There aren’t many places where you’re wishing for a crowd to surf with. Esperance is one.
On a long white beach just outside of Esperance, Paul O’Rourke and Joe Herbie are checking the surf. The waves are clean, overhead, and empty, but neither Paul nor Joe are frothing to paddle out.
“C’mon, Joe,” says Paul.
“Come for a wave. Safety in numbers, eh. Lessens the odds.”
This is the general mentality adopted by many surfers in Esperance. This is a tight-knit surfing community devastated by a spate of recent, fatal shark attacks.
It is, perhaps, one of the most frightening places in Australia to paddle out alone.
In the sand dunes just behind Paul and Joe are two crosses, each lining up with a separate beach break peak.
One of the crosses is for 17-year-old Laeticia Brouwer whose leg was torn off in front of her family here in 2017 by a Great White Shark.
The other is for Andrew Sharpe who was disappeared, also by a suspected Great White, in 2020.
Just offshore at one of the islands out on the horizon, diver Gary Johnson was mauled by a Great White in 2020.
Paul and Joe are, of course, uneasy knowing this. But the surf is pumping, and they are willing to take their chances. They are some of the few Esperance surfers beginning to venture back out here since the last attack six months ago.
Paul is in his wetsuit and rifling around in the back canopy of his yellow Toyota Hilux. He emerges with a plastic Tupperware container. It contains not the kind of pre-surf paraphernalia that you would expect some surfers to indulge in, but a shark attack first-aid kit.
“I’ll leave this here on the bonnet of my car,” he says.
“Might see you out there, even if it’s the last time you see me. What are the odds, anyway? One in eleven million, they reckon.”
He is only half-joking, and he knows that in Esperance the odds are far greater than that.
These Shark Bite First Aid Slam Packs were created by Dr Jon Cohen in 2020 specifically for surfers in Esperance, and were distributed through the local Ocean Safety Group.
Group organiser Mitch Capelli says this is the grim reality of surfing in Esperance, and one of a few measures that local crew are using to feel marginally more at ease in the water.
“When there’s just that many [attacks], that close to home and in that quick succession, it really brings home the reality that it could be you,” he says.
“At the moment, surfing here feels like being in a war zone. Almost everyone has a story of a close encounter. A lot of hardcore guys are hardly in the water these days.
“I still surf, but there are certain spots I avoid. No one is paddling out solo, or in the dark. The risk is so much higher than it was five or six years ago.”
Following 18 shark attacks in WA in the past 21 years, 12 of them fatal, the state government have invested in a range of measures to mitigate shark attacks.
In 2017 they offered a $200 rebate on electronic shark repellants. But only 15 percent of the 4,000 devices purchased since then have been bought by surfers.
Mitch was one of those surfers and says he found the device impractical and had doubts of its efficacy.
“They zapped the shit out of me, they added weight to the board, they corrode. If you’re surfing at a decent level, you don’t want that extra weight on your board. It sucks,” he says.
“And people have been attacked with them on.”
2019 also saw the beginning of a smart drum line trial along the West Coast, but with much of those studies centered around the more popular Margaret River region, Esperance has been forgotten, says Mitch.
Unable to shape government policy but unwilling to remain passive, Mitch and other Ocean Safety Group members have taken matters into their own hands.
They wanted to understand why this particular beach has been such a hotspot, and why the rate of attacks in Esperance has increased exponentially in recent years.
In September 2020, they teamed with local fisherman and divers to deploy a number of VSR receivers on the ocean floor offshore from Esperance.
They strategically picked places where they believe sharks would enter and exit the bay surrounding Esperance, and are working to share that data with scientists and authorities.
“The data we’ve got has given us some insight. We’ve had a lot of sharks ping on it, which is no surprise. We are handing that over to Flinders Uni and they will run a paper on it.
“We’re just trying to get people onside and go, hey, look, these aren’t just bloody redneck surfers and divers jumping up and down saying we need to kill sharks. These guys are legit. They know what they are doing. And just doing community-run things. We got local fisherman, went out on the boat, and got it done ourselves.”
While there is not yet enough data to give any definitive results, Mitch has his own theories about why sharks have become so prolific in Esperance.
“If you really want to get into it you can make it a really complex scientific equation with lots of different variables, but ultimately it’s pretty simple.
“You protect one apex predator and have a fishery on everything else below it, you’re going to create an imbalance of nature.”
Mitch says that ultimately, the work that he and Ocean Safety Group are doing is about saving lives and protecting the Australian lifestyle that he, Paul, and many others enjoy.
“It’s not about killing sharks. Surfers appreciate the ocean as much as, if not more than anyone else. We don’t want to wipe anything out, but things need to be sustained and managed,” he says.
“90 percent of Australia live on the coast, and for good reason. If you can’t enjoy it, what are you doing?”