Scientific theories and car park opinions on the recent shark attacks that have rocked the North Coast.
Monday’s fatal shark attack was Australia’s fourth in five months. For the Northern Rivers communities of Ballina, Lennox Head and Byron Bay it was the second fatality in five months leaving many feeling anxious and asking why.
Japanese national Tadashi Nakahara died after being attacked by what was thought to be a white-pointer while surfing Shelly Beach in Ballina on Monday. He died at the scene before Ambulance officers could arrive. From all reports Tadashi was a much-loved member of the Ballina/Lennox Head community and a passionate surfer.
It was the second consecutive day a shark had struck a surfer. Just 12 kilometres north at Seven Mile Beach at Lennox Head, Byron Bay chef, Jabez Reitman, was lucky to be alive after sustaining bites to his back from a suspected three-to-four metre bull shark. Remarkably, a stoic Jabez drove himself to the hospital.
Meanwhile other shark encounters slip through the mainstream media’s net. Days before the incident at Seven Mile, veteran surfer Hamish Murray was thrown into the air by what was believed to be a shark. At the time he was surfing Flat Rock, a popular break just north of Shelly beach.
So why the sharks? There have been many theories thrown around – water temps are at a bathtub 26 degrees, there are reports of increased numbers of baitfish, the local population of humans has increased, and it’s typically been a tropical summer with much rainfall. However, none of these are conclusive.
Marine ecologist Dr Daniel Bucher, from Southern Cross University, told the Newcastle Herald earlier this week that recent rainfall meant food or fish was washed out from rivers to the ocean, drawing them [sharks] in.
Great-whites and other species of sharks may simply be following the food trail and coming closer to shore. The Richmond River, a large mature estuary, is situated just south of Shelly beach, where Monday’s incident occurred.
The day after Monday’s incident I found myself at Shelly beach taking in the scene. News teams from Sydney had flown up and stalked the car park, getting quotes from onlookers. SES teams manned jet skis and a surf life saving dinghy was doing laps of Shelly Beach looking for “the shark”. It was eerie.
On Thursday beaches remained closed from South Ballina to Lennox Head following shark sightings late Wednesday afternoon. Byron Bay’s weekly paper, The Echo, reported that aerial patrols had sighted a four-metre shark at Flat Rock and a three-metre shark at Ballina Bar.
I haven’t spoken to anyone this week that hasn’t got a shark story. Whether it was a close encounter they had experienced themselves or something that had happened to a mate, the man in the grey suit has been menacing surfers from Byron to Ballina.
“I think I’m going to go buy one of these bracelets that sends off one of those magnetic pulses that sends them away,” said Byron Bay surfer Kristen Gannon.
Ballina surfer Brad Wilcox, who works in Byron Bay, says that the increased number of encounters he’s had in recent times is alarming.
“In the last six months I’ve seen more sharks than my entire surfing life, which spans 20 years. It’s getting to the point where I’m scared to go surfing.”
Le-Ba Boardriders president, Don Munro, believes shark encounters are becoming more and more frequent as they [sharks] move from overfished oceans into local marine parks in search of prey.
However, there is currently no scientific evidence that Cape Byron Marine Park directly affects the number of sharks seen in the region.
Asked what the mood has been like in the surfing community in light of this week’s incidents, Don was very matter of fact.
“One word; scary. Surfers are pretty resilient to all sorts of things including sharks but because we’ve had two in two days and there was another brush with one on Saturday it’s got everyone scared.”
Munro believes culling sharks is not the answer to the problem. “No, It’s their ocean, we’re stepping into it, we’re fishing it out and we’re killing tens of thousands of sharks each year for fins and food. I think there would only be a small percentage [of surfers] in favour of culling.”
Lennox Head surfer James Griffin believes it’s time to take a more pragmatic look at the evidence. While he has noticed an increase in sharks to the area he believes scientific research needs to be done before any drastic course of action is taken.
“I don’t remember them [sharks] being such an issue. But it’s coming up more and more in the media and I think that needs to be researched so we can establish some facts before any assumptions or rash decisions are made. We need to understand the situation before anything is done.”
Opinions will continue to be divided but the fact is a surfing community is hurting. What was formerly a west coast issue is now forcing east coast surfers and beachgoers to think twice about going in the water and to take a genuine interest in what can be done to minimise the risk of shark attacks.
Tomorrow a memorial service will be held at 10am at Shelly Beach in memory of Tadashi Nakahara. All are welcome. The entire Tracks team sends our condolences to Tadahsi’s friends and family. May he rest in peace.