Sharks Rampage in Australia (2024)


Swimmers at Australian beaches are usually reassured by statistics that indicate they are more likely to be struck by lightning than chomped by a shark. But after three non-fatal shark attacks in the country in less than 48 hours and a deadly one last month, some are wondering if the odds have changed — and whether Australia’s efforts to protect sharks are to blame.(Read “When Adventure Tourism Kills.”)

Australia’s summer of shark terror began on Dec. 27, when local banker Brian Guest went missing while snorkling off a beach south of Perth in Western Australia. A search located a few tattered pieces from a wet suit belonging to the 51-year-old. Authorities concluded that he had been killed by a large white pointer shark spotted near the beach.(See the top 10 animal stories of 2008.)

That attack was followed by several more. On Jan. 11, a man surfing near Fingal Head in northern New South Wales was bitten on the thigh. Jonathon Beard, 31, made it to shore and survived after his friends used the leg rope from his surfboard to stem the bleeding.

The same day Hannah Mighall, 13, was surfing in Binalong Bay off the Tasmanian coast in Australia’s far south when she screamed and was dragged under the water by what authorities suspect was a large white pointer. Her cousin paddled to the injured girl and dragged her to safety while being circled by the shark. On Jan. 12, a man snorkeling in a tidal lake in New South Wales was bitten on the leg, probably by a bull shark. Authorities reported that the man punched the shark in the nose and made it to shore with about 40 puncture wounds. All of the victims are recovering.

According to records kept by Taronga Park Zoo in Sydney, 193 people have been killed by sharks in Australia over the past 200 years, averaging about one per year.

Researchers play down the significance of the unusual spate of attacks. They point out that more people are entering the ocean, increasing the chances of an encounter. “The human population is expanding at a rate of knots,” says Rory McAuley, a senior research scientist with the West Australian Fisheries Department. “Not only is it getting larger, it’s getting more dispersed, so people are getting into the water over a greater area of the shark’s range. It’s probably likely to expect to see an increase in shark sightings and attacks.”

But some fishermen and others complain that Australia’s efforts to protect sharks — catching rare white pointer sharks is illegal, for example — is resulting in an increase in attacks. In particular, they object to a policy of letting suspected man-eaters go. “Sharks do hang around after the attack, and the government has a duty of care to deal with it,” says Queensland fisherman Vic Hislop. Sharks “learn to kill humans. They learn to go in hard and fast.”

The deadly Dec. 27 attack in Western Australia has rekindled this long-running controversy. After Guest, the banker, was killed, a volunteer rescue boat and helicopter located a shark matching the description of the killer but took no action.

Guest’s family say they did not want the shark harmed. “[Guest] didn’t want people going out there willy-nilly, destroying animals who were just doing what animals do,” says Guest’s son Daniel, who had been snorkling with his father on the day he went missing. But others are outraged. “The shark had the man in his stomach, digesting him, and (authorities) are just driving the boat over and around him,” says Hislop, who is an outspoken critic of the government’s preservation policies and runs a tourist shark display featuring models of man-eaters on Queensland’s coast.

Hislop and others maintain that sharks develop a taste for people and can be repeat offenders. Says Hugh Edwards, a Western Australian author and fisherman who has been filming documentaries on sharks for more than 20 years: “I tend to agree that individual sharks can be responsible for more than one attack.” Edwards suggests that they should be killed, “as long as you know that it’s definitely the right shark.”

But scientists reject such arguments as ill-informed. “There is no evidence that sharks become repeat attackers,” says McAuley, who heads a shark and ray sustainability program for the fisheries department. “We have had a number of years between fatal shark attacks in West Australia, which is the clearest indication that sharks don’t learn to predate humans.”

McAuley acknowledges that the number of attacks may have increased lately. But he maintains this is not because shark numbers have increased dramatically due to successful preservation programs, as some have argued. White pointer sharks, for example, take 20 years to reach maturity, do not give birth every year, and have few offspring. “Any increase would take in the order of decades,” McAuley says.

Australian officials have taken what steps they can to minimize man-shark encounters. Queensland and New South Wales have strung nets off popular surfing beaches to keep sharks out. The Queensland government says there has not been a fatal attack on a netted beach since they were introduced in the 1960s, but critics say the nets kill turtles, dolphins and sometimes whales. In Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia and Tasmania, authorities rely on aerial spotters and lifeguards who alert swimmers when a suspicious shape appears in the surf.

But the attitude of many is: swim at your own risk — and leave the sharks alone. As Guest reportedly wrote on an anglers’ website before he died: “[Sharks] got a right to be there, we’ve got a right to go there and there are risks associated with everything, but I don’t believe the correct way of reducing our risk is to kill the shark.” Luckily for the sharks, most Australians seem to think the same way.

