Last week I went for a surf with my friend Anna. It was a Monday morning, it was onshore, a bit rainy and waves were not too amazing. Nevertheless we were surprised to find Bondi absolutely empty. We were stoked to have the beach to ourselves. (In case you don’t know Bondi, that never happens..even on the worst days of surf, there’s still a crowd). Ten minutes later two mates paddled out and they told us the reason behind the untypically empty line-up was an earlier shark sighting. ‘Oh really. That makes me feel slightly uncomfortable’ was all I could utter in response. None of my mates seemed to be too bothered about the news of the shark sighting and I was kind of torn between catching a few waves and slight anxiousness building up in my belly. Eventually, I ended up staying out for a bit longer, thinking it’s a pretty big ocean and what are the chances really?
But then no summer passes without media reporting countless shark sightings and the odd shark attack. It seems they are almost waiting for an attack to happen so they can report on it in all it’s gory details and the personal tragedies accompanying it. I try not to listen too much to media shark frenzies and stay level headed when I hear about another shark story.
Admittedly, as a surfer I was horrified though to hear about the recent shark attack on Tadashi, a surfer from Ballina who had his legs bitten off sitting in the water on his board. It did shake my confidence in my ‘what are the chances’ and it’s just all media’ theory a bit.
A few questions came to mind and I’ve did some research to give myself some peace of mind again.
It seems like there are more sharks around?
You hear of a lot of sharks around at the moment. Especially, on the East Coast of Australia…the recent shark attack, Newcastle has been closed for a record nine days because of shark sightings, some local stories around here are making the rounds as well only to name a few.
According to Taronga Conservation, however, shark populations are generally considered to be in steep decline due to overfishing. Observing a large number of sharks in an area does not mean there is a shark population increase but rather it is more likely due to a congregation of sharks feeding in an area which may give the impression there might be more sharks.
Some people suggest the warmer water temperature brings more fish and thus, more sharks closer to shore. So subjectively it might seem like there are more sharks around.
Are the shark attacks on the increase?
Well, if you look at numbers in an absolute way, then there is no denying that there was a bit of a spike in shark attacks recently in Australia.
However, if you think about it in relative terms, i.e. number of people spending time in the ocean these days compared to say a decade ago is much higher. An encounter between a human and a shark is therefore much more likely but still the shark attack file only averages at about 1.38 fatal attacks a year over the last 100 years.
Technically, shark attacks are decreasing when compared to the number of people in the ocean.
What are the chances really?
In the last 100 (!!) years there were 532 unprovoked shark attacks thereof 138 fatal, 299 injured and 95 uninjured in Australia (Source: Taronga Zoo/Australian Shark Attack File).
So here are my gidget maths:
According to surfing Australia there are 2.7 Million recreational surfers in Australia (that’s 2010 stats so likely to be higher now). It doesn’t say how many of the fatal attacks were surfers but assuming out of the average yearly 1.38 fatal attack, it’s 1 surfer.
So the odds to get eaten by a shark as a surfer in Australia is about 1 in 2.7 Million. Well, admittedly, that’s based on my slightly wonky assumptions not taking any risk factors into account but you get the gist. Even as a surfer who spends a lot of time in the water, the risk is pretty low.
And to put things a bit more in perspective, did you know that around 300 people a year drown in Australia? And 20 people a year die from horse riding accidents and around 10 people per year in Australia die from bee stings after going into anaphylactic shock…just saying…you better watch out for those horses and bees…
How to minimise risks?
But ok…I admit it…odds are odds and as surfers we just spend more time in the water that than the average person and are more exposed to shark attacks. There are certainly ways to minimise your risk so here are a few simple rules I shall follow from now on:
- I will get out of the water when there has been a confirmed shark sighting
- I shall not surf at dusk or dawn by myself (the official recommendations are not to surf at dusk or dawn at all but let’s be real, that’s the best time of the day for a surf and the most feasible to time for 9-5ers)
- I will always listen to my gut feel and get out of the water (or actually not get in in first place) when it feels sharky to me – usually you can tell when it feels a bit funny on a grey, murky day with loads of seagulls on the water feeding of fish schools. The surf better be really good to get me into the water then…
Oh and maybe I even get myself one of those funky shark deterrent suits…a good excuse for a new wettie for the upcoming winter season.