Swimmers at Australian beaches are usually reassured by statistics that indicate they are more likely to be struck by lightning than chomped by a shark. But after three non-fatal shark attacks in the country in less than 48 hours and a deadly one last month, some are wondering if the odds have changed and whether Australia's efforts to protect sharks are to blame. (Read "When Adventure Tourism Kills.")
Australia's summer of shark terror began on Dec. 27, when local banker Brian Guest went missing while snorkling off a beach south of Perth in Western Australia. A search located a few tattered pieces from a wet suit belonging to the 51-year-old. Authorities concluded that he had been killed by a large white pointer shark spotted near the beach. (See the top 10 animal stories of 2008.)
That attack was followed by several more. On Jan. 11, a man surfing near Fingal Head in northern New South Wales was bitten on the thigh. Jonathon Beard, 31, made it to shore and survived after his friends used the leg rope from his surfboard to stem the bleeding.
The same day Hannah Mighall, 13, was surfing in Binalong Bay off the Tasmanian coast in Australia's far south when she screamed and was dragged under the water by what authorities suspect was a large white pointer. Her cousin paddled to the injured girl and dragged her to safety while being circled by the shark. On Jan. 12, a man snorkeling in a tidal lake in New South Wales was bitten on the leg, probably by a bull shark. Authorities reported that the man punched the shark in the nose and made it to shore with about 40 puncture wounds. All of the victims are recovering.
According to records kept by Taronga Park Zoo in Sydney, 193 people have been killed by sharks in Australia over the past 200 years, averaging about one per year.
Researchers play down the significance of the unusual spate of attacks. They point out that more people are entering the ocean, increasing the chances of an encounter. "The human population is expanding at a rate of knots," says Rory McAuley, a senior research scientist with the West Australian Fisheries Department. "Not only is it getting larger, it's getting more dispersed, so people are getting into the water over a greater area of the shark's range. It's probably likely to expect to see an increase in shark sightings and attacks."
But some fishermen and others complain that Australia's efforts to protect sharks catching rare white pointer sharks is illegal, for example is resulting in an increase in attacks. In particular, they object to a policy of letting suspected man-eaters go. "Sharks do hang around after the attack, and the government has a duty of care to deal with it," says Queensland fisherman Vic Hislop. Sharks "learn to kill humans. They learn to go in hard and fast."
The deadly Dec. 27 attack in Western Australia has rekindled this long-running controversy. After Guest, the banker, was killed, a volunteer rescue boat and helicopter located a shark matching the description of the killer but took no action.
Guest's family say they did not want the shark harmed. "[Guest] didn't want people going out there willy-nilly, destroying animals who were just doing what animals do," says Guest's son Daniel, who had been snorkling with his father on the day he went missing. But others are outraged. "The shark had the man in his stomach, digesting him, and (authorities) are just driving the boat over and around him," says Hislop, who is an outspoken critic of the government's preservation policies and runs a tourist shark display featuring models of man-eaters on Queensland's coast.
Hislop and others maintain that sharks develop a taste for people and can be repeat offenders. Says Hugh Edwards, a Western Australian author and fisherman who has been filming documentaries on sharks for more than 20 years: "I tend to agree that individual sharks can be responsible for more than one attack." Edwards suggests that they should be killed, "as long as you know that it's definitely the right shark."
But scientists reject such arguments as ill-informed. "There is no evidence that sharks become repeat attackers," says McAuley, who heads a shark and ray sustainability program for the fisheries department. "We have had a number of years between fatal shark attacks in West Australia, which is the clearest indication that sharks don't learn to predate humans."
McAuley acknowledges that the number of attacks may have increased lately. But he maintains this is not because shark numbers have increased dramatically due to successful preservation programs, as some have argued. White pointer sharks, for example, take 20 years to reach maturity, do not give birth every year, and have few offspring. "Any increase would take in the order of decades," McAuley says.
Australian officials have taken what steps they can to minimize man-shark encounters. Queensland and New South Wales have strung nets off popular surfing beaches to keep sharks out. The Queensland government says there has not been a fatal attack on a netted beach since they were introduced in the 1960s, but critics say the nets kill turtles, dolphins and sometimes whales. In Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania, authorities rely on aerial spotters and lifeguards who alert swimmers when a suspicious shape appears in the surf.
But the attitude of many is: swim at your own risk and leave the sharks alone. As Guest reportedly wrote on an anglers' website before he died: "[Sharks] got a right to be there, we've got a right to go there and there are risks associated with everything, but I don't believe the correct way of reducing our risk is to kill the shark." Luckily for the sharks, most Australians seem to think the same way.