Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Noahs: Plague or just bad press?

We've just had an enquiry from a father whose daughter wants to become an ocean swimmer but has been worried about sharks, with all the bad press they're getting lately. Below is our response.

What do you think?

No-one can give an absolute guarantee of safety because no-one knows what really is going to happen out there. But that is one reason we swimmers do it. Let me just say that the numbers of swimmers continues to climb steeply, particularly over the last few weeks, and that there has never been an issue with sharks in any swim I have done (numbering in the hundreds), that there are so many people in swims there is safety in numbers and in the escort craft buzzing around, that the media routinely overplay these issues, especially in the silly-season of high summer, when there isn't much else going on.

There is some risk but, as ocean swimmers, we don't perceive it to be any greater than in previous years.

Let me also say that there are many, many sharks out there. There are lots in Cabbage Tree Bay at Manly, for example, particularly juvenile whalers, wobbies and Port Jacksons, and the odd other kind from time to time. But there has never been a problem. There was an issue during the Cole Classic 10km swim three or four years back when they called off the swim, but that swim, at that time, was 400m off North Head. Hardly surprising there might be things out there. We also had one circle one of our swimmers on the way from Bondi to Watsons Bay a few years back, but that was 1km off Macquarie Lighthouse. No surprise out there, either. But there has never been a problem with swims run off beaches. (They sight them sometimes during the Rottnest Channel swim off Perth).

We have seen no evidence that there are any more sharks around now than at any other time. The vast majority of sharks, in any case, are not problems. It's just a few varieties that are. It's actually quite exciting and fascinating to watch them, when you do see them, in their natural environment, as distinct from an aquarium?



  1. If every morning we thought of what 'could' happen during an average day, we wouldn't leave the house. Its the same as we head down the beach for an ocean swim. We enjoy the ocean for all its life large and small. Personally, I enjoy watching the small on my ocean swims.

  2. Dear concerned,

    Like os.c says, there are no guarantees. As an ocean swimmer with a reasonable amount of swimming experience, and many years of surfing, I have had 2 sightings of dorsal fins, both whilst swimming alone. These ended up being dolphins. Others may tell you of different encounters but if you are very concerned, there are some things you can do to minimise exposure.

    A bit of internet research and you will come across the International Shark Attack File, which has statistics on shark attacks and has a comparison of fatalities by other events, such as lightning strikes.

    The link is http://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sharks/Attacks/relariskreduce.htm

    Statisticians will say that you have more chance being killed driving to the beach than from shark attack. If you think of it this way; if you swim in a big event (1000's of competitors), you reduce your risk for obvious reason. The only down side, is you have to contend with the crowds. Most of the shark attacks of recent suggest people swimming or diving alone or in small groups.

    The things that you will see; rays, fish, weed, ripples, etc are a sight to see when you are swimming and make the events very enjoyable. Please don't be discouraged; there's a whole new and challenging sport awaiting you.

  3. Excellent response I thought. I especially liked the slight jab and media for beating up the shark story.
    I'm back in my homestate for a few weeks and was looking forward to doing my first ocean swim at the Cottesloe Classic Mile. I was very dissapointed that it was cancelled due to the recent "spate" of shark sightings. People seemed suprised that there are sharks in the ocean.
    I wasnt just dissapointed in the the fact that something I was looking forward to was canned, but I was more dissapointed that such a great club seemed to bow into the media hype. Though, it wasnt a decision the Cotteslose SLSC took lightly, as it would mean a loss of revenue as they refunded all the entry fees.

  4. So there have been 3 attacks in 2009. None fatal. Already in NSW there have been ten people killed on the roads as of 13/1/09 About 1200 died on the nations roads in 2008. We average roughly 1 fatal shark attack a year.
    You still have got more chance getting killed driving to the beach.
    The media are trying to create hyseria in a slow news week.

  5. For many of us "particularly the fellas" 'tis the fear that dare not speak its name; lest it should erode our sense of bravery. I'm sure that pilots have a similar attitude towards crashing or soldiers being shot. It is a calculated but not altogether controllable risk. I suppose that if we humans were particularly averse to such risks we would never have climbed down out of the tree or wandered out the cave, let alone entertain such dangerous pursuits as circumnavigating the globe or flying to the Moon.

