Last week, a 46-year-old man died while surfing at Greenmount, Coolangatta after being attacked by what is believed to have been a 12-foot great white.
Greenmount is one of the sections that make up the fabled Superbank, a world-class stretch of sand that runs from Snapper Rocks to Kirra. It’s always crowded with surfers of every age and ability, paddling over the top of each other in hope of scoring one of those famous translucent sand bottom drainers. It also has shark nets and drum lines and before this attack, there had not been a shark incident on a Coolangatta beach in more than 60 years.
As is common in the surf community, news of the attack got out well before headlines appeared on any major news sites. As is also common, arguments about how to best manage the increase in shark encounters on Australian coastlines exploded on comment threads everywhere within hours. ‘Kill ’em all!’ is an understandable knee-jerk reaction. If you’re not an ocean-user yourself, you’ll no doubt have friends and family members who are. The idea of losing any life to a man-eater does not conjure much sympathy for the creature doing the biting.
While an attack like this is an absolute tragedy, the conversation that follows an incident is often fuelled by emotion and can turn nasty very quickly. On one extreme you’ve got people who believe that grabbing pitchforks, lighting torches, and storming into the ocean to go on a shark killing spree will save lives. On the other side of the equation, you’ve got conservationists saying that such behaviour will disrupt the delicate balance of an ancient and perfectly functioning eco-system in ways that will speed up the already rapid decline of the natural world and end up killing us all anyway? Somewhere in the middle, there is space for a common-sense solution, but looking at the state of the world right now, it’s reasonable to assume that common sense has fuck-all to do with anything.
Leave it then to World Champion surfer Mick Fanning and award-winning Tequila Baron (and filmmaker) Taylor Steele to help us better understand these terrifying but completely necessary creatures of the deep. Their new series, Save This Shark (produced for National Geographic), is a combined effort to educate people about the behaviour of sharks and the threats they are facing, and to offer solutions for how we can co-exist alongside these creatures. With the release of Save This Shark only days away, the timing and title of the program could not be more provocative, but as Taylor explains in the following interview, ‘If you remove sharks from the ecosystem it’s going to affect everything. They’re the janitors of the sea. They keep everything tight.’
It’s an awful thing to have to start this interview talking about the tragic news of a fatal shark attack on the Gold Coast. What were your feelings when you found out?
My thoughts and feelings went instantly to the family and friends of the man who lost his life. You can’t help but feel immense sorrow for them. The fact that it happened at such a popular wave and in shallow waters. We’ve all surfed there. It’s close to home. Yeah, that’s all I could think about.
Fatal attacks fuel a lot of intense feelings around sharks, and the conversation doesn’t take long to go turbo-0aggressive about how to control shark populations and reduce the risk of such events.
Well, I hope the conversations are exactly that: a process of using research and education to make the right decisions, rather than a knee-jerk reaction that leads to poor decision making that will likely have a negative and lasting impact on the future. And I’m not just talking about the future for sharks. I’m talking about the future of entire eco-systems of this planet, which relates directly to the health and happiness of our future.
You’ve learned a lot about sharks during the creation of this new series. How did you get involved and how hard was it to get Fanning to take part given that the poor bastard can’t walk into a room without some ding-dong asking about his shark encounter at J-Bay?
I’d already worked on Save This Rhino for Nat Geo where we went with Kevin Pieterson (former English cricket star) and made a two-part doco highlighting some of the issues facing rhinos and then offering some solutions to saving them. That was incredibly rewarding for me because I wanted to tell stories that could make a difference. The opportunity to team up with Mick again was a no brainer. Back in 2013, I worked on a project with Mick called Missing, and that’s when we became close friends. During that shoot, we did things like the running of the bulls in Pamplona and came face-to-face with silverback gorillas in the jungles of Rwanda; it was one crazy experience after another, all of which were truly out of this world. A big part of the DNA of that project was that if Mick was going to do it, I was going to do it too. I wasn’t going to sit in the safety of the sidelines. I was going to put myself in the same situation as him. So, I think what attracted him to doing Save This Shark, was knowing I’d be right there in the water with him completely shitting myself (laughs). Mick didn’t need a lot of motivation to educate himself more about sharks. He’s a committed conservationist anyway and I think beyond that he still had a few demons he wanted to confront as well.
At what moment were those demons staring you in the face?
We began by diving with smaller sharks and then slowly made our way to swimming with great hammerheads. We’re talking giant sharks, 15 feet and very powerful. There was something extremely peaceful about that day, I’m not sure if it was the current or the fact they were cruising but they weren’t aggressive at all, and Mick and I were just patting these 15-foot subs as they went swimming by. When we got out of the water we looked at one another and said, ‘That is the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.’ We both felt incredibly charged. And I remember saying to the crew, ‘That’s it, guys! We’ve got our hero shots. We don’t need anything else. Let’s wrap!’ And then the shark wrangler goes, ‘Not so fast, boys. We still need to swim with the big tiger sharks. The great hammerheads are awesome but they’re not man-eaters. They’re a different beast. We need to swim with tiger sharks if you want to tackle your demons.’ So, we set off again and this time it was a completely different tone. There was a lot of anticipation. The energy was over the top. I remember the night before I didn’t sleep at all. When we finally got in the water I remember jumping off the boat and looking down and seeing all these giant shadows just circling on the ocean floor. We had weight belts on and we slowly started sinking into this world of monsters. I’m not gonna lie… it was the eeriest, scariest feeling I’ve ever had.
Dude. A little bit of wet poo just fell into my undies.
It was so heavy.
How did the experience of making Save This Shark change you?
I was hoping it’d take away some of my fear, that, as a surfer, I would be less afraid of sharks. I don’t think it did that. I have a better understanding of their behaviours but it’s of little comfort because as surfers we’re always on the surface of the water and we really don’t get to see their behaviour, and so we’re not able to read it. The biggest takeaway for me is how important sharks are to the whole system of life. If you remove any apex predator from an ecosystem it’s going to throw everything out of balance. It leads to the overpopulation of other species which in turn can threaten or kill off other flora and fauna. If the sharks go, then everything is at risk down to the health of coral reefs. They’re the janitors of the sea. They keep everything tight. And, after spending so much time with sharks and with shark experts I’ve learned that we can live with them if we’re onto it. We have the technology and the means to coexist. We can surf, get out of the water when they cruise by, let them have their zone, and then go back in when they’re gone. It’s completely manageable if we want to make the effort.
The two-part documentary will air on National Geographic Australia nationwide on Tuesday, September 15, 2020.