Coming to terms with surfing with sharks on the North Coast.
It’s hard not to get caught up in the shark hysteria that’s gripping the NSW north coast at the moment. It seems as though each time I suit up, pushing thoughts of dark shadows and sinister fins to the back of my mind, someone tells me of the latest sighting.
On the weekend I paddled out at Black Rock, about half an hour’s drive north of Byron Bay. A southerly swell, a light puffing westerly and a plump king-tide was producing full but rippable, head-high rights. A pleasant Sunday morning session, I thought, to be followed by a pit stop at the Pottsville bakery. Prior to heading out I received a text from my mum: ‘Don’t get eaten by shark.’ Way to bring down the mood, Ma. What do you say to that? She didn’t ask me not to go surfing. I suppose she knows it’s an unrealistic call. We’re all going to keep surfing. The question is how long will it take us to get back in the water? A few hours, days, weeks? How long before we can get back to feeling carefree and comfortable when surfing? We were just about there actually, after the first Ballina attack in February. But now we’re back to square one.
Each time there’s an attack it divides the surfing populous into two distinct categories. Firstly, there are those reckless humans who relish the quiet, post-attack waters, who prefer to make the most of an uncrowded, though eerie peak. Then there’s those cowardly folk who, for the weeks following an attack, will only surf well-populated breaks in the hope that old mate Whitey will choose to chomp that guy sitting two metres further out rather than yours truly. Which is only logical, right? I may belong to the latter group, unfortunately. Along with many other short boarders, I’ve found myself surfing The Pass much more than usual. The false security of the bay draws me in: the proximity to shore, the shallow sandbank and the hordes of other surfers – strength in numbers, or something like that.
Although I’m still getting out there most days, I’ve got beasts on the brain. I haven’t made a conscious decision not to surf at dusk or dawn, but I seem to be sleeping-in a tad longer than usual. (Even though that theory has pretty much gone down the gurgler, with both Ballina attacks occurring well into mid-morning.) I’m a little sceptical of surfing the rivery, especially after rain; Broken Head just looks a bit better, I tell myself. But my main mantra is as follows: the extra chopper patrols and media mayhem mean that we are privy to the movement of sharks more than ever before. But their being here is nothing new.
I asked some other north coast surfers for their thoughts. A few old boys mentioned casually that ‘it’ll keep the tourists at bay for a while.’ Some young guys said they just think it’s a good time to get uncrowded waves. If North Wall [Ballina] pumps, they’ll be out there. In true Byron Bay fashion, a young woman, post- morning yoga class, suggested we should listen to nature, heed her warning. Another mate, originally from Freemantle, says it’s feeling more and more like home. He’s got friends who’ve thrown in the towel; they’ve got kids and they can’t risk it, he tells me. They fly to Indo once or twice a year and that’s their fix. A long time local tells me it’s only natural this time of year. “They are following the whales migrating north, and it’s mullet season. There’s just heaps of bait around.”
Talking of whales, the abundance of sea life is one of the best things about surfing in the Byron area. The numbers are crazy. I reckon I see a pod of dolphins – with bubs in tow – at Tallows 3 out of 4 surfs I have there, frolicking but an arms reach away. And whose heart doesn’t melt at the sight of a sea turtle’s head popping up inquisitively in the channel? It seems our very east-jutting point is a blessing and a curse all in one.
Read more on the recent events on the North Coast here.