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Living with Wild Australia - Sharks

January 25, 2006
Living with Wild Australia  - Sharks

Sharks are a natural part of Australia and its surrounding seas and estuaries, but horrible as they are shark attacks are comparatively rare, when viewed against Australias long-standing love affair with its beaches.

There are some clear messages on living with sharks in Wild Australia. Get local advice before you swim, but always use your own judgment. You are responsible for yourself. If in doubt, don't!

Never swim at dawn, dusk or at night-time. Marine experts warn that dusk is the worst time to swim in marine habitat known to include sharks.

Blacktip reef shark feeding courtesy Great Barrier Reef Marine Park AuthorityThe reality of getting it wrong is illustrated in a horrific tragedy at Amity Point, Qld.In January 2006locals and Qld tourism found themselves facing the double-edged dilema of not frightening tourism dollars away while passing on the benefit of home ground experience.

Here is some practical help for all occasions. Follow the shark smart tips in this feature and read and understand warning signs. Not just the official kind on a post. Nature puts up signs too. Watch the water, know the tide, read the currents, see bait fish running, watch the birds, ask about channels and check on seasonal issues.

Leopard shark courtesy Great Barrier Reef Marine Park AuthorityIn Australia most beaches in and near national and marine parks are unpatrolled. If you decide to swim at unpatrolled beaches you are responsible for yourself and those with you. GSA believes you are also responsible for others who your actions could involve if you and yours have to be rescued.

In addition to the risk of sharks, rips and currents can be dangerous. Throughout Australia surfing beaches include such dangers, especially for inexperienced swimmers and people unused to surf. Even strong swimmers can get into trouble.

Here are some tips on being shark smart in Australia from the Department of Primary Industry and Fisheries (Qld) and marine experts, anglers and sailors from across Australia.

  • Dont swim at dawn and dusk, at night or on a rising tide. This is when sharks come close to shore chasing fish.
  • Stay away from drop-offs and deep channels. If you dont meet a shark, you could drown. Deep channels usually have strong tide runs.
  • Swim or surf only atpatrolled beaches, between the flags and in Qldwhere there is Shark Safety Programequipment.
  • Obey the lifesavers' and lifeguards' advice, and heed all flags and notice board warnings.
  • Leave the waterif a shark is sighted.
  • Do not swim or surf in turbid or silt-laden waters.
  • Do not swim in rivers, artificial canals and lakes. Head-on with Blacktip reef shark courtesy Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority
  • Never swim alone.
  • Never swim when bleeding.
  • Do not swim near schools of fish.
  • Do not swim near or interfere with sharksafety equipment.
  • Never swim with a dog or other animal, because their splashing is known to attract sharks. In the North of Australia dogs are also a no no around crocs.
  • Dont jump and splash into the water from a boat or jetty. Slip into the water quietly and stay close to the hull or jetty structure. Look before you leap is the message (an underwater mask is a big asset).
  • Dont swim near boat ramps. Particularly if anglers clean their catch there.
  • Big fish follow small fish. If you see bait fish jumping on the surface something bigger is chasing them. Dont become part of the fish soup.
  • Eyeballing a  Whitetip reef shark courtesy Great Barrier Reef Marine Park AuthoritySarah Whiley, from McDowall on Brisbane's northside, died from shock and blood loss late on Saturday afternoon, Jan. 7, 2006 after being mauled by up to three bull sharks, about 20m from shore, at Amity Point, North Stradbroke Island, Qld.

    The 21-year-old occupational therapy student was swimming in waist-deep water with friends from a church group about 5.30pm near the Rainbow Channel when the sharks bit off both her arms and attacked her torso and a leg. It is the first fatality on a Shark Safety Program protected beach in Queensland in 44 years.

    Endangered grey nurse shark courtesy Great Barrier Reef Marine Park AuthorityThe program was initiated 1962 after a number of shark attacks resulted in fatalities on Queensland beaches. Under this program, a large baited hook is anchored to the seabed with drumlines. The shark attack on Sarah Whiley took place about 200 metres south of the Amity Point drumlines.

    A report released by the Queensland Government found there were no shark warning signs at the beach despite the area teeming with marine life. Anglers also regularly threw their bloody fish scraps into the water - a practice which attracted predators to the area, it said.

    Grey reef shark fills the lense courtesy Great Barrier Reef Marine Park AuthoritySignificant numbers of fish were found to have moved through Amity Point on the day of the attack, with the channel providing a rich habitat for marine life including dugongs, dolphins and sharks.

    Local knowledge might have prevented Sarah Whiley's death, but reports of the circumstances of the shark attack which killed her indicate that she did not have enough information about the area she entered to swim safely.

    The Queensland Government report has led to shark warning signs and signs warning local anglers against discarding bloody scraps of fish in the waters off Amity Point after cleaning their catches. Warning signs are being considered for other Queensland beaches in a wider investigation of shark safety by the Queensland Government. GSA believes that shark warning signage should be put in place throughout Australia.