    If we analyse the risk of shark attack we can draw a couple of fairly comforting conclusions:

    1. We are not on the menu. If sharks which have been around for nigh on 450 million years and we have been around in various incarnations for less than 3 million years; and popping in for a dip in significant numbers on a regular basis for only a hundred years. So if sharks, being creatures of habit were particularly dependant on the likes of us for a feed, they would have starved out of existence quite some time ago.

    2. There are many, many sharks out there and many, many types of sharks out there. Even though their numbers are dwindling due to reduced fish stocks and seal populations etc, there are still a lot more of them in the water all the time than us on any given sunny day. So once again, if they need to switch food sources in hurry to survive, methinks we're gonna sorely disappoint them into extinction.

    The bottom line is that sharks, like spiders and snakes and all the other nasties are a lot less interested in us than we are in them. Yes, there have been horrible stories of shark attacks over the last century; some particularly frightful ones involving feeding frenzies on sailors awaiting rescue when their ships were sunk during wartime. But with rubber duckies buzzing around us and the watchful eye of the clubbies on the look out when we race, I reckon the risk is negligible. I certainly hope it never happens to any of us, but it may one day and there will probably be plenty of witnesses and possibly even TV coverage, and excrement will certainly hit the fan.

    It's a matter of personal choice, and I chose to swim. How about youz?


  6. Hi, Sharks don't scare me, due to the infintessimally small odds of being eaten, as everyone has pointed out. If we want to worry about death in the ocean I think worrying about drowning would be far more productive - the ratio of drownings to shark deaths is very high.
    Steve Hall
    On the other hand, bluebottles scare me silly (or sillier).

  7. If this "shark plague" continues we'll have to bring back a prize for the slowest swimmer.
    Most ocean swim beaches are meshed.Meshing is a technigue used to remove sharks that set up feeding patterns in a specific location.So the chances of an encounter on a meshed beach are even less.I don't beleive there has been an attack on a Sydney beach since meshing began.Even with all the extra people in the water.
    The fear subsides the more times you venture out and return unharmed.
    I'm scared of anything with big teeth and a small brain though.

  8. Ocean swimming has the beauty of being both a personal experience and a social experience; and is certainly more than organised swims. I personally swim most mornings with a group. We walk around the rocks on the headland, jump off in front of often amazed fisherman, and swim down the beach and back. After that we all have a coffee together and swap stories. The group includes students, working people from a broad range of occupations and retirees. We are all equals in our budgie smugglers, bonded by the joy of ocean swimming. We've seen sharks and been interested in those sharks, but never seen a shark interested in us. What those swims do for our physical and mental wellbeing far outways the physical risk of shark attack.

    I say to our father in question, take your daughter to your nearest beach in the morning and loook for a group of swimmers; they'll be there somewhere. Introduce yourselves and join in; both of you. You won't regret it!

  9. As my fortune cookie tells me:

    "The boat is safer in the harbour. But it is not meant for that."

  10. I'm with anonymous, my fear of drowning myself as a novice ocean swimmer is much greater than my fear of being eaten by sharks!

  11. Tips for nervous swimmers ...

    The "sharkbait medley" swimming technique:

    3 strokes freestyle, breathe left.
    3 strokes freestyle, breathe right.
    6 strokes backstroke, check for any trailing dorsal fins.
    6 strokes breaststroke, regulate breathing.
    Repeat to Finish.

    Remember Yellow attracts MLF's (Marine Life Forms), so stay close to another swimmer who's wearing a Yellow Cap, preferably one who swims a little slower.

  12. Sharkies hang out at dawn and dusk. They prefer the colder water (brrr!) to the warmer coastal waters in which we prefer to swim.
    I have been ocean swimning for three years - I love it - and I will not let the media hype deter me from this rejuvenating, life-affirming activity.
    And I am totally with the other 'anon' - bluebottles freak me out!

  13. I was watching a documentary the other night (December was "shark month" on Foxtel!!!)
    Anyway this South African surfer had been knocked off his board on 2 separate occassions by white sharks.
    On both occasions he had been singled out of a large group of surfers.
    There had been massive schools of baitfish that time of year (the "sardine run").

