It’s not always as simple as just getting straight back out there.
A few weeks ago there was a shark attack at my local break. I surfed that morning and it was really good, with four-foot waves reeling down the point and a few glassy kegs on the beachie, before rushing off to the office to do the mundane stuff of making a living. I arrived back at the beach as the injured surfer was being stabilized in the car park. It was a decent flesh wound, no limbs lost, but enough blood and gore to make it alarming to all the witnesses, surfers and people present on the beach.
There were also traumatized groms, who were in the water when the attack happened, and traumatized parents of these groms, who were either on the beach or at home/work when the attack happened and when their kids were surfing (it was school holidays). The surfer, Ross Spowart, was a champion and gave me the thumbs up from the back of the ambulance as they were heading off for hospital. A tooth was found imbedded in his shinbone in hospital, and the shark was identified as a Great White, which was corroborated by Ross, who clearly saw the shark as it attacked. Ross is a surfer and keen fisherman who is well aware of the ocean and the risks involved in going surfing. He vowed to get back in the water as soon as possible, when his wounds had healed. The rest of us, however, were not that keen. A few guys ventured out in the next few days, but there were more sightings and a general vibe of paranoia permeated the village. The groms weren’t keen, neither were their parents. The shark kit that resides on a pole was opened, re-checked and updated, and people were on high alert, but there were few people in the water.
Over the next two weeks the waves were pretty average and it was easy enough to give it a miss. Locals sat around in the car park, checking at the conditions, and chose to drink coffee and engage in the usual car park banter that we all do and enjoy.
Then the waves came back this weekend, and it was full on. The surf was pumping, the crowds were out there and it seemed all thoughts about what possibly lurks beneath were forgotten. No one spoke about it in the water, and everyone got on with the business of getting his or her wave tallies up again. The cycle was complete.
There’s the rub though. The cycle needs to be completed. In 2015 at J-Bay it took less than an hour before Derek Hynd and a few others paddled out to enjoy uncrowded Supers after the infamous Mick Fanning incident. In 2016 the timeframe was even less, with the surfers, including Fanning and Medina, choosing to go back out and surf the heat after the shark had been slowly escorted down the coast.
In Margaret River, the WSL chose to complete their cycle by calling off the event. Two shark attacks in the vicinity and a dead whale on the beach exacerbated their decision, and the surfing world is in an uproar. Many were calling out Brazilian surfers Italo Ferreira and Gabriel Medina for using social media to voice their reluctance to continue the event.
Let’s understand one thing. A shark attack is a big deal. It’s traumatic, it’s very unkind, and to see the tears in the eyes of the groms who were trying to comprehend what they had witnessed and the fear they experienced in the water, is not easy. To watch them go through the processes of understanding that what was simply a glorious and fun-filled past time and sport, actually has a terrifying, traumatic dimension to it, is a sobering thing to experience. Many have lambasted the decision to cancel the Margaret River event, suggesting that a precedent has now been set. I’m not a member of that camp.
People die from shark attacks, and if there are enough signs to show that there is increased activity, even just a number of sightings, then the WSL has a right to be worried about their athletes in the water. Two attacks in so short a time frame is a dire indication that for a period the water is unsafe for their contestants to paddle out.
By now, by the time you read this piece, those sharks are long gone and it is probably safe to surf in the Margarets vicinity again, as safe as it ever was, considering the region’s history of shark attacks over the last two decades.
It’s not really a discussion about people being cowards, or the WSL being shortsighted. It’s also not a discussion about setting precedents, or about the somewhat ridiculous projection that all surfing events are eventually going to be held in wave pools.
When we all went surfing at home this weekend, we were laughing, joking, shouting at blow-ins and admonishing drop-in artists. We were also chuckling at visitors attempting to paddle out at the worst spots on the point, losing fins and generally having the crappiest time ever. The groms were out again, and it was ok though, because the cycle had been completed, and we were onto a new cycle. We all surfed the following morning, early, but our paranoia was gone.
Sophie Goldschmidt and the rest of the WSL brains trust made the decision to complete the cycle at Margaret River. The safety of the best surfers in the world was prioritized and there was no loss of life or limbs.
It’s ok in my books.