Featured Image

Safety Not Guaranteed

As shark populations have grown in recent years, so have the numbers of sightings and attacks. What does this trend mean for surfers?

Dave Pearson didn't notice the shark rushing toward him until it was too late. He was paddling through the lineup at Crowdy Head, on Australia's New South Wales coast, on March 23, 2011. The swell was pumping, and only Pearson and a few friends were out, trading overhead point waves. Just as Pearson was about to take a stroke with his right arm, a 10-foot bull shark charged at him from below, jaws agape. The shark missed Pearson's arm, sinking its teeth into his board instead. As the shark tried to shake free, it struck Pearson in the head with its nose, fracturing several of his vertebrae. After releasing the board, the shark then latched onto Pearson's left arm, filleting muscle and tendon from the bone. Seconds later, the shark released Pearson, and his friends paddled over to drag him to shore. Once on the beach, he nearly died from blood loss and shock, his life saved only by the quick response of his friends and rescue personnel who rushed him to a hospital.

The incident was one of nearly a dozen unprovoked attacks in Australia in 2011 (unprovoked meaning that the victim wasn't harassing a shark in closed quarters). There were almost 80 such attacks worldwide in 2011, including 13 fatalities. Those numbers were more or less consistent with the annual averages of the preceding decade, and they continued on a similar pace for the next few years. But in 2015, there was a dramatic spike—sharks attacked 98 people across the globe, the highest number ever recorded (numbers for 2016 are still being collected). That statistic is part of a troubling pattern of gradually increasing shark attacks worldwide.

In addition to attacks, reports of shark sightings have skyrocketed in recent years. You're not imagining things if it seems like every time you visit a surf website, you're confronted with a photo of a shark cruising beneath a Southern California pier, or POV footage of a SUPer fending off a VW-sized great white with a plastic oar. Not since Jaws' release in 1975 has there been so much public awareness of sharks and the potential dangers they present to beachgoers. "Shark Population Off Huntington Beach Increases Dramatically," read a Los Angeles Times headline in June 2016. "Expert Warns 2016 Could See a Record Number of Shark Attacks," said the Washington Post. "Shark Researchers Warning of More Attacks Along Australian Coastline," ABC Australia reported in September. "It's Not Just You: Shark Attacks Are Definitely on the Rise," said Esquire in July.

And, of course, there's the horror show that's developed on Australia's New South Wales coast in recent years. Eight people were attacked there in 2016, and that spate of violence has helped fuel the firestorm of activism that's been raging across Australia for years, both for and against measures to curb the shark population.`

Australia's approach to confronting a rise in shark attacks could set a precedent worldwide if global shark populations are indeed on the rise. The trouble is, there are no easy answers about how to create a safer environment for beachgoers, or what even prompts shark attacks in the first place. The question of how to best respond to the issue has divided surfers around the world, forcing us to confront some difficult truths about what maintaining a healthy marine ecosystem means, and what we're willing to sacrifice to do so.

Shark researchers are starting to think that attacks on surfers may be defensive in nature. You think you’re harmlessly sitting there, waiting for a set, and a passing shark thinks you’re encroaching on its personal space. Photo: SA_RIPS

Surfers bear the brunt of shark attacks worldwide—nearly half of all shark attack victims are surfers, as opposed to divers, swimmers, fishermen, or waders—which is why we should be most concerned with their increasing presence. Shark populations have rebounded in recent decades, especially great white sharks, the most feared shark species and one frequently implicated in attacks. Efforts to halt shark fishing have helped restore their numbers, as have programs to bring back fisheries from the brink of destruction. More fish means more sharks—they're an important part of a healthy ecosystem after all. But for most of the 20th century, surfers and swimmers rarely had to confront that fact, especially in places like California.

Dr. Chris Lowe, a prominent marine biologist who runs the Shark Lab at California State University, Long Beach, and who frequently appears on YouTube giving TED Talks and lectures about the importance of sharks, told me recently that Californians are just going to have to get used to living with more sharks. "The bottom line is that humans have had unfettered access to the beach for the last 50 years or so, without having to worry much about marine predators because we'd eliminated them all," he said. "But we eventually realized the importance of those predators and put in place protections to bring them back and now we have to learn to live with them. This is new."

Before I spoke with Lowe, my cynical assumption was that the overabundance of GoPros, smartphone cameras, and the constant barrage of media we're exposed to online just makes it seem like there are more sharks patrolling our beaches, when in reality, the sharks were probably there all along. But Lowe explained that while, sure, we're made more aware of shark attacks than we would have been in a more analog age, there are important developments that have drawn humans and sharks closer together in recent years, regardless of whether or not anybody is there to document the encounters.

