrain has been “but we have to do something.”
“The harder question is: do we actually have to do anything? The political mirror image of “we have to do something” is “I have to do something” – that’s why politicians will announce measures, so they’re seen to be acting. No-one’s been asking the dive industry. We have a protocol whereby we shut down operations when there’s a beach alert. But we haven’t seen a single shark outside of a grey nurse or a wobbegong all season.
“I consider myself a conservationist. The company works hard at being sustainable. We’re educators, and we’re very conscious of the marine park (from Brunswick Heads to Lennox and out to three nautical miles). And it works – clients will say to themselves ‘I saw that turtle, and I won’t throw that cigger butt.’ If there’s another fatality and the state talks about setting up drumlines off Byron, I would be vocal against that. Hopefully they’ve laughed off the netting thing. Look at the animals that get caught in them: turtles, dolphins…every year there’s a whale. And because of the geography here, nets would get heaps more of those animals.
“You protect the white sharks and their numbers go up. Meanwhile, surfer numbers go up massively. All the numbers are up, so of course interactions will increase. There’s so many sightings at present, but there’s so many eyes in the sky. I’m very anti-drones. All they’ll do is cause more beach closures, and that’ll cause panic – it’s a chain reaction. I still don’t know whether it’s an issue or not. Clearly it’s an issue for the families involved. I’d never make light of it.”
Wategos, late afternoon. One foot, onshore, five out on mals.
The lighthouse looks over the bay like a fat Victorian gent in a waistcoat. Julian Rocks out back, and halfway there a cluster of kayaks; the paddlestrokes like the slow progress of a millipede.
The surfers here are all international travellers. After a near-collision, I find myself chatting to two Spanish girls, Nuria and Alba. They’re from Barcelona, and they’re deft enough on the longboards to suggest they’ve done plenty of surfing in their time.
Both have been out of the water for a month, and this is their first surf back. They went back to Spain in the meantime and watched Facebook from a horrified distance; the sightings, the water clearances, the incidents. They admit they’re scared, despite their confident demeanours. They’d only surf Wategos and the Pass.
“I’ll stay out of the water if there are more incidents,” says Nuria. “I think Europeans simply believe there’s sharks everywhere here: not just now and not just Byron Bay.” By that logic, she thinks that any panic over sharks right now is unlikely to affect visitor numbers, or their enthusiasm for the whole Wicked Van experience. “I think Australians are…” she rolls her eyes, searching for the English she wants to get this right. “They’re brought up this way, so they’re less concerned, yes?”
At their home near Broken Head, I’m leaning on Dave Rastovich and Lauren Hill’s kitchen bench, afternoon sunlight streaming in through the windows. There’s fruit everywhere, and jars of strange, fragrant rocks which turn out to be frankincense and myrrh. There’s no gold, but Dave passes for a wise man.
Dave and Lauren’s natural inclination is to place an issue like shark numbers in a wider context. It’s part of what makes them fascinating to interview – the conversation starts out small, then expands like a gas balloon.
Dave’s heard reports that white shark activity in California is at an all-time high. So why both sides of the Pacific simultaneously? Could it relate to the building El Nino, the whole bulk nutrient mass of the Pacific being shunted around by warm currents and taking the predators with it?
“Maybe. There’s certainly been baitballs and bird piles like never before. It’s insane: Broken Head and Lennox are so full of life right now. I surfed four-foot Lennox alone, the day they were going to run the Grom comp. There’s normally about 600 groms there and all the soccer parents with their video cameras. And either someone saw a shark or it was a reaction to the earlier incidents and they called the whole thing off. I watched it for a while and I couldn’t resist. I paddled out. I was getting waves right through, hollow and flat out. It was unbelievable. I got home and rang George (Greenough) and I said ‘George, now I know what it felt like to surf Lennox on your own in the seventies! It’s amazing!’ and he said to me (does pitch-perfect Greenough drawl) ‘I know, David, I know. That’s how it used to be. All…the…time.’”
Lauren’s interested in what the responses have been from locals so far. Perry Bartholomew’s perspective in particular interests them. “Yeah, I think he’s right,” says Dave. “We humans won’t tolerate a situation where we’re not in control. I don’t think we have to do anything at all. This is what the ocean is doing right now, but that’ll change.”
