The Apex Predator Complex: Them Or Us?


monster-children-shark-storyPaul de Gelder, Shark Attack Survivor, with Rachel Baiocco and his dog Otis.

Words and Photos By Isabella Moore

As apex (top of the food chain) predators, the giant fish play a vital role in marine eco-systems, however in recent years, sharks have generated tragedy amongst Australian society for their exploratory bites and feeding practices. Unfortunately for us humans who love the water, sharks love it too.

Whether we like it or not, it’s their natural habitat, and they’re likely to see us as food—most often, mistakenly. In low visibility conditions, sharks investigate anything unusual with their teeth and will commonly swim away if you’re not what they expected. Did you know, statistically, the chances of being bitten by a shark are extremely low and sharks kill, on average, 5 people worldwide per year? On the other hand, humans kill over 100 million sharks worldwide per year. According to the Australian Shark Attack File, kept by researchers at Sydney’s Taronga Conservation Society, there have been 979 shark attacks in Australia since records began in 1791, and 231 of them have been fatal. All up, the average fatal attack is one person a year.

A recent effort in the Summer of 2014 by the State Government of Western Australia to stop shark attacks saw the introduction of a shark culling policy in which 172 sharks were captured, 68 of which were shot dead. After many a protest and inconclusive evidence to support their actions, the Environmental Protection Agency provided evidence which recognised that drum lines do not save lives and there are other ways to increase ocean safety without the disruption of our vital marine ecosystems. The Great White Shark is also listed as vulnerable and migratory under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. The possibility of the threatened species becoming extinct is concerning conservationists. Sea Shepherd Australia’s managing director, Jeff Hansen, has said sharks help control the population of other marine animals since they remove the weaker members of the population. He says if sharks were removed, the number of stingrays will increase, which in turn leads to the eradication of scallops. One species affects the others in the same ecosystem.

Christopher Neff, currently residing at the University of Sydney, is the first PHD student in the world to focus on the politics of shark attacks, and is currently researching the topic of the “predator policy paradox”—the study of how we protect species that we need protection from. He is trying to find out if cohabitation with predatory creatures can be applied to sharks. “Shark attacks are very scary, low probability events that the government has to try and protect people from, both in terms of public safety and in terms of managing people’s perception of risk”, he says. Paul de Gelder, an Australian Navy clearance diver who lost his right forearm and his leg in a brutal bull shark attack inside the Sydney Harbour in 2009 reaffirms that human’s need to be fully aware of the risk; “The ocean is not your backyard swimming pool, it’s not safe, there are rips and there are waves which could give you spinal damage, there are, (especially in Australia), a variety of animals that will hurt you, so you are basically signing a waiver every time you enter the ocean. You know the dangers, you know the risks, you accept responsibility”, he says.

Great White Sharks are found throughout the world in temperate and subtropical oceans and this distribution includes the coastal waters of New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state. In the Central Coast exists a Great White Shark Nursery, where photojournalist Isabella Moore spoke to those who are culturally in closer proximity to the fish on a regular basis. Hear their perspectives.

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Philippa Anderson, 23 – Competitive surfer from Merewether, Newcastle. Has been surfing since she was 10 years old.

“I used to be really scared because I used to live in South Africa and I’d actually never seen a shark until last year, up at Foster. It was only a baby one, I was surfing and I bottom turned and it went underneath me and I freaked out because it was my first encounter. There were two guys surfing and I kind of reached down and I said ‘Shark!’ and they were like, ‘Oh, it’s only a baby one’ and I was like ‘OK’,  and my friend and I still went in. We were obviously splashing around trying to get in and we saw it just float away. So if you don’t make them nervous or go to attack them then I think the majority of people say just let it go cause it won’t bother you, whereas if you try fight them off, it triggers them and they obviously want to fight back because they feel they’re in danger.”

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Michaela Parton, 25. Hobby Surfer Originally from Florida, now residing in Australia. Surfing since she was 14.

“I remember one of my first few weeks of being here, I was surfing on my own and somebody saw a shark while we were in the water and they called us all in. They closed down the beach and that was the first time I have ever experienced anything like that. At home if we see a shark it’s like ‘Oh, there’s a shark’, you don’t really do anything about it, and I just remember thinking it was so funny, it was such a big response.”

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Signage of Nobby’s Beach, Newcastle, closed on a 30 degree Summer’s Day, January 16th, 2015.

This picture was taken on January 16th, 2015, when a 5 metre Great White Shark weighing around 1700 kilograms was sighted hanging around the Newcastle beaches for a period of over 6 days straight. The sign indicates it’s not safe for board riders to be out in the water, even close to shore, as sharks are known to move into the surf zone, hunting prey between where the surf breaks and the shoreline. Council lifeguards consistently warn beachgoers not to go in the water and work extended hours to warn anyone coming for a swim after hours whom may not be aware of the danger.

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Isaac Morgan, 21. Lifeguard at Nobby’s Beach, Newcastle.

“I’ve lived near the beach since I was born. So, I ‘ve seen a few of them, but I’ve never seen them in action like that. So, it’s probably one of the most humbling experiences of my life so far, but horrifying at the same time. I’ve grown up near the ocean for so long and it’s just amazing to watch those top of the food chain predators in action, yeah, they are big and scary but it’s their house, so, I think we have to pay them the respect they deserve. I always know there out there, but I’ve never seen sharks that big up close, it’s just another reminder.”

