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OUR GREAT MUSE: A TORRID TALE OF SHARK ATTACKS AND THE HUNT FOR SOLUTIONS
Big wave surfer and diver, Shanan Worall, dealing with open-mouthed threats above the surface in WA. Photo: Anj Semark

OUR GREAT MUSE: A TORRID TALE OF SHARK ATTACKS AND THE HUNT FOR SOLUTIONS

From Australia’s wildest waters comes an idea that could save lives around the world.

When wild nature is the backdrop to your most profound experiences, a deep humility is often inflicted by the understanding that you are dancing amongst forces far greater than yourself.

Around the rugged coastlines of regional Australia, there is a hardcore community of divers and surfers seeking a life of adventure. Often hours from civilisation and pushing towards uncharted waters, there is a lifetime of exploration in this mythical playground. Those hardy few that endure the elements and stay the course might just find themselves privy to a truly unfiltered view of the natural world, in all of its brutality and beauty.

Danger has always come with the territory here, but shark encounters might just be the most intriguing of all our threats. Risk is easy to stomach when we know that our safety is entirely dependent on our proficiency, experience and decision-making. Up against an apex predator in their home environment, the idea that we are in control is quickly relinquished. We have stepped far from our evolutionary lane floating in the deep blue, with limited awareness of what moves beneath and even less ability to flee. We are left with little choice but to steel our resolve and hope luck stays on our side.

A diver exploring the deep blue off the coast of WA. Photo: Anj Semark

Over the last five years, there has been a noticeable shift in sentiment amongst the water community towards shark risk, after multiple runs of fatal attacks around the country. Northern NSW and South-West WA have been the hardest hit, with an influx of anecdotal reports from all over the coast suggesting a significant increase of big shark sightings. Underwater professional Marc Payne, a lifelong abalone diver involved in white shark research has spent more time than most in the treacherous waters of southern Australia. Throughout his career he has experienced a number of close calls with sharks, but his dive data from recent years paints an interesting picture ‘My level of interaction has gone from around one white shark for every 1250 hours of diving, to one white shark for every 250 hours of diving. There appears to be quite an increase in interaction, but I wouldn’t directly relate that to population. It’s just an observation’

MY LEVEL OF INTERACTION HAS GONE FROM AROUND ONE WHITE SHARK FOR EVERY 1250 HOURS OF DIVING, TO ONE WHITE SHARK FOR EVERY 250 HOURS OF DIVING.’

Amongst surfers and divers, it appears that the ‘she’ll be right’ sentiment of the past is giving way to a sense of heightened concern. Scientific process is where we must look for real answers in time, but as an intrepid oceangoer the following questions are certainly worth pondering. How is commercial fishing affecting the balance of fish, sharks and marine mammals within the marine ecosystem? Great White Sharks have been protected from this fishing for over twenty years in Australian waters, has this conservation measure been so successful it could have led to a competitive advantage for white sharks, whilst other species struggle under immense fishing pressure? One of the more complex questions the topic evokes is around the ethics of culling and other invasive management techniques, when it is our commercial fisheries and footprint which are causing immense change within the ecosystem. How far are we prepared to bend nature to suit our purposes, is it justified if it could save lives?

It is worth contemplation that we are dealing with a dynamic environment in a constant state of change, with near-infinite factors spanning the entire planet. It’s a daunting but exciting prospect for researchers, learning about what can only be described as a moving target. It is believed that 90 percent of the species in the ocean have yet to be classified, let alone studied in depth. Even prolific species such as the great white shark are rarely able to be observed in the same depth as terrestrial animals due to the challenges of the aquatic environment. In a world where we continually advance our sense of convenience and insulation from the wild, it’s a confronting idea that we could become part of the food chain whilst out having some fun.

“IN A WORLD WHERE WE CONTINUALLY ADVANCE OUR SENSE OF CONVENIENCE AND INSULATION FROM THE WILD, IT’S A CONFRONTING IDEA THAT WE COULD BECOME PART OF THE FOOD CHAIN WHILST OUT HAVING SOME FUN.”

Coastal-fringed fun for those who like their barrels throaty and well overhead. Photo: Scott Bauer

Professional diver and big wave surfer Shanan Worrall has felt the impact of these attacks more than most, having lost several friends to fatal attacks and experiencing a number of close calls himself. After a particularly traumatic incident involving a life or death rescue of a fellow abalone diver, Worrall found himself crippled by fear and grief. He found himself at the point of breaking down, crying and vomiting when he entered the water even on a crystal clear day. For a lifelong waterman with an identity built around remarkable experiences in wild ocean, it would prove a tough pill to swallow.