    In an ABC 7.30 Report interview with reporter Genevieve Hussey shark filmmaker Valerie Taylor, says Amity Point Beach was probably not a wise place to swim late in the afternoon. She said the sharks would come up the shipping channel, boating channel, to the beach on a rising tide, late afternoon, looking for any food that might wash off the beach as nature intends them to do. Valerie Taylor has been shooting shark documentaries for decades.

    She said Bull sharks also generally feel with their teeth and they would have seen something in the water - her legs going along, maybe she was splashing or something - tested, felt with their teeth, blood would have come. They can pick up the scent of blood one part in a million and it would have sent them into what you call a feeding pattern.

    You enter the ocean and there is always a slight risk. Being alive is risky. And don't go out on a mad hunt for sharks. But I do hope it doesn't keep people away from the beach and stop them swimming because it's one of the great pleasures of living in Australia, and the danger is very, very small, Valerie Taylor said.

    Powerful Tiger shark courtesy Great Barrier Reef Marine Park AuthorityThe last shark attack on North Stradbroke Island was in 1973. Two people have been killed by bull sharks in recent years while swimming in unprotected Gold Coast canals, with another fatality in the Whitsundays in 2004.

    Sharks like the bull whaler can be found along the entire Queensland coast, inestuaries, canals and rivers. They have an extremely varied diet consisting of other sharks, rays, crustaceans, anemones, molluscs, bony fishes, birds, dolphins, turtles, terrestrial snakes and mammals.

    The bull whaler is extremely aggressive and dangerous because of its large size, from 1.5 to 4m, varied diet, tolerance of freshwater and preference for shallow habitats. It is believed that this shark has made more attacks on humans than the white pointer or the tiger shark. Due to its ability to tolerate low-salinity waters, the bull whaler can be found far up rivers.

    Tiger shark courtesy Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority The bull shark, one of the whaler group of sharks, is responsible worldwide for more attacks on people than any other shark species, but they are not found in the cooler southern waters of Australia where great whites or bronze whalers are more likely to be encountered, marine experts say.

    But while Australia and its sharks have an international reputation through film and media it is the sharks which are most in danger.

    The CRC Reef Research Centre says Sharks are generally slow growing and long lived, meaning that shark populations can be rapidly depleted, and once reduced are slow to recover. Understanding the biology of these species is crucial to assess how fishing may affect shark populations, and to help fisheries managers draw up effective management plans.

    A particular example is the grey nurse shark. Despite its fierce appearance the grey nurse shark (Carcharias Taurus) is one of Australia's most endangered marine species.

    Despite not being a threat to man, it was hunted almost to extinction during the 1960s. Today, activities such as fishing and diving continue to impact on the sharks.

    It is estimated that there are less than 500 grey nurse sharks left along Australia's east coast. Research has indicated that without extra protection, the species could be extinct within 40 years. The grey nurse shark is listed as endangered under the Nature Conservation Act 1992.

    The Grey nurse fearsome looks cost it dearly courtesy Great Barrier Reef Marine Park AuthorityTo protect the grey nurse shark the Environmental Protection Agency (Qld) and Department of Primary Industries (DPI) have introduced new diving and fishing laws in Moreton Bay Marine Park and at Wolf Rock off Double Island Point, Qld, to protect the grey nurse shark and its habitat. The new legislative changes came into effective on December 29, 2003.

    Looking at the shark fishing situation in Australia as a whole the Commonwealth Department of the Environment and Heritage says the high market value for shark fins is leading to a level of catch of sharks worldwide that may be unsustainable.

    As such, the practice of shark finning, where the fins are removed and the carcass discarded, poses a threat to grey nurse sharks. There are a number of reliable reports from NSW divers of sightings of grey nurse sharks that have survived having their fins cut off, the DEH says.
    CSIRO Marine Research says in Australia , white sharks have been recorded from central Queensland to North West Cape in Western Australia , but they most commonly are found in southern waters. Scientists at CSIRO Marine Research (CMR) are using a range of tag types to learn more about these movement patterns and the links between populations.

    The broad-scale movements of white sharks tagged in southern Australia suggest the population mixes across their Australian range, as well as across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand. It confirms research findings in other parts of the world that white sharks also sometimes swim in the open ocean and can cross ocean basins, on occasion swimming at depths exceeding 500 metres. The purpose of their deep-water forays is unknown.

    White sharks appear to move up eastern and Western Australia on a seasonal basis but the timing varies between the two coasts. They move up the east coast in autumn-winter to areas as far north as central Queensland and then return south during spring. In the west, they move up the coast as far as North West Cape during spring and appear to return during the summer. It is not known what percentage of the population undertake these migrations, but many of these same sharks probably spend at least some of the year in South Australian waters, particularly in the Great Australian Bight.

