Shark reality bites into Australia’s beach culture

March 9th, 2009 - 10:40 am ICT by IANS  

By Sid Astbury
Sydney, March 9 (DPA) For some, driving fast gives the same sort of buzz as swimming where there might be sharks. The danger is part of the appeal.

Get unlucky and lose a limb in a car crash and you’re just an accident statistic, but lose one to a shark and your broken body is the talk of the town. The risk to the swimmer is amplified by publicity while the speedsters remain blase because of its absence.

Ann Grant swims at a Sydney beach most mornings and has done for years. “I’ve never seen a shark and have only once been required to leave the water at the sound of the shark alarm,” she said.

Grant was commenting at the end of a fortnight that had seen three Sydney swimmers gored by sharks. She believes a daily reckoning in the media of those killed and injured on the roads would highlight the relatively safety of a dip in the sea.

Coverage of the shark attacks has presented inveterate beach goers like Grant as pathological risk-takers. Some are afraid to go back in the water.

Duncan Low, 15, broke the habit of his short lifetime last week by skipping his morning surf at Avalon Beach. “I would be surfing but no one else is here,” he said.

Three days earlier a fellow 15-year-old Avalon local was mauled by a 2-metre great white shark as he surfed at dawn with his father.

Marine biologist Trevor Long insists that the frequency of shark attacks - on average, one fatality a year - has not changed since records were kept.

Lightning strikes, bee stings, snake bites, even dog attacks claim more victims. And hardly a week goes by without a fisherman drowning after being swept off rocks.

Vic Peddemors, a shark biologist with the New South Wales government, agrees that shark attacks are not increasing and that in the past 20 years there has been no increase in sharks caught at netted beaches.

Bravehearts are not being scared out of the surf. They report encounters with sharks that didn’t result in lost limbs.

Famous Sydney restaurant-owner Greg Doyle found himself alongside a 2-metre shark at Palm Beach. “At first I thought I was seeing things, then I saw it again,” he recalled. The big fish simply peeled off and swam away, its curiosity apparently sated.

Spot Anderson, a keen ocean swimmer for 42 years, reports being “rubbed up” by sharks that came up alongside. “You know it’s a shark,” he said. “It’s hard, solid - it doesn’t give when it bangs into you.”

The advice of experts is not to go in the water at dawn or dusk or when the ocean is murky and visibility (for the shark) is low. But most Sydney beach goers work for a living and early mornings and late evenings is the only time they can get wet. Dusk and dawn can also be the very times when the waves are best for surfing.

Inevitably, there have been calls for sharks to be hunted and killed.

Miranda Divine, a columnist with The Sydney Morning Herald, put a popular case when she opined that “if it comes to a choice between a shark life and a human life, there just should be no contest”.

The irony is that those most at risk from sharks are often those campaigning for them. Tom Carroll, twice world surfing champion and an Avalon resident, has appealed to authorities not to pander to calls for a cull from those who almost always swim in swimming pools.

Like lots of other surfers, Carroll admits to getting an adrenalin rush from swimming with sharks.

“They seem like dogs - they’re just curious,” he said. “I get mesmerised. I love the look of them. I love the sharks. They only scare the living daylights out of me if they’re massive and they’re between me and the shore.”

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