The terrifying triumph of the film Jaws was how its opening scene unfolded without a glimpse of the shark. Thrashing, screaming, spluttering. And the fear of a killer lurking beneath that has lingered in swimmers’ minds for decades.
Shark attacks remain exceptionally rare. But when one occurs off Australia’s coast, the reaction is often hysteria, as dramatic and phoney as when the fake shark finally did raise its head.
“What will it take for government, tourism and council leaders to stand up to greenies who are turning the turquoise waters of the Great Barrier Reef blood red?” wrote Courier-Mail columnist Peter Gleeson after two British men were bitten during a boat tour of the Whitsundays in north Queensland.
The newspaper’s front page, in line with coverage in most Australian news outlets, directly linked the attack to the removal of drum lines – lethal baited traps – from the Great Barrier Reef marine park after a tribunal decision a few months earlier.
A small but consequential detail: the Queensland lethal shark control program has never been run in the Whitsundays. The nearest beach to ever have regular drum lines installed is 110km to the south, at Mackay.
Another fact: this week’s attack took place at an ocean site almost 30km from the mainland, where drum lines are not designed to work.
And another: experts say there is no scientific evidence the baits prevent or reduce attacks.
“Human life comes first,” says George Roff, an ecology professor from the University of Queensland. “But shark control has become a wedge issue, a greenies versus common sense issue.
“That is based on an assumption that culling works … this understanding that if you kill sharks, then people will be safer. It’s a largely untested assumption and with the advent of modern technology there are smarter ways of keeping beachgoers safe.”
Roff experienced the thin end of that wedge last year, after he authored a study about declining shark numbers in Queensland.
“We found 70% to 90% declines in the abundance of sharks caught off the coastline. The media polarised the debate as valuing shark populations over human life.”
On Channel Nine’s Today program to talk about the research, Roff found himself speaking in front of a superimposed footage of shark attack victims.
‘He thought his mate grabbed him by the leg’
On a clear day looking out to sea from Airlie Beach, there are shadows on the horizon. The Whitsunday Islands – a collection of white-sand resorts and nature reserves set among coral reefs – are the peaks of drowned mountains that went under at the end of the last ice age.
The mainland hub at Airlie is the jumping-off point for the jumble of islands; for snorkelling and sightseeing charters, and for “bareboating”, where tourists pilot their own vessel into the ocean.
The area provides an experience of Australia that international tourists crave. And in the past year, everything they also fear.
The most recent shark attack victims, Britons Alistair Raddon, 28, and his friend Danny Maggs, 22, were on a snorkelling trip. Raddon had his foot bitten off by a shark at Hook Passage, which is about 30km from the mainland.
A crewman on the rescue helicopter, Grant Bollington, told the ABC the two men had been play-fighting in the water.
“[Raddon] thought his mate grabbed him by the leg really hard, turned around and saw there was blood in the water and realised he was getting bitten by a shark,” Bollington said.
The incident followed a series of four attacks at a nearby spot in the Whitsundays, Cid Harbour, last Australian summer that had authorities scrambling to respond.
In the aftermath of the first reported attack in September, Queensland fisheries authorities installed drum lines in the Cid Harbour, despite knowing they were ineffective in remote areas where there are few swimmers.
Emails released under freedom of information laws show how the state’s panicked response to install drum lines appeared driven by a fear of media criticism.
The Queensland Fisheries executive director, Claire Anderson, wrote to her colleagues: “There was another shark incident in the location 10 days ago. A local boatie was bitten but strapped himself up and took himself off to the hospital.
“There are comments on social media about it, so it will likely be picked up by the media. This reinforces the need to get some drum lines in the location as quickly as possible.”
The drum lines killed several tiger sharks, but were removed after a few weeks in early October. In November, Melbourne medical researcher, Daniel Christidis was killed at the same location.
Eventually authorities acknowledged that Cid Harbour, where they had observed large numbers of sharks, would be be better managed by educating tourists about shark safety and signs advising people it was not safe to swim.
A no-go zone
Locals who know Cid Harbour say it is a popular and safe mooring spot for bareboaters, but known as a “no-go zone” for swimming, because of its murky waters and regular sightings of sharks.
Marine scientists say drum lines cannot make any place safe; particularly in the Whitsundays, where incidents have occurred far from port. The result can be people failing to act safely, because they misunderstand measures referred to as “shark protection”.
“Traditional drum lines give a false sense of safety,” says Jonathan Clarke, the Queensland coordinator of the apex harmony campaign for Sea Shepherd Australia. “They play into that mindset there’s a big scary thing out there, that government needs to do something to save somebody.”
Before exclusion zones were placed around drum lines, Clarke said he and others had surveyed them up and down the Queensland coast. They found a shocking number were left not baited.
“One day we found three of 54 drum lines at Townsville were baited. One day in Mackay, 100% of those drum lines did not have any bait. It’s not even a false sense of safety, it’s actually a placebo.
“One of the problems we’ve got is certain sections of the media and government seem to require a much higher guarantee of safety from any of the non-lethal methods than what you can currently show with drum lines and nets.”
Clarke said sophisticated drone technology was often dismissed because it could not be used around the clock.
“You don’t need to run them 24/7 to increase safety. Even if you believe a baited hook is an effective way to prevent a shark bite on a surfer, it is not there most of the time anyway.
“Our tourism industry is getting smashed by this debate and it’s having a seriously detrimental effect.”
It hasn’t escaped notice – particularly among the scientific community – that the most overwrought voices among Australia’s politicians and media outlets are in many cases the same as those who downplay scientific concern about the Great Barrier Reef, for fear it could harm tourism.
Hand-wringing has been consistent this year, mainly focused on the Humane Society International’s successful tribunal case against the “lethal component” of shark control methods in the Great Barrier Reef marine park. The state government withdrew drum lines at beaches inside the park’s boundaries, and the ensuing recriminations have been particularly emotional; MPs suggesting their opposites had “blood on their hands” or were “putting politics above safety”, all in a way that suggests drum lines are some sort of deep-sea panacea.
“Sharks move phenomenal distances,” says Roff. “Sharks tagged in northern New South Wales have ended up in Western Australia. This idea that you can effectively fish down a local population using drum lines and make places safe is unlikely and untested.
“In terms of why shark ‘attacks’ happen in the first place, we have no idea. They sometimes happen in clusters. Statistically it’s difficult because what you don’t know is the number of people there who weren’t attacked. If you think about it, it’s very hard to get a handle on how many bites there were versus how many bites there weren’t.”
He says the argument used to promote the effectiveness of drum lines at swimming beaches – that there has only been one fatal attack at a protected beach in Queensland since 1962 – is misleading.
“There is also now a more rapid emergency response, too. So it’s not a question of fatalities but rather looking at how many bites have occurred. Instances have occurred at beaches where there’s a shark control program. [Quoting a lack of fatalities] is no way to quantify the significance or effectiveness of it.”