Thursday, 19 July 2012

Man Bites Shark



Last Saturday morning, at 9am local time, Ben Linden, a 24-year-old surfer, was killed in a particularly horrific attack by a Great White shark to the north of the city of Perth in Western Australia.  It's a news story I reported on BrooWaha simply as a story (Shark Bites Surfer in Half, 15 July).  

There are aspects to this tragedy that made me uneasy, specifically over the slightly hysterical reaction in the Australian media.  However, with the death so fresh and the shock so apparent, I felt it best just to report the bare facts.  I did, right until the end.  It was only after I found out that surfers were still using the beach in question, despite a local ban, that I felt a brief observation was necessary;

Comment is superfluous in the face of such tragedy, though I think it only right to say that there are some risks simply not worth taking, or if people are prepared to take them the sharks themselves should not suffer the consequences of their foolhardiness. Jaws-style hysteria seems wholly out of place.

Sadly Jaws-style hysteria is what we are getting. Great Whites have been a protected species in Australian waters for more than a decade, after the International Union for Conservation of Nature identified them as vulnerable. Now, in the aftermath of Ben's death, there have been repeated calls for a cull.  Norman Moore, the Western Australian Fisheries Minister, said that is now time to reassess the species population numbers and its protected status.  "Regrettably", he said, "people are being taken by sharks in numbers which we have never seen before.”  

Greater numbers, yes, they are, but what exactly are we talking about here?  Precisely this: five people have been killed in Australian waters in the past ten months.  I agree; it's not a statistic - its five individual tragedies.  Still, the matter should not be taken out of proportion.  We have to understand why sharks are taking a greater interest in human swimmers, clearly not part of their routine food population.  

The answer is we have attracted them, with new and thoughtless forms of high adrenaline tourism.  Cage diving with sharks is a popular pastime in both South Africa and Southern Australia.  When you look into the abyss, Nietzsche wrote, the abyss looks back into you.  

For sharks this baiting with bait has made them more familiar with a human presence, with humanity as a source of easy food.  Great Whites feed mainly on seals.  Even the rare human attacks have not often resulted in the total consumption of the victims, little comfort, in that a single bit from these powerful jaws is likely to be fatal.  The bites, though, are clearly tests.  In future they may become something more.

There were proposals to introduce cage diving into Western Australia.  I understand that operators have now been told that they will not be allowed to go ahead for fear of attracting more sharks and more attacks.  The link here has been a matter of controversy.  Research by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation produced findings which are ambiguous at best.  They concluded that baiting kept sharks in an area for longer, but did not prove a link between baiting and attacks on humans.  Well, I can only go on a level of simple intuition here but I think it reasonable to assume that more sharks means more attacks.  If human are there and sharks are there the rest will surely follow.

Sharks are ancient creatures.  They were swimming the waters of this planet before humans appeared.  How much longer, though, is now open to question.  In all of last year twelve people across the entire planet died as a result of encounters with sharks.  In the same year, as reported recently in Prospect magazine, a million sharks died in encounters with humans.  The story surely has to be man bites shark, not shark bites man.  

12 comments:

  1. The sharks should eat up as many Australians as possible; they talk funny.

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  2. I watched Caught in Camera yesterday. It showed an incident which took place in Africa quite some time ago. A surfer was attacked by 2 great whites simultaneously. He escaped the attack but his hand was badly injured.

    In another incident, two guys were doing cage diving when suddenly a huge great white ignored their bait and went straight to them hitting the cage hard causing part of it to collapse. For a few seconds, half of the great white body was inside the cage as the 2 divers struggled and finally managed to open an escape door on the opposite side of the cage and quickly swam to their boat safely. So scary!

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    1. You bet it's scary! I'm amazed that anyone could have escaped an encounter with two great whites with such a minor injury.

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  3. It's not humans per se but the mindlessness of so many which causes this. There are plenty of thinking humans who would keep their distance.

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  4. Not your fault, but that's a pretty obscene photo.. I'm tempted to say that I hope someone does the same to him, but that's probably a little out of proportion.

    I read about this at the time as well. Human deaths are immensely traumatic, and affect many. However you have to question the wisdom of swimming around in waters where a huge shark has been spotted for several days in advance, to the extent that the shark had even been given the nickname 'Brutus' by the locals..

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    1. CWB, that's my own feeling exactly. Sorry about the picture. I hesitated before using it but I thought it caught the point.

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  5. I read Ben Linden as Bin Laden. My mind works wonders.

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    1. Yes, I did notice the similarity. :-)

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  6. Hi Ana, I was tempted to make Australian-centric comments about this post, but I'm glad I refrained.

    This London-based book review says it all--I send it along just in case you missed it: http://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n15/theo-tait/dont-wear-yum-yum-yellow

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    1. Chris, that was a very good article. My dead shark figure appears to be wrong by a factor of seventy, a truly stunning rate of attrition.

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