When a pack of surfers is confronted with a major dilemma.
It was one of those classic Autumn mornings on the east coast. Four-foot, blue-butter walls licked clean by a morning westerly. As the well-defined creases of swell flexed and peeled the ocean performed its irresistible seduction; it was the sort of drive-by lineup that could cause accidents because too many surfers were craning out the window trying to get a glimpse of the action. To make things even more alluring the water was bath-tub warm, the perfect antidote to the bite in the air. Of course such line-ups can be fools gold if the long period lines don’t have an appropriate slug of sand to bend them into shape, but on this particular morning a closer inspection revealed a barrelling right that was getting hollower with the outgoing tide.
Eager to enjoy the stellar conditions with fewer numbers I snuck out just after the early crew had dispersed to fulfil their nine to five obligations. I was greeted by a handful of surfers hugging a well-defined take-off peak. Given the conditions everyone was in a buoyant mood, but there was also that hint of crazy-eyed mania that possesses surfers when the waves are barrelling – particularly for a group of locals unaccustomed to hollow treats.
For half an hour things went to script – take-offs were hooted and the better rides recounted for the benefit of the pack when a lucky surfer returned to the lineup with a telling grin. Of course the banter was laced with good-natured mockery when a drop was muffed or a barrel dodged.
Conditions were steadily improving with the draining tide when a panicked swimmer in a bathing cap and goggles flapped frantically towards the pack and stated emphatically, “I just saw a shark in that bait ball over there.” The guy obviously belonged to the tribe of local ocean swimmers who regularly complete a lap or two of the beach beyond the break zone. He wasn’t just a random tourist out for a frolic and his swimming goggles would have afforded him a clear view of whatever was lurking a mere ten metres beyond where we were sitting. The potent combination of urgency and certainty in his voice implied there was little reason to doubt his claims and sure enough when you looked in the direction he was gesturing to there was an inky blob of fish staining the shimmering blue water.
As we all stared at him, uncertain about what do, a tubing wave broke deep and rifled through the lineup unridden – the ultimate tease at a time when a straight closeout might have been enough to usher us in. The drone whirring overhead like a futuristic warning device made things all the more unnerving. A maverick drone pilot from the area had been posting footage of sharks for months. Only a week or so ago there had been a clip of a juvenile Great White smashing a fish with surfers clearly in the same frame of footage. When you watched the clip the most unsettling aspect was the speed at which the animal attacked. In a way the imagery was liberating. It made it plainly apparent that if the shark wanted you there was no contest. You'd already lost the battle.
All such things went through my mind as the buzzing robot hovered overhead, adding further credence to the swimmer’s claims. For one surfer, who’d recently paddled out, it was all too much and he scrambled towards the beach like a Looney Tunes character being pursued by a bigger cartoon creature.
Another magic wave broke – possibly the best one of the day – and this time someone took off and spiralled through a long tube.
The guy kicked off and turned to paddle back to the lineup without so much as a glance towards shore. “We can just huddle together,” joked one of the surfers in the lineup. On cue we all inched a little closer together and a little further in and tried to see the fin. Perhaps crucially no one got a good look at something triangular and threatening breaking the surface.
It wasn’t long before another group of about fifteen swimmers entered the surf via the nearby ocean baths. It was a committed crew who met at the same time each day to do a lap of the bay – all wore caps, goggles and faces of serious intent.
The lone swimmer who had sighted the shark a few minutes ago had warned them and one of the surfers indicated that a shark had been seen. For a minute or so they were treading water just off the rocks and outside the wave zone.
It was apparent that they were deliberating over what to do. Like the surfers, this was their sacred morning ritual; if they let one apparent sighting spook them then there was a chance they might lose their nerve completely and fear would win. As they hesitated you could see that protecting the sanctity of the morning swim was being matched against the dread of losing a limb. It was obviously hard to gauge the risk.
Eventually they put their heads down and begun their first, assertive overarm strokes – they were going for it. As they stroked purposefully towards the bait-ball a number of things flashed through my mind. “Am I about to see something horrific?” “Well if they are out there, then I guess they are the ones in more danger,” and, “If they are braving it then there’s no way we can go in now.”
The bold pack of swimmers made it about twenty metres before they did a very distinctive ninety-degree turn towards the beach. There was an almost comical element to the urgency of their direction change. As they swum over the school of fish it was obvious that they had seen something bigger, toothier and more threatening. Making their way through the surfers they didn’t want to waste much time delivering detailed reports but they confirmed there was definitely a large shark. “Well at least we know it’s not hungry,” one of the surfers joked as a way of reassuring himself and others. “I think maybe it was a Grey Nurse gasped one of the ocean swimmers,” who was still very intent on clambering up the rocks and getting out of there. This species analysis was somewhat comforting until another surfer paddled out and mockingly said, “I love these guys who reckon they can identify a shark type at a glimpse,” implying the swimmer’s call was about as reliable as random punt on a longshot in race five at Randwick.
Despite the second, confirmed sighting most people stayed in the water. The westerly was still blowing, the water had had that rapturous blue colour and the waves kept barrelling. Perhaps it was just the vibe – the notion that despite the presence of something predatory nothing about the situation felt overly threatening. The inky blob of fish remained and we let surfers arriving in the lineup know what had transpired.However, after their first zippering rides, thoughts of the shark soon slipped to the nether regions of the cerebral cortex.
The above anecdote is an honest account of what happened on a weekday morning, out in the lineup. I can’t knowingly claim that there was no risk to the surfers, but I do know the waves were fun that morning and that it’s much easier to ignore a shark sighting if it’s pumping, the wind is offshore and the skies are blue. Perhaps therein lies the real danger.