See TIME’s Pictures of the Week.

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Sharks Rampage in Australia (2024)


How many sharks have been killed in the last 10 years? ›

The global analysis reveals that even though there has been a tenfold increase in regulations on shark fishing and finning, mortality in the past decade remained more or less the same, with estimates of 76 million dead sharks due to fishing in 2012 and at least 80 million in 2018.

Is it safe to swim in Australia sharks? ›

Be aware that sharks may be present between sandbars or near steep drop offs. Steer clear of swimming in canals and swimming or surfing in river/harbour mouths. Avoid having pets in the water with you. Keep away from shark nets and other shark mitigation measures.

Did Australia renames shark attacks negative encounters to banish man eating monster perception? ›

Australia renames shark attacks 'negative encounters' to dispel 'man-eating monster' perception. Leonardo Guida, a shark researcher at the Australian Marine Conservation Society, says ending the use of such terms helps dispel "inherent assumptions that sharks are ravenous, mindless man-eating monsters".

How do you win a fight against a shark? ›

If you're being attacked and fighting back, try to avoid the dangerous mouth and go for the gills behind the mouth near the pectoral fins. A good shot to the gills can also do the job: “The gills are very sensitive – giving a shark a whack in the gills isn't a bad idea.” Are you carrying anything with you?

Which shark has killed the most humans? ›

Indeed, the great white shark (Carcharodon carcharias) leads all other sharks in attacks on people and boats, as well as fatalities. Currently, the great white shark has been connected with a total of 354 total unprovoked shark attacks, including 57 fatalities [source: ISAF].

Has a hammerhead ever killed a human? ›

According to the International Shark Attack File, humans have been subjects of 17 documented, unprovoked attacks by hammerhead sharks within the genus Sphyrna since AD 1580. No human fatalities have been recorded. Most hammerhead shark species are too small to inflict serious damage to humans.

Do dolphins mean no sharks? ›

That's because sharks and dolphins — both of whom are carnivores — go to the same spots to hunt. The myth stems from the false notion that dolphins are the natural enemies of sharks, and that sharks will do anything to avoid them.

Where not to swim in Australia? ›

Look for safety signs and do not swim in rivers, estuaries, mangrove shores or deep pools. Always seek local advice in your area about crocodiles before boating, fishing and camping.

What sharks are illegal to catch in Australia? ›

Skates, rays and guitarfish cannot be taken within 400 m of any pier, jetty, wharf, rock wall or breakwater. Western Australia: Grey nurse, white, speartooth and whale sharks are protected and may not be taken.

Who was the British diver eaten by shark in Australia? ›

Simon Nellist was killed when a great white attacked him in the waters near Sydney in February 2022. A member of Australia's Parliament said at the time that Nellist, a diving instructor, swam in the area nearly every day, according to BBC News.

What shark did they think was extinct? ›

NPR / KCRW - The megalodon went extinct 3.6 million years ago, and is thought to be the largest shark that ever swam the Earth. But there's debate over what it looked like.

What to do if a shark is circling you? ›

Slowly back up against a reef, piling, or rock outcropping or any solid obstruction so that the shark cannot circle around behind you. This way you only have to defend attacks in front of you. If you are diving near the shore, you may need to descend to find cover. Look for a reef or rock on the bottom of the ocean.

What are sharks afraid of? ›

Sharks and dolphins are two of the most formidable creatures in the ocean, but while sharks are often seen as fearsome predators, they are known to be intimidated by dolphins.

Should you push a shark away? ›

RECOMMENDATION: Don't pull the victim away from the shark, push the shark off. REASON: Pulling something away from a shark - even if unknown to the animal - in close vicinity may create a “chase & claim response” despite that sharks do not hunt down humans.

How many sharks are killed each year? ›

Humans now kill 80 million sharks per year, 25 million of which are threatened species. Catch data from 2012 to 2019 reveal shark deaths from fishing increased from 76 million to 80 million per year. Researchers stress that more action is needed to save threatened species.

How many are killed by sharks per year? ›

The 2023 worldwide total of 69 confirmed unprovoked cases is in line with the most recent five-year (2018-2022) average of 63 incidents annually. There were 14 confirmed shark-related fatalities this year, ten of which are assigned as unprovoked.

How many shark deaths are there a year? ›

There were 69 unprovoked shark attacks in 2023, higher than the five-year average of 63 attacks per year, according to the University of Florida's International Shark Attack File. Ten of the attacks in 2023 proved fatal, up from five the year before, researchers said.

How many sharks are killed each year for their find? ›

Around 100 million sharks are killed each year across the globe, often for their fins and cartilage.

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