It was way too early in the morning when I snorkelled out behind a reef with a friend. Mistake one. Without flippers we had to kick like mad to get through the shore break. Mistake two. We trod water over the clearer water at the end of a long gutter. Mistake three.

The distinctive tube-like body of the bronze whaler passed a metre from my leg followed by a large tail fin. I stared into the green water waiting. Ten seconds later a Bronze Whaler parked itself about two metres away from my feet looking up at me. I stared for a millisecond before diving at it — eyes closed — yelling. I surfaced to find my mate struggling with her face mask and the swell rising. Saying nothing about the shark I convinced her to try snorkelling another day and we swam the 50 metres back to the rocky shore slowly — and unbitten.

In Shark Attack Down Under Alan Sharpe published accounts of over 150 attacks since settlement to the early nineties. Sharks can in fact be dissuaded by aggression from even a relatively small human — as was the experience of the young surfer from Tasmania and her cousin the other day where one of the snorkellers attacked. Early morning and late evening are prime times for shark attack. It’s when they hunt, especially close to shore.

The risks increase with persistent rain and all the east coast rivers running strongly. These high flows combine with king tides to flood the vegetation over estuarine shorelines. The following ebb tides deliver the bounty of dislodged and drowned critters from the flooded estuary and catchment to the sea as plumes that flow along the coast attacking masses of fish — and sharks.

It is not a good time to be snorkelling along the coast or surfing in river mouths, regardless of the time of the day, as the three recent shark attacks clearly show. Surfers in the south accept the risk from white pointers that patrol the surf breaks looking for salmon and seals. Given that people surf often at dawn and dusk in seal-like wetsuits, they are only a large hook short of being shark bait. It’s remarkable how few are taken.

This spate of attacks doesn’t mean that there is an increase in the numbers of sharks or the danger they present overall. Many different types of sharks will have a ‘nip’ at people they encounter in the cloudy water when fish are abundant. The trouble is that people could be better informed as to how to avoid shark attack — and the size of the ‘nip’.

So far scientists have been at pains to emphasise how endangered sharks are and not addressing the problem — typically not even wanting to discuss shark attacks. Rather than glibly telling the public that three attacks in two days is not “statistically significant”, a more comprehensive review of how to reduce shark attacks is needed.

With a struggling multi-million dollar coastal tourist industry, not helped by publicity regarding shark attacks, there is a role for the Commonwealth. It could establish teams with practical local expertise, not just scientists, to review these attacks and learn from them. Such teams could also evaluate the effectiveness of shark nets and set lines used off Queensland beaches and new technologies for deterrents.

Australia needs to provide the resources to better separate sharks and people and learn more from the times they meet.

Peter Fray

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