In Sydney, at approximately 4.35pm on Wednesday 16th February 2022, there was an unprovoked shark attack that sadly resulted in the death of a man. Images and videos released show horrific scenes that play into our worst nightmares.
What can we take from this experience, and how can we come to terms with this tragedy?
Whilst the immediate reaction may be that the ocean is no longer safe, or we should stay out of the water, the reality is that the ocean is the safest it has been for hundreds of years. This was the first fatality in Sydney since 1963, almost 60 years ago. In the last hundred years we have developed a deeper understanding of marine ecosystems, sharks and our technology has become far more advanced. We have lifeguards and paramedics with advanced life-saving techniques and equipment to hand. We have Sydney’s helicopters out on patrol, along with drone technology looking for signs of large sharks. We have shark tagging programmes and listening stations that help locate sharks in the area. There is shark deterrent technology that can be worn to send out electrical signals whilst swimming or surfing that can deter sharks from attacks. We also all carry around mobile phones and can sign up for shark notifications.
However, the ocean is not fully safe. Rip tides, jellyfish, boat traffic and sharks present dangers to us and it would be unwise to step into the ocean without remembering that some risks cannot be fully mitigated, despite the best technology or life-saving techniques to hand. The ocean is not our home and it is wise to remember that stepping into the ocean means that you “enter at risk”.
We know that shark nets are in the nearby beach areas to where the shark attack occurred, including Maroubra, Coogee, Bronte and Bondi. In these shark nets it is common for animals to be caught and left for a number of hours and even days before being picked up by the Department of Primary Industries (DPI). 92% of the animals caught in the nets are considered non-threatening and are not the target sharks that the nets are intending to catch. Multiple images collected by Freedom of Information requests show that many animals caught in the shark nets have large bites taken from them, indicating that the shark nets are attracting large sharks for feeding. The false sense of security that shark nets provide, along with shark nets attracting sharks to the area is only exacerbating the issue.
Close to the time of this shark attack I was myself swimming at a nearby beach out beyond the head at Bondi and can report that the water was green, dirty and had poor visibility. Research suggests that there is very little difference between how a human looks on the surface to that of a seal, meaning that sharks mistake humans for their natural prey based on visual similarities. This incident could have been a case of mistaken identity. It does not take away the horror of the events of the attack but it can help provide an explanation.
To come to terms with the shark attack, we should remember that it is still an extremely unlikely and uncommon occurrence. There are more people entering the ocean nowadays due to the rise of recreational activities. There are more people nowadays living close to the beach. There are more beaches that are accessible to people too. There is no evidence to suggest that there are more shark attacks today than previously – but there are more opportunities due to the number of people in the ocean. The ocean needs sharks to maintain healthy ecosystems and we need to come to terms with their existence. An ocean with sharks may appear scary, but an ocean without sharks and the subsequent collapse of fish stocks is an even scarier prospect.