We talk about the whales moving up the coast in tremendous numbers; how the white sharks and big tigers predate upon them when the calves are vulnerable on the surface and the mothers are low on nutrition from migrating, and exhausted.
I ask Lauren whether she thinks increased prevalence of sharks is a sign of a healthy ecosystem, or of some other kind of pathology we don’t know about. That is, must we accept that more predators might be an inevitable outcome of our conservation efforts? “Well,” she says, “With all the imbalances we’ve created, maybe what we’ve done is turn up the amplifier: increase the intensity of all these natural relationships.”
Dave’s surfed in some of the most beautiful environments on earth but also, as he points out, in some of the worst. “In places like Japan and parts of Indo and California, the sea is so denuded of life that surfing feels sad and solitary. In other parts of the world people are surprised that the ocean can be like this” - he sweeps an arm out vaguely towards where Broken Head would be – “the swarms of fish and birds and whales and dolphins.”
The Pass: one foot, offshore, 55 out. Average board length: nine foot six.
Getting changed in the carpark ($4 an hour), I spy a demographic I haven’t yet questioned. Retirees.
I sidle over to Paul and Maree from Wurtulla on the Sunny Coast. They seem unconcerned by my hastily-wrapped modesty towel, and they accept my claim that I’m a journalist. He’s in tall sports socks and runners; she rocks a visor.
They’re staying at Kingscliff. They think it’s the longlining that strips out all the fish offshore. “I go fishing on the Gold Coast,” says Paul, “and I can’t catch anything at all these days. Longlining brings the sharks in closer looking for food.”
Paul likes to go for a swim, and he’s still doing that. He’s “not too worried”, but Maree looks at him sidelong.
“I like to know that he’s come back okay,” she says. “It’s a bit awful, isn’t it.” She casts a look at my wetsuited legs: “Aren’t you worried?” I remind her that I’m a journalist.
Interview concluded, I check my phone. Large white spotted at Marion Bay, Tasmania, and everyone ordered out of the water. It’s like that game where you whack the hippos with a hammer. You hit ‘em here, and they just pop up there. How can culling work in such a scenario?
The sand build-up at the Pass, like Broken Head and Lennox and probably a dozen other points, is incredible. Wide and flat and perfect. Longboards are flying everywhere, and dropping in is the rule here, not the exception. If these people are nervous, it seems they’re taking it out on each other.
There’s a grom staking wave after wave, running back up the edge of the sandbank after each, until the exhaustion catches up with him and he stops momentarily. He’s on a blue and green Mini Simmons and his eyes are pink from the sandy water. He’s Manny, aged nine, and he goes to the local primary, Byron Bay Public. His mum Celia is nearby, surfing a mal. I get the impression they surf together a lot, these two. It’s pretty cool.
“He just jumped out of the water because he thought he saw something,” laughs Celia. “I told him to calm down.” Manny’s now back at it, and laughing it off, slightly embarrassed. But with the indelicacy of small kids, he points down the beach towards Clarkes and says “that’s where the guy got his leg ripped off”. His mum gently corrects his language, but suddenly I get a clear sense of how random and horrifying such events are, and how they must etch themselves in the psyche of kids. He’ll likely remember that corner of the beach in that way for the rest of his days.
The night before I leave, I stand on the beach at Belongil and watch the beam of the lighthouse searching the ocean under the dreaded full moon. The beam searches, and so do the people with their binoculars, and the drones and the planes and the choppers. Everyone’s searching, all the time now.
Like much of the debate surrounding sharks, the issues facing the north coast towns are complex. Sharks have always been a feature of the Byron beaches, drawn by abattoir offal, then whaling, not to mention periodic surges in baitfish populations. Back in 1962, Bruce Brown came to Byron with Paul and John Witzig to film Waterlogged, and they reportedly watched a huge white shark cruise through the line-up at Wategos. Had they not been there, and been watching with experienced eyes, we would never have known of the shark’s presence.
What’s changed with the years has been the extent of human presence and observation: more of us in the water, and more of us watching it with ever greater technological resources. If we look more, we will see more. The question is, what will we do about what we see?
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