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Helicopter – Shark Sightings above Newcastle Beaches, 16thIsaac Morgan, lifeguard on jet ski’s account:

“I left here on a jet ski after I swapped with Paul as we’d had reports of a shark out the back of Merewether and Dixon Park, so I was just patrolling along there and then we got a call from a helicopter that was at Burwood Beach, the next beach around. They said they were hovering right on top of one, and I could see ’em hovering low, so I went around there and I was sort of 100 metres wide and I could see the shark 20 metres off the beach, and you know it’s a pretty big shark if I can see it from 100 metres away, so I was staying well clear of it. I pulled up another 100 to the south of the shark and a dolphin popped up, 20 metres in front of me, and it was just shredded to pieces, you could just tell the shark was stalking it. So I got out of there quick smart after that. Then when I got back around to Newcastle beach Paul called me and had more reports of one off the end of the harbour, so I went out there and as I was coming around, I just made sure I knew where I was going. Paul was just North of the harbour wall and as I got round there, I just saw this massive woosh of the tail and saw the tail and the dorsal fin just dive down. By that stage I had the finger on the gas cause I wasn’t slowing down out there! I drove past and it had obviously taken another good chunk out of another dolphin that was out there. And then I came back in.”

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Lifeguard at Nobby’s Beach, Newcastle, looking out from watchtower.

“We’ve been closed the last few days just because of the shark sightings, so we’ve been out there on the jet ski every day  just making sure that our beaches are safe and if we do spot anything we are not there to shepherd the shark or scare it off, we are just there to confirm it so we can get swimmers out of the water. And that’s pretty much what I was doing, just there to confirm it was a shark, and get out of there.”

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Stephan, 23, Backpacker.

“I stopped here just to surf, but I heard there was a shark here. So I didn’t surf at all. I didn’t know anything about sharks before I came to Australia. I know they can attack me, but I don’t know how dangerous they are. My first reaction when I heard the announcement about the shark in the water was to get out of the water fast! I was surfing and I heard the shark alarm so I came out of the water. I’ve been here an hour, I am waiting for the shark to go but I don’t know how long it would take. We don’t have sharks in Holland, only the North Sea. I don’t think surfing is going to happen again today.”

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Painters/Shark Onlookers: Mark, 42 and Allen, 46, Newcastle Beach.

“There is just a lot of bait fishing in the water which attracts the sharks, don’t swim near the seagulls or the bait fish in the morning or the evening, it’s the best time of the year to be fishing for sure! There are sharks around here all the time—regardless of if they close the beach, there will always be sharks around. Stockton Bite is a sanctuary for great white sharks to grow. You get all the smaller great whites. From Catherine Hill Bay right up to Port Stephens, they breed and that, but it doesn’t scare you away from fishing. I see them all the time, even in the lake, but it doesn’t phase ya. I fish all the time in Lake Macquarie, and they get a few in there occasionally, but they are just interested in the fish, they swim away from boats and that. You’d be pretty unlucky to be hassled by one, unless it was in feeding mode, which is not often.

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Jetty – No swimming signage, Murray’s Beach, Central Coast.

In December, 2014, a 2.5 metre Great White Shark was spotted by a Lake Macquarie fisherman circling off Murray’s Beach Jetty for an hour before making two long sweeps within a metre of the fisherman, the second after another onlooker started patting the water. “It was doing loops and chasing baits” Mr Clinton Bambach said of his encounter. “A bloke saw how excited I was getting as I filmed so he came over and slapped the water and the thing wheeled around…You could have stepped on it, it came in so close, in just two foot of water.” The wharf is a favourite with children and also loved by skiers.

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Paul De Gelder, Australian Navy Clearance Diver and Shark Attack Survivor, Age 38, pictured with his dog, Otis.

“I am not sure if I am just not afraid of sharks or just not really afraid of anything, because I have come that close to death where nothing is really scary anymore. But I have had the opportunity to be taught about sharks and talk to experts and film documentaries, so now I know so much more about them. I never really understood what their purpose was, I thought ‘if we killed them all, then we don’t have to worry about getting eaten’, but then if we kill them all, there is a domino effect, a ripple effect that goes through the eco system and could potentially destroy the life in our oceans.”

Paul De Gelder recounts his experience for the Courier Mail in 2011:

“I felt an almighty whack on the leg. Half a second later I turned over, looked down to check my leg and saw the huge grey head of a bull shark, one of nature’s most aggressive man-eaters. I could see the upper row of it’s teeth across my leg. We must have stared at each other for about three seconds, but as soon as I recovered from the shock, I started fighting for my life. I couldn’t seem to move my arm. I hadn’t realised my leg was also in it’s mouth. I tried to stab it in the eyeball with my other hand. I pulled back my left arm and punched the shark as hard as I could on the nose. It started shaking me like a rag doll and pulled me down under the water, continuing to shake me. The second time I went under I could only see bubbles in front of my face. I no longer felt any pain. I couldn’t do anything. There was just a deep silence. And then, just as suddenly, the shark was gone.” His injuries were horrific, the shark had been eating him alive. Doctor’s amputated his right forearm and leg.

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