In late 2013, Shanan was six weeks deep on an abalone diving mission to a secluded area east of Esperance. They were so isolated that they hadn’t seen another person in weeks, until one morning Greg Pickering pulled up alongside them, a renowned spearfishermen and fellow professional diver. As Pickering went about his work at depth collecting abalone from the reef, he was struck by a large great white shark – unknown to everybody else. In a situation nothing short of horrific he found himself inside the mouth of the shark head first, under huge crushing pressure. Abalone divers typically utilise a weighted vest instead of a belt, with a ten-litre air cylinder on the back. This metal tank was the only thing between Pickering and certain death, causing the shark to release him from its grasp. Bloodied and beaten, Pickering took stock under duress. Fifteen metres below, with severe internal injuries and major bleeding. His air supply was compromised by the attack, so to avoid decompression sickness he had to hold his breath, compose himself and rise to the surface slowly. All the while, acknowledging the very real possibility that the shark may return at any moment.

Can an extra pair of eyes reduce the risk of shark attack? Photo: Ord

Above the waterline the grim reality of the situation was about to sink in. With no helicopter available for a rescue, the nearest medical help was hours away. Amongst the two boat crews, the gravity of Pickerings injuries was immediately apparent to Worrall ‘I remember jumping on the boat and thinking oh man, he’s been hit by a great white, there’s so much blood everywhere. I jumped back on my boat and said – it was a white mate. It’s bad. He’s probably not gonna make it’

With hours of travel between them and a four-wheel drive ambulance en route from Esperance, Pickering was delicately positioned on the deck of his boat for the trip along the coast back to the cove where they launched. They would need to successfully winch his boat onto its trailer off the beach, not an easy task for a large commercial cat normally towed with a tractor. Once that was done, they would need to rendezvous with medical help somewhere along the dirt road back to town. Shanan explains the state of play as they returned to shore ‘We were scared he would fall apart if we moved him from where he lay. At one point Greg asked for oxygen, there’s an O2 bottle on the boat. I remember getting the regulator and I didn’t even know where to put it. His face had been split open from the chin up. He actually still had a tooth from the shark embedded in the inside of his eye socket’’

“HIS FACE HAD BEEN SPLIT OPEN FROM THE CHIN UP. HE ACTUALLY STILL HAD A TOOTH FROM THE SHARK EMBEDDED IN THE INSIDE OF HIS EYE SOCKET’’

Six hours later, Greg was transported by a Royal Flying Doctor Service aeroplane to Perth, where emergency surgery would save his life.

Whilst Greg survived his battle, the incident would not pass without heavy implications for the others present that day. Shanan began to question his career and lifestyle, to the point that he found himself unable to return to the water. His special place had been swept away by trauma, fear and grief. Try as he might, this was not something that would be addressed with brute force ‘One day I tried to paddle out for a surf, but when I got to about half a foot of water I started throwing up and crying. I figured I’d just tough it out and go full Aussie on it, so the next day I tried again. This time I managed to get out the back, but I started throwing up and broke down again. On the beach in tears, I remember thinking well that’s that. I gave up altogether and accepted the fact that I may never go in the ocean again’

Several months later, Shanan and his wife Heather were on their way down to Ellensbrook, near Margaret River. They had a plan to try and find some crayfish in the protected rockpools, cut off from the ocean. As they walked the track along the coast, it was apparent something was very wrong. ‘I looked up to see people going in the opposite direction, distressed and crying. Somebody had been hit and killed by a shark, and it turned out to be a great mate of mine’

After an accumulation of traumatic personal experience, that day would prove to be the final straw for Worrall ‘For me, the ocean is the place I go to help me cope. It’s mental release and meditation and it was all that I’d ever known. When I lost that – everything changed. It almost seems cliche, I started drinking more than I should and I could no longer live in my hometown Esperance. I packed up my bags and left, I just wasn’t coping’.

A year later, Worrall had settled in a new home in the south-west of WA. He’d slowly found a return to the water, albeit apprehensively. One day out in the back shed, he was siliconing a set of homemade ‘eyespots’ to the back of his wetsuit. He had seen other divers use this strategy in the past as a shark deterrent, easily created at home. A seemingly novel concept at first glance, Shanan explains the logic behind the concept ‘Sharks try to get as close as possible when hunting without being spotted, similar to many apex predators. When they become aware that they have been detected, you can see a distinct shift in their behaviour. With that advantage gone they tend to become more cautious or lose interest altogether’

Nothing like a pair of eyes in the back of your head to make you feel a little safer. Photo: Driftwood

“WHEN THEY BECOME AWARE THAT THEY HAVE BEEN DETECTED, YOU CAN SEE A DISTINCT SHIFT IN THEIR BEHAVIOUR. WITH THAT ADVANTAGE GONE THEY TEND TO BECOME MORE CAUTIOUS OR LOSE INTEREST ALTOGETHER”

Professional diver and underwater survival trainer Joe Knight is well aware of the value of visual detection ‘It’s really well known amongst all spearfishers, that if you look at a shark it won’t come in unless it’s really fired up. That’s pretty common knowledge amongst most savvy watermen’

Another interesting point is that once they are detected, the shark may perceive an attack too risky. Marc Payne notes ‘With white sharks, that element of surprise is key to their survival. Firstly, they’re going to have a lot better chance of catching what they’re trying to catch. Secondly, they’ve got the ability to bite and swim away, let it bleed out and avoid injuring themselves. It’s survival to them. Food is survival, and food can bite back. It can hurt them too, so that’s where eye contact comes into play, because once that element of surprise is taken away it makes them much more reluctant to have a go’

In the quest to dissuade potential predators there are clues to be found in the evolutionary features of other species.

