Does life ever go back to normal?
Anyone who lived and surfed through the torrid period of 2014-2016 on the North Coast will tell you that their surfing habits changed during those three years. Sessions were scrutinised. Certain spots became off-limits.
Some surfers simply gave up.
I can tell you from my account, skiving off work and family responsibilities suddenly felt like I had more at stake.
But in the past few years, life has relatively gone back to normal. Aerial patrols might have become the norm but a chopper fly-by became a security blanket of sorts.
The debate around shark netting died down.
And the pull of the North Coast hasn’t deterred surfers from making a coastal sea change to warmer waters. Lineups are clogged when it’s on.
Anxieties surrounding what swum below were replaced with fears that the whole coast had been invaded by more outsiders chasing surfing nirvana.
Business was booming for surfboard shapers, stores and Airbnb operators.
So, what did we learn almost five years on from the last fatal attack on the North Coast?
Not a whole lot really.
Scientists haven’t offered up any new intel. No marine scientist can unequivocally say why the cluster attacks in Byron Bay, Lennox Head, Ballina and Evans Head occurred between 2014-2016.
Despite shark forum round tables, expert analysis, and thousands of words penned in the media by commentators and scientists alike, no one is any closer to making sense of this patch of coastline and whether recent years’ events have been a new trend or series of unfortunate events.
Yep, it’s back to business as usual.
But what’s different around here now is that surfers keep a keen eye out for one another. Any subtle changes in the lineup are constantly analysed. Whether there’s extra baitfish activity, mullet running, or which gutters look the sketchiest to paddle through.
Mostly the man in the grey suit is spoken about in hushed tones. Sightings traded in car park conversations, maybe the odd scope of the Dorsal site. Up until a few days ago, it felt like it was the topic you avoided on purpose. As not to raise some weird law of attraction shit.
Rob Pedretti, the 60-year-old surfer killed by a great white shark at Kingscliff on the North Coast on Sunday has been remembered as “the easiest guy in the world to go surfing with” as tributes flow in from those who knew him well. He sounds like a top bloke that carved out a surfing life in the purest sense.
The crew that brought him back to shore, fighting off an agitated 3m white shark as they did are absolute heroes. They will be suffering after experiencing such an unimaginable event. I hope they are OK. The Tweed/Kingscliff community will be reeling too. Just like the Le-Ba/Byron communities experienced after the cluster attacks in 2014-2016.
What happens next is anyone’s guess.
Is it a one-off random event or a worrying precursor of what’s to come?
Two large great whites – one 4.03m and the other 4.3m – caught and tagged on smart drumlines off Ballina on May 13 and May 20 respectively, likely following the annual humpback migration north.
Everyone around here lately has been noticing plenty of baitfish in the water with larger fish feeding. Just this morning my young fella and I found a huge salmon washed up on the beach with large chunks taken out of it. It was a random sight and some weird kind of serendipity.
Last year Byron Bay was the site of another great white attack.
I see Sam Edwards most mornings checking the surf out the front of mine nearby Broken Head. I knew him before his attack at Belongil in Byron Bay when a juvenile white thumped his leg taking a football-sized chunk of his thigh with it in an unprovoked attack. The bite just missed major nerves and arteries and he is lucky to be alive. His determination to recover has been remarkable to witness from afar. As soon as he could walk his physio told me he was determined to run and was progressing faster than anyone could have expected. He’s back surfing frequently, kayaks on the small days, and is often out there for the early despite the trauma he went through.
Despite the various “experts” out there offering advice on preparedness on great white shark attacks no one knows how to prepare for an unprovoked attack. Carrying a tourniquet or having one nearby and knowing how to use it is your best option when it comes to surviving a bite-and-release according to expert Jon Cohen, an ER doctor who works in Australia and uses his expertise to prevent shark attack deaths.
The sombre mood currently being felt across the Tweed Coast will hopefully subside in time. But if we’re no closer to answering why sharks behave the way they do and leaving the realities facing surfers up to myths, fate, and science that recently claimed juvenile sharks have little interest in mammals and bites on humans are likely to be mistakes, then surfers in shark attack hot spots like Byron, Ballina area, WA and South Oz will have to continue to grapple with the gamble they’re about to make each time they paddle out.