A spate of shark sightings along South Africa’s coastlines by surfers and authorities alike came to a climax last month, as professional Australian surfer Mick Fanning came face-to-face with a Great White during world championships at Jeffrey’s Bay. As ABC reported, video footage showed an unmistakable shark fin approaching Fanning, before the surfer was knocked off his board and was submerged under the water, out of sight of spectators and cameras on the beach. Fanning thankfully re-emerged within seconds and ‘punched’ the shark several times before it swam away, while an uninjured Fanning climbed aboard jet-skis that had come to the rescue. The confronting footage, courtesy of the Open World Surf League event organisers, was broadcasted live and quickly circulated around the world. Spokesman for South Africa’s National Sea Rescue Institute reported that they had not seen such an incident caught on camera before.
As reported in The Australian, Fanning has since competed in the Tahiti heat of the Open World Surf League, tweeting that surfers “always think about sharks and know we are in their domain”; however the collective public memory of the dangerous incident remains. Despite an increasing number of shark sightings along Australia’s coastlines in the past five years, surf sports in Australia including ocean swims, paddling and surfing remain popular activities for competitive and recreational purposes alike.
According to BBC News, the number of fatal shark attacks in Australia since 1990 outnumbers those in the USA and in South Africa. Fittingly, just days after Fanning’s narrow escape, a non-fatal shark attack was reported at Evans Head, northern NSW, with surfer Craig Ison suffering serious bodily injuries. As reported by Australian Shark Attack File, the number of shark attacks in Australia per year has fluctuated from between one and seventeen between 1995 and 2014; it is difficult to determine the cause of more frequent attacks in recent years.
As SBS reported, Australia’s significant population growth has likely resulted in an increased number of people spending time in sharks’ habitat. Environmental conditions including warmer waters and increased breeding of white, bull and tiger sharks could also be contributory factors. Despite the publicity surrounding shark attacks, the risk of death by drowning in an aquatic natural environment is far more likely – outnumbering shark attacks significantly with an average of 120 ocean drownings a year.
Shark nets and drumlines have been installed at NSW and QLD beaches since the 1950s as control measures, however as Perth Now reported, public outcry over the WA’s Government decision to do the same last year led to their swift removal.
Surf Life Saving Australia undertakes regular helicopter beach patrols as a supplement to those of local government authorities, with standard operating procedures for responding to shark sightings in place nationally. Rescue jet-skis are used as a preventative strategy at surf events. Drones have been proposed to detect sharks in shallow water near popular surfing spots and for surf events. Rather than leave shark management practices up to state authorities, professional and amateur events held at Australian beaches should assess the risk of shark attack in planning for entrants’ safety. Surf Life Saving WA recommends appropriate risk control measures including avoiding entering the water in the early morning and late night, and keeping event activities close to shore.