Shanan’s wife Heather saw the eyespots in the shed that day and posed the question – do people know about this? Worrall realised that this knowledge was little known amongst the general population. As an awareness developed that sharing this knowledge could save lives, he began the process of designing stickers with the eyespots, along with other watersport hardware such as fins and wetsuits, by which point his idea had grown into a conviction.

Many current strategies for shark management such as nets, baited hooks and culling represent a brute force approach to the issue. Whilst a multi-faceted approach will always be necessary, the non invasive nature and low cost of mimicry make it worthy of further investigation. We know that eyespots have been validated as a natural defence mechanism by millions of years of evolution, but could they really be applied to keep us safe too?

Mimicry tactics employed to make a chunk of floating fibreglass look more like something that belongs in the ocean.

In 2016, UNSW scientist Dr. Neil Jordan began his ‘i-Cow’ research program in Botswana. Large ‘eyespots’ were painted onto the back of cattle, with a view that it could help prevent stock losses from lions and other big cats. Protecting their livelihood, farmers would shoot or poison the big cats in retaliation. There are no large animals with naturally occuring eyespots, but it can be observed in hundreds of different species including cats, birds, fish and insects. Lions are known to hunt as ambush predators, heavily dependent on the element of surprise. They are also believed to be selective in their attacks and should a potential target not fulfil all their criteria, it is likely they will abandon the hunt. When considering the assessment process of the big cats, it seems logical that mimicry could be effective in this scenario. Over the course of the four-year study, not a single marked cow was lost to attack. With just a can of paint, this mitigation strategy could be applied with very little resources required. By attaining an outcome mutually beneficial for conservation and industry, Jordan’s study is a brilliant example of applying a proven natural concept in a new context. An economically viable and non-invasive solution truly ticks all the boxes.

Whilst the experiences of divers around the sharkiest waters in the country may add substantial credibility to the Shark Eyes concept, it is clear that peer-reviewed scientific process will be necessary to define just how effective the eyespots may or may not be. Most great white hotspots around the world have become tourism destinations, serviced by cage diving operators. Many of these outfits are dependent on chumming the water to entice more dramatic interactions for their clients. Supercharging these interactions certainly poses ethical questions; when we view and document these animals in a heightened state of aggression, the bloodthirsty persona perpetuated by Hollywood lives on, an object of true terror. It is not yet known if these operations are altering the natural hunting practises of the sharks, but there is sound reason for concern when humans are placed in the water alongside a food source on a regular basis. When chasing an outcome for paying customers that have travelled far and wide, this becomes an unfortunate feature of these kinds of operations.

There are very few locations left where objective study can occur, but it is paramount that this is where any study must take place. Payne explains ‘The process is difficult because with the testing of mitigation strategies, cage tourism is the access point which is a fabricated arena. It’s very difficult to get credible science in a fabricated arena. Quite often I call that doing science in a theme park, on a wild animal’.

“THERE ARE VERY FEW LOCATIONS LEFT WHERE OBJECTIVE STUDY CAN OCCUR, BUT IT IS PARAMOUNT THAT THIS IS WHERE ANY STUDY MUST TAKE PLACE.”

Worrall is quick to acknowledge there is no silver bullet when it comes to entirely preventing attacks. Amongst a feeding frenzy or once it has already progressed into attack mode, there may be little you can do. ‘When there is blood in the water and a shark is motivated, its blinkers are on and nothing will stop it from trying to achieve its goal’ Where he feels that mimicry offers a unique advantage, is the idea that it may be able to stop a shark before the point of no return ‘I believe that Shark Eyes can potentially stop the shark in that crucial risk assessment stage before it commits to an attack. This has been documented to take place up to 15-20m away, whilst we may be completely unaware’

Shark Eyes products are now in use around the country, with surfers utilising stick-on decals on the underside of their boards. Divers are using wetsuits, mask straps and dive tank covers to protect their blindsides whilst underwater. A number of commercial agencies have adopted the products, with police dive teams and fisheries units across multiple states deploying the attack detterrents with a view to improving workplace safety.

It’s no surprise that the waterpeople of these far-flung locales have learnt a thing or two about survival themselves, a front-row seat to such beauty and brutality affords a depth of understanding towards their environment few manage to attain. Reverence of the natural world has gifted us remarkable innovations in design and technology, with little doubt that the more we look the more we will find. Natural intelligence could well be the decisive factor in solving our greatest challenges, we just need to keep our eyes wide open.

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