    Similar seasonal movements are reported for white sharks in Californian and African waters. CMR scientists have noticed some similarities in the tracks taken by white sharks in Australian waters that suggest these sharks may follow common routes or 'highways'. Consistency of paths or at least consistency of destination, between sharks travelling in the same region has been recorded during several acoustic tracking studies on other species, particularly when moving between coastal waters and offshore banks. If white sharks use 'highways' to travel between regions, identifying such routes may help to minimise undesirable interactions with humans and reduce the incidental capture of white sharks by commercial fishers.

    The CSIRO Marine Research studies include the tagging of four white sharks in November 2004 - Rolf, Bomber, Michael and Sam C were tagged during November 10-13 at The Neptunes, one of the most reliable and accessible places for finding white sharks in southern Australia. The Neptunes is a group of islands some 60 kilometres south of Port Lincoln in South Australia. They rise from Australia's continental shelf in a region where water depths range from 40-100 m.

    The sharks are here primarily to feed on seals from the fur seal colony at North Neptune Island , CSIRO research scientist Barry Bruce says. Our analyses of logbook records kept by tour operators for the past 5-6 years have shown that on average, the winter-spring period is the best time to find sharks in the area. But we don't yet know the reason for this pattern, which does not appear to relate to the behaviour of the seals. Mr Bruce says the Neptunes are a well-established site for tourism and research purposes.

    Tour operators view sharks there on a regular basis and we have worked with them and tagged extensively in the area. We have a good idea of how sharks behave in this environment and the necessary research permits are in place,' he says. More than 250 white sharks have been tagged in Australian waters as part of CSIRO's tagging program. Most have been tagged with conventional tags and many of these sharks are resighted at the Neptunes.

    The Melbourne Age reports that Then there is pressure from influential lobby groups, including Humane Society International, which is running a campaign to have nets and drumlines listed as a key threatening process under state and federal legislation.

    The society claims that in Queensland between 1975 and 2001, nets and drumlines killed 12,000 sharks. Unfortunately, it says, bycatch including turtles, stingrays and dugongs, topped 53,000. It acknowledges that efforts to reduce bycatch since 1992 have resulted in a drop in the number of species caught and an increase in the percentages of trapped animals released alive.

    However, while the changes since 1992 are encouraging, the fact remains that the numbers of non-target species caught and killed in the Queensland shark control program every year remain unacceptably high, the society says.

    Grey reef shark on the prowl courtesy Great Barrier Reef Marine Park AuthorityA feature in the Melbourne Age newspaper says - A lot of tourism paraphernalia for North Stradbroke Island describes it as a paradise where summer never ends.

    It is a beautiful spot. But summer ended with clinical abruptness for Sarah Whiley, and there are many at Amity Point who hope her death, though awful, will be the start of a heightened awareness campaign.

    Australians love their beaches and theocean but we need to think throughwhat impact our presence has on marine life.Perhaps the ocean could now be considered the shared domain of humans and sharks.

    Butsharks do not acknowledge any difference between humans, ignorant or just desperately unlucky. They just do what they have always done.

    Editors note: GoSeeAustralia acknowledges the Department of the Environment and Heritage, Queensland Government, EPA, Dept. of Primary Industry and Fisheries (Qld), The ABC, The Australian, The Age, AAP and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, CRC Reef Research Centre and CSIRO Marine Researchin compiling this feature.

    Boaties urged to avoid being the catch of the day

    Recreational and commercial fishermen are being urged to consult free zoning maps before heading out into the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park.

    The Marine Park is divided into a number of zones, each representing a different level of conservation, protection and resource use.

    Zoning maps outline what activities can occur in which locations. The maps show the relative location of zones and are based on coordinates (points of latitude and longitude) to help with navigation.

    Green Zones are no-take areas where extractive activities like fishing or collecting are not allowed without written permission.

    These zones protect the biodiversity within the Marine Park by protecting important breeding and nursery areas such as seagrass beds, mangrove communities, deepwater shoals and reefs.

    Anyone can enter a Green Zone to anchor and participate in activities such as boating, swimming, snorkeling and sailing. Travelling through a Green Zone with fish on board is also allowed (it is only an offence to fish in a Green Zone).

    Stowing fishing gear (such as rods) on board the boat or in rod holders with a hook still attached is allowed in a Green Zone, provided the fishing apparatus is out of the water.

    Penalties up to a maximum of $220,000 for an individual and $1.1 million for a body corporate respectively, apply to Green Zone offences.

    Fishing restrictions also apply to commercial and recreational fishermen in Yellow Zones including limited line fishing and limited crabbing. Boaties are encouraged to check zoning maps for more information.

    Other zones include Preservation (Pink) Zones, Scientific Research (Orange) Zones, Buffer (Olive Green) Zones), Conservation Park (Yellow) Zone, Habitat Protection (Dark Blue) Zone and General Use (Light Blue) Zone.

    All zones have some type of restriction and boaties should check zoning maps for more information before heading out.

    Free zoning maps are available from local bait and tackle shops, marine centres, Queensland Parks and Wildlife Offices or by contacting the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority on (07) 4750 0700.

    Editors Note: Also see the rest of the GoSee Living with Wild Australia Series -