Dangerous sharks or dangerous situations?

Another shark attack has taken place at Cid Harbour in the Whitsundays, at dusk, at the same place where three previous attacks occurred in September (this includes one that was kept quiet). This time the person died. People ask us what we do about sharks, and what we think of these events. So here is our response. 

Whitsundays -9937

Cid Harbour

Tiger Shark

Tiger Shark – image by Brian Skerry – National Geographic Creative

Dangerous sharks?

Sharks are not man eaters. They don’t bite people with the intent of eating them. They are hunters looking for prey. If they mistake you for something they might like to feed on and take a bite, they tend not to come back for seconds, they let you go, but by then you have incurred massive injuries and are at risk of bleeding to death.

The big three in the shark attack world are the Great White, the Tiger and the Bull sharks. They are large species capable of inflicting serious injury to a victim, are commonly in areas where people enter the water and have teeth designed to shear rather than hold.

Almost any shark over 1.8m in size is a potential threat to humans. But the most dangerous shark of all is the one you can’t see, either because you are not keeping an eye on it as it approaches, or because the water is too turbid to spot it.

Dangerous situations

I once heard someone say there are no dangerous sharks, just dangerous situations, which can be true for many wild animals. There are environmental conditions that can often facilitate the success rate of a shark attack and thus increasing the danger to humans.

Time of day – dusk and dawn are high danger times due to the position of the light. Sharks are ambush predators. They remain camouflaged and hard to spot at those times, making it ideal for them to hunt. It is also a time when all fish are active.

Animal remains or fish in distress – a stimulus like spear fishing most definitely can attract sharks. When Wade catches a fish with his spear gun, he keeps the fish out of the water and swims back to the dinghy because a bloody or dying fish is likely to attract pelagic species who would love to eat our dinner! Similarly, many boats can be seen throwing foodscraps overboard in anchorages, a very effective way to attrack predatory fish.

Bait balls can be a big warning sign – when small fish swarm in a tightly packed formation, often as a defensive mechanism against predators, chances are if you put yourself into the bait ball you put yourself into a feeding frenzy. Bait balls are amazing to observe but from a distance!

Rainfall and river mouths – after a rainfall, nutrients run into the ocean and bring up fish to feed, which in turn can attract sharks. In addition to this the visibility through the water can greatly decrease, which is ideal for ambush predators. Even without the rainfall event, many of the bays in the Whitsundays are turbid. The water has been murky as a result of the last cyclone and you cannot see what lurks in it. Dangle your legs in the water up to mid calf and you can’t see your feet.

Drop offs and deep water – they are great opportunities for sharks who like to hunt near them. We see this more readily at the outer reef. For instance we saw big sharks at the Manta Ray Dropoff at Bait Reef and at Elizabeth Reef, 100nm north of Lord Howe.

To cull or not to cull?

drumline1

In September and again this month drumlines were deployed at Cid Harbour. As you can see from the above image, drumlines involve a baited hook attached to a buoy and are placed strategically, usually near swimming areas, to supposedly reduce the possibility of further attacks by capturing sharks. Five tiger sharks and one blacktip shark were caught and shot last time and the carcasses taken offshore. A tiger shark has been caught this time. It seems such a pointless way to respond. Most people who work with and study sharks oppose shark nets and shark culls, not just because they are against the death of sharks, but because they know these methods are ineffective. Reacting to shark attacks by culling them in the name of public protection is rubbish. It is not about helping people but rather looking like you are doing something.

Drumline

Education about sharks, telling the general public about what behaviours are risky and encouraging people to take responsibility for their own actions would be far more useful. We should never forget it is not our ocean.

So it is not that difficult: don’t swim in murky water, don’t swim or paddle around at dusk, dawn or at night, don’t enter water where dead carcasses or injured animals are, and don’t throw your scraps overboard in an anchorage, wait till you are offshore or back on land!

