Charles Davis

The start of 2015 is not going well when it comes to shark attacks. Shark attacks are making big headlines in the beginning of February with a surfer being killed in New South Wales Australia and a swimmer in France’s Indian Ocean island of Reunion. Tadashi Nakahra died on February 8, when he was attacked from below as he waited on his surfboard, at the time he was just 10 meters from shore with three or four other surfers.  The shark, later identified as a great white, bit through both legs and pulled him under water. The other surfers administered first aid but he died from loss of blood. A team went looking for the shark to kill it but they did not locate it. The beach was closed for a week and reopened after no sharks were sighted for two days. Two days before that deadly attack, another surfer was attacked about 25 kilometers away. That surfer was attacked from the rear and suffer a bite to his back. He survived after returning to shore and driving himself to the hospital. January saw another Australian beach closed for two weeks, because two great whites were seen attacking dolphins near the beach.

 A death of a Australia surfer in the same area last year resulted in the government placing drum lines in the water and killing over 100 sharks. Another cull in Western Australia killed over 700 sharks in a three month period, most of them tiger sharks which have not been involved in a shark attack in Australia in over a decade.  These latest attacks have heated up debates on culling again.

The International Shark Attack File, located at Florida Museum of Natural History, is an association of researchers around the world who gather data concerning shark attacks and forwards the information to the file. Around the same time that Tadashi Nakahra was killed, they released their analysis of worldwide shark attacks for 2014.  In 2014, there were 72 unprovoked shark attacks, 11 in Australia. Encounters such a fisherman being bitten by a shark on his line do not count, nor does a diver trying to feed or ride a shark. Surfers and body surfers made up the largest group that were attacked. They are often found at locations where the water is turbulent and bait fish gather. They are also though to resemble a seal from underwater. Out of the 72 unprovoked attacks none were on scuba divers, let’s repeat that. In 2014 there were no reported unprovoked attacks on scuba divers by sharks. The report showed two fatal attacks by great whites both in Australia, and one fatal attack in Africa by a bull shark. Just 3 fatal attacks worldwide.

While Australia had 2/3’s of the fatal attacks, the United States had the majority of the attacks. There were 52 attacks by sharks in U.S. waters including 7 in Hawaii. Of that number28, more than half, happened in the small State of Florida. Florida has a large number of sharks and the year round mild weather means more people in the water. It also gets a number of migratory sharks.  None of the US attacks involved great whites and none were fatal. The majority of them were classified as bump and runs. Ether quick short bites or injuries caused by the abrasive skin of the shark. 40% of the attacks that required stitches required less than ten, about what you would get if the neighbor’s dog bit you. While 2013, saw no shark bite deaths in the US, that year saw 32 deaths by dog bites.

Do Australian Sharks Need a PR Agent? That question is meant in jest, but there may be some truth in it. We generally look at great whites as killing machines, and as the apex species they are. We use shark proof cages and lure them with bait so close that tourist can get a up close look. A well know entertainment website has posted a video of a great white attacking one of those cages and getting part of the way in. They don’t mention that it happened in 2007. Last year, a video of a great white attacking a camera went viral. Still one needs to remember that they were attracted by bait. I am not discounting the danger of a great white, just saying the videos show them at their meanest. Great Whites are clearly a presences to be both feared and respected. If a great white is spotted, I will likely not dive.

While the movie “jaws” has created a generation that feared the great white, there is now some movement to balance that fear with respect. Over 18,000 people on twitter follow the pings of a great white named Katherine. The female was tagged in August 2013, and every time she comes to the surface a tag transits data on what she been doing. A twitter tweak is sent and that tag is added to a data base. Followers can go to the internet and see her travels on a map. When a week past after a February 5 tag, newspapers stared writing articles speculating where she may be. Sharks specialist were interviewed asking is this gap was something to worry about. The program is based on research by OCERCH. OCEARCH is a non-profit organization for research on great white sharks and other large apex predators. The organization is now doing research and tagging in Australia, so maybe one of their great whites will get a following.  If the great whites of Australia need a spoke person, then Ocean Ramsey, the shark whisper, is a great choice. A scuba diving instructor and free diver she is very active in shark conservation programs. On her website, is an incredible video of her free diving with a great white. While she breaks the rule about touching marine life, seeing her being pulled by a great white twice her size is amazing.

The great white is on the IUCN red list and there is an estimate of only 3,500 of them left. Some people are blaming the protected status as the reason there are attacks. Still the number of attacks are relatively low and over 100 million sharks are killed each year. Most are for fins and the body discarded.

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