    He admitted to frequently peeing in his wetsuit while waiting for a wave, and this was given as the most likely reason he was targeted.
    I trust this would not not be an issue for most ocean swimmers ...

  14. This is a message for Adam.

    Stop giving in to the media hype and believing this so called shark plague, you are feeding your now only sudden fear for ocean swimming.

    You know yourself how much you have enjoyed the past 3 months swimming in it, don't now loose confidence beacuse the media has nothing else to write about.

    Your doing so well and i know the upcoming Bondi swim will be your best yet. Go for it!


  15. Sharks, Where???

    Your kidding?

    As steve leibman says - "Be alert, not alarmed"

    I feel safer swimming in an ocean swim than i do in a car witha seatbelt. . Sheesh.

    All you need to do is summon the confidence to do it with your daughter and you can both enjoy a wonderful - almost heavenly experience. . .

  16. As I have done a few ocean races in my time, there has only been one race where I've actually seen a shark and that was the Cole Classic 10km a few years ago as mentioned by OS.C.

    The safety provided by a number of different surf lifesaving clubs that day was so efficient and professional, that I never once thought I was in danger.

    They had the entire field out of the water in a matter of minutes (including the stubborn ones that insisted that they weren't affaid of any sharks).

    So, as others have said before me, the likelyhood of a shark coming anywhere near you during an ocean swim is far less than getting hit by a car crossing the road.

    Josh Santacaterina

  17. I think the rough 'comparative' numbers for Australian waters are:
    average of 1.2 shark fatalities per annum, average of 220 coastal water drownings per anum,
    average of 3,000 car crash fatalities per anum,& you could continue with smoking, alcohol, bad diet, poor lifestye etc.

    On the other hand if I was 200 times more afraid of drowning than I am of Noah's Arks (please lets never use the Sh... word directly), I would stay dry!

  18. I hate to shatter your sense of security but sharks don't prefer 'colder water' as a blanket rule (anon Jan 15). It's true that some do, Mako's, blues and thresher sharks in particular.

    I have been a game fisherman and a swimmer for many years. And I can assure you right now is prime time for shark fishing!

    The warm water this time of year brings in big Hammerheads and Tiger Sharks chasing baitfish. Tiger Sharks just looove warm water ,that's why they are found in such large numbers on the GBR and Hawaii.

    The annual interclub game fishing comp is held at Port Stephens in the last weekend of Feb and the first weekend in March to catch the warm currents that hold both marlin and sharks. Have a look here. Mostly big tigers.


    Before fishing for Whites was banned (quite rightly) there was some epic catches of Whites at Port Stephens during the comp. One boat, 'Rampage' from memory, hooked one off Port Stephens and fought it all night before losing it. The shark (along with the currents) had towed them down to Wollongong.

    It's often thought that Whites are cold water sharks, that they are 'down south' , and don't come up the coast very far. Not 100% accurate unfortunately. A lot of big mature White's chase the seals and tuna in the cooler waters off S.A , W.A and South Africa, but there is still a great deal of them up here. Aside from the much hyped sightings off Long Reef and Palm Beach (seeya Sunday) recently you might remember that the last confirmed fatal Great White attack was in Byron Bay.


    And a White was the suspect in the tragic death of a Ballina surfer in April 2007, when the warmer is its warmest off the coast of NSW. Also, Newcastle has recently been the subject of stories (and a tropfest film) as it appears a great white nursery maybe off Stockton Beach. Of course no-one knows for sure, but they sure do catch a few there.


    Those with a better stomach than I can youtube a great white attack on a hapless girl in the South Pacific off Chile.

    Having said all that, I still support the 'hit by lightning' theory. I remember lots of hot days sitting on deck watching our little bait balloons go untouched by any shark hour after hour, despite the burley trail of mashed pilchards and tuna oil trailing off behind us for miles.

    For what it is worth, the times I get nervous ocean swimming are the same times I liked to fish. Around the turn of the tide, when its overcast and where there is lots of baitfish about. Like this morning at Bondi.

    I also don't like swimming in canals, or near brackish river mouth water. That's bull shark territory....now THEY are really scary.

    Captain Quint

  19. It didn't take the sharkies long to discover one of Sydney's best kept secrets ... Sydney Harbour has recovered quickly since commercial fishing was banned 2 years ago, and is now teeming with live seafood.


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