It is upsetting to have people mauled or killed, but some common sense precautions could have prevented the last bout of attacks. It is only after these traumatic accidents that we started hearing the bareboat charter companies say on the radio “don’t swim in murky water and avoid swimming at dawn and dusk”.  We still have not heard “don’t throw your scraps overboard”. These safeguards are what all the tourist businesses should be advising their clients to follow in the first place!

So there you have it. Be sensible, stay alert and don’t put yourself in high risk situations – this is how we see things. What are your thoughts about the subject?

20 thoughts on “Dangerous sharks or dangerous situations?

  1. Very sad for the family involved and I agree they shouldn’t need to kill sharks as a method of managing this. The ocean is their domain and humans need to respect that.

    • Hi Viki, yes the families have to deal with horrific injuries in the case of the first three (the little girl ended up losing her leg) and the death of the latest victim is traumatic. But swimming in such murky water is crazy. The bareboat charter companies should be briefing their clients a lot more thoroughly. The whole controversy about whether to use drum lines and nets is raging now.

    • Absolutely, John, especially in murky water, but people don’t seem to listen to warnings! Apart from the lack of awareness there is also an attitude of ‘this won’t happen to me’.

  2. This is a great post Chris! Most people are not aware of the risks of having sharks or what to do to prevent encounters with predator sharks. Thank you! 🙂

    • Hi HJ – we get lots of questions so we thought it might be useful although we are no experts, just careful about where we get in the water and where we don’t!

  3. A well-reasoned presentation, guys. Having spent my youth in the Central African bush, I lived by a similar rule – know your immediate environment and understand predators’ habits so you can avoid them. Swimming at dawn or dusk is always something to be avoided, and throwing stuff overboard is just dumb. Using drumlines is equally stupid – a knee-jerk reaction. We’re visitors to the sharks’ environment, and we’ll be as safe as we can be if we follow the survival rules.

    Terry on Macanudo

    • Hi Terry, good to get your perspective. As you say, it is a rule to follow with any wildlife… crocs, bears, lions… interesting you were in central Africa. I lived in Zambia for a year in my early 20s!

      • Well, so did I – 1971 to 1977. Something to talk about sometime!

    • Thanks Mick for commenting, and yes we totally agree. It is a mix of ignorance, not thinking about the consequences and behaving like “it won’t happen to me”.

  4. Well thought out post Chris. A very sad time for the families involved. Having spent time in Cid Harbour over the years and again this year when these attacks happened, makes it so real. Agree, education has to be the answer. While this hasn’t happened before in Cid, for whatever reason, it is now. We must all take notice.

    • Thanks Amanda – I suspect there is a degree of complacency contributing to people’s behaviour. I wonder what the victims think about the culling?

  5. Great post Chris. We talked a lot about this as it happened when I was on board. This was especially true when Wade pretended to be one and grabbed my fin, just after the white tipped shark had swum by. Really funny.

  6. I like your articles Chris but I think your comments about Cid Harbour could not be more wrong. For decades that we have visited, Cid Harbour has been a safe place to swim. The water has been low visibility for all of that time. My family and I used the harbour as one big swimming pool over tens of visits and many hundreds of hours at anchor at Cid. No -one ever was worried about sharks. Nowadays something has changed. To say that humans need to be educated is not the issue for me. Something has changed at Cid and it has gone from being a safe place to a dangerous one. No one died before and there were no shark sightings before – the biology has changed and we should not be blaming the victims for doing what people have done for decades in the Whitsundays.

    • Thanks for commenting Phil. You are right, things have changed in the Whitsundays and no one is quite sure why. We are not blaming the victims but there is no denying that certain behaviours heighten your risks. We still feel that swimming in murky water at dusk or dawn is not the smartest thing to do.

  7. Sorry for the tone of my comment above – it came across badly and I should have been cleverer in my response. I appreciate your blog and I would have liked to put my point across without being snarky. I really think there is much more to what is happening in the Whitsundays, more whale placentas maybe, less targeting of sharks by fishers – no flake nowadays. I am perplexed as to how the place I loved to swim without reserve is now a shark hotspot. Anyway, fair winds and good cruising.

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