Freak Out & Remain Calm
By Col Bernasconi | 16 July 2012
The likeness of surfer and seal from underwater is eerily accurate, don't you think?
On July 8, Western Australia Fisheries Minister Norman Moore declared there would be a ban on dedicated shark tourism ventures such as cage diving operations in the state. The Minster was quoted as saying, "Western Australia will not be the place for shark cage tourism, like those currently operating in South Australia and South Africa." This put the shark situation in Western Australia, and its spate of five deaths over the last 10 months, back in the news.
It's now come to light that around the time of this announcement and the subsequent debate about the impact of things like chumming to attract sharks raged on (especially in places like South Africa where cage diving is permitted), a huge great white, apparently nicknamed 'Brutus', was allegedly seen by local fishermen lurking around the beaches off Lancelin, north of Perth. These sightings had gone officially unreported.
Despite the re-sparked debate about how best to deal with and reduce the threat of shark attack, and these sightings, Perth surfer (and by all reports, champion bloke) Benjamin Linden ventured out for a morning session near Wedge Island only to be killed when bitten by a huge white shark said to be four to five metres in length while paddling for a wave. Twenty-two-year-old jet skier and brave witness to Ben's death, Matt Holmes [pictured bottom left], later told The Australian newspaper of the fishermen's experience with Brutus. "They knew but they didn't tell anyone it had been hanging around... The last five days it had been scaring people out of the water, it had been hanging around and scaring people and nothing had been said to police or anyone."
The late Ben Linden rugged up for winter (L), and cutting across a nice green back wave (r).
After this latest fatal attack Norman Moore, unaware of these apparent earlier sightings, addressed the media for the second time in a week and admitted that after Ben's death he was unsure of what the solution was to help reduce the threat.
One thing that seems glaringly obvious to me is that people, like the fisherman Matt is talking about, need to be obligated in some way to inform fisheries of such sightings near surfing beaches. In fact, all ocean goers should accept a responsibility to do the same.
If those cray fishermen had let authorities know that 'Brutus' was lurking around the area for five days a message could've been relayed via social media letting Western Australian surfers know of the possible danger.
No, I'm NOT blaming the fisherman, but I'm confident that Ben and his friends may have re-scheduled their visit to the area if such a relay system was in place. I'll go as far as saying it could've saved Ben's life. If I was told that a professional fisherman had reported a big white hanging around Lancelin prior to my own surfing experience there back in the '90s there's NO WAY I would've made the long lonely 100m paddle out to the break. The joint felt sharkey as it was.
Look, my feelings are this. Oceans frequented by the whites are truly one of the last great wild frontiers on earth. And surfers, like the unarmed settlers who once pushed their way into the Comanche Indian territory of the Great Plains in North America in the early 1800s, willingly meander into harm's way. Simply put, like those settlers northwest of Texas and the like, we're putting our lives at the mercy of the rightful owners.
But do great white sharks kill indiscriminately or for anything other than an instinctual need to feed? Would they kill to protect their hunting or feeding grounds? Or more likely, in their case, breeding areas?
Admittedly I've drawn a long bow in my analogy, and in no way am I comparing a tribe of indigenous human beings with sharks. What I am doing is trying to point out the significant and possibly ultimate risk one may pay when they decide to venture onto – or in a surfer's case – into a wild frontier. If human beings have killed to protect or preserve their territory in the past who's to say a great white shark wouldn't do the same thing? The science has yet to be proven either way, as these magnificent creatures, though studied by many, remain a mystery in so many ways, and for a lot of us, that's why we love them.
Unfortunately when the question of whether sharks kill for the sake of killing, be it territory protection, practice or malice, bubbles to the surface, rather than looking at measures we can take to best remove ourselves from the equation, we hear archaic calls for culls and revenge killings of the so-called perpetrator as the simple answer.
Rather than give ideas like culls credence, let's ponder my equally absurd analogy of wild frontiers. Join me, if you will, in an imaginary scan around to some of the world's other wonderfully wild frontiers where humans are equally wandering into harm's way with God's good creatures.
In the colds of places like Alaska and northern and western Canada brown and black bears exist in numbers and localities that put humans at risk. Those heading directly into harm's way more often than not would equip themselves with rifles and the like. A firearm's a handy accessory for the Alaskan bushwalker. Still, in 2011, there were four deaths from wild bears [two brown, two black]. On most occasions the victim was alone, one exception being the case of 57-year-old Brian Matayoshi who was with his wife when he was attacked and killed by a brown bear in Yellowstone National Park. An investigation later determined that the couple had run from the bear, which was a fatal mistake for Brian. His wife survived after playing dead. The incident was considered to be a "one in 3 million occurrence". Brian's wife's actions proved there is a method of avoiding attack from a bear – with a great white we have no such option.
Many lives have been saved in the woods by the use of firearms being used as a way to scare off or kill approaching bears, but I'm not about to suggest surfers should carry firearms. They'd be useless anyway. Surprise is a great white shark's greatest weapon and this lack of warning offers no time for pulling a piece. One possible use of a firearm when surfing sharkey waters may be to have an armed jetski-mounted sentry on hand. If the weekend's attack was anything to go by, having someone watch over the pack would've done little to save Ben's life, but perhaps it could've aided in the retrieval of his body. But the thought of a pairing of guns and surfing is ridiculous. And it's only due to my sadness for Ben's family losing his remains I even considered it.
In conclusion my offering is this; there is very little we can do to alter the fact that when venturing into the ocean man risks the possibility of certain death from shark attack. This daunting risk alone is not going to stop those of us who love being a part of nature and experiencing surfing on the outer most limits venturing out into the big blue however. [Example: A surfer was seen surfing alone near when Ben was taken the very next day.]
What we can do though surely is learn from the experience and try benefit from the knowledge of those who are in the water everyday and pay head to their warnings if indeed there is a threat. Large shark sightings should be reported to a central body or government department so warnings can be issued. Again, if there was a clear warning that a huge shark (nicknamed 'Brutus' for heaven's sake!) had been spotted lurking around Wedge Island for the last five days you'd think twice about surfing there. These sharks are so big and the risk is too great. And if we chose to ignore the warnings – then whatever happens is on our own head.
Are there always going to be sharks in the water when you and I surf? Of course, but 99.9% of the time they want nothing to do with you or I. But surfing smarter and avoiding those times when a large predator is making its presence known is a sure way to reduce the risk.
Greg Webber's wave pool can't get here quick enough for some I'm sure.
– Col B
Note: On behalf of Tracks staff I'd like to offer our sincere condolences to Ben's family and friends. He certainly sounds like he was a good 'un.
R.I.P Ben Linden.