For starters, there's the massive increase in California's population over the past few decades. California has three times as many residents as it did back in the 1950s. Put that many extra people frolicking around in the surf and there are bound to be many more harrowing face-to-snout encounters with sharks. Equally important but less obvious: California has seen massive improvements in water quality, and fisheries are rebounding in the cleaner water. According to Lowe, a proper balance of oceanic life can't exist in polluted water, as pollutants destroy the lower levels of the oceanic food web, and those effects move upward, driving predator fish away from areas with nothing to eat. Once regulations like the Clean Water Act of 1972, among others, began to bring a measure of health back to the coastlines, voila, fish populations started to rebound. Of course, that included sharks, the top fish on the food chain. The problem is that a healthier ocean ecosystem, coupled with more coastal residents, has thrust sharks and people together in ways we've never seen before.

Climate change also seems to be having an effect, according to Lowe. Shark sightings jumped along Southern California beaches in 2015, a year that you'll fondly remember for a powerful, storm-generating El Niño that greatly warmed the eastern Pacific. And as the oceans' temperatures rise in years to come due to climate change, that will affect where sharks congregate. Simply having an abundance of sharks also affects their movements, as they spread out to accommodate their own population pressures, and to chase down prey sources that are also set in motion by climate change. These trends mean we can expect to see sharks in places we're not accustomed to seeing them. Naturally, this scares us.

There's an interesting parallel between white sharks lurking around California's beaches, and the grizzly bears that have returned to prowl the forests of Montana and Wyoming. Decades of federal protection increased the bears' numbers in places like Yellowstone National Park. While the people who live in bear country year round are grizzly savvy, tourists frequently aren't, often unwittingly putting themselves in harm's way by hiking alone, with no protection, in obvious bear habitat. Experienced backcountry enthusiasts from areas without grizzly bear populations aren't necessarily educated on how to limit the danger of an encounter with a territorial grizzly, either.

Similarly, lifelong surfers and swimmers from areas that historically don't see a great deal of shark activity or attacks—like, say, Southern California—may not know the best ways to avoid putting themselves in a position to suffer an unprovoked attack. For Lowe, this is a major cause of shark attacks.

"While the wild populations are coming back," Lowe says, "we need to re-educate humans on how to interact with predators again."

That's undoubtedly true. The problem is, there isn't a great deal of agreement on what that interaction should look like.

Sharks have been frequenting popular spots like Huntington Beach in recent years. As shark populations rebound and ocean temperatures rise, we can expect to see more of them at beaches we once assumed were shark-free. Photo: Ginsberg

Fred Pawle is a lifelong surfer, and a journalist with The Australian, one of the biggest newspapers in the country. Over the last few years, he's covered shark attacks in Australia extensively, as well as the government's response to them. He recently published "The Fatal Shore," a controversial six-part series on what he considers to be a growing threat of shark violence, and his belief that local governments aren't doing enough to confront the dangers Australians—surfers in particular—face from sharks when they enter the ocean. Pawle has become a controversial figure for one simple reason: he unapologetically takes the side of people over sharks, which pits him against a much larger community of advocates who resist any attempt to regulate the shark population. Fishing, nets, whatever; Pawle's views are about as diametrically opposed from Lowe's as one could possibly get.

I recently sat down with Pawle in the The Australian's spacious Sydney office, in the chic Surry Hills neighborhood. There was a television in the lobby running highlights of John Florence's WSL season, and we talked at length about Florence's just-won World Title before we got to sharks. Pawle's a dedicated surfer, most frequently paddling out near his Bondi home. When asked if he'd chance a surf at some of the NSW beaches that had seen so many attacks, he paused for a moment, before answering that he doubted it. He's a father, and says that, regardless of how good the waves look, tempting fate in an area frequented by sharks just isn't worth the risk.

The day before, I'd gone for a surf at Manly Beach, on the other side of Sydney. I rented a board from a shop fronting the crystal-clear beachbreak peaks, and while I was filling out the paperwork I asked the kid working at the shop where he was from. "New South Wales, up near Lennox Head," he answered. When I told him I was writing a story about sharks, he was quick to explain to me that I had little to fear at Manly, since there were nets in place, and attacks are rare in the area. But he said that when he returns home, he's wary of riding waves at the same beaches he grew up surfing. I later found out that there had been an attack near Lennox the previous day.

When I told Pawle about my conversation with the surf shop employee, he wasn't the least bit surprised. "Lots of people up there have just stopped surfing," he told me. "Shark conservationists don't care about that."

If sharks are biting and killing surfers, Pawle reasons, perhaps local authorities ought to take measures to safeguard beachgoers, whether that means installing nets and drum lines (large baited hooks) at beaches frequented by sharks, or allowing large-scale shark fishing to thin their numbers. He's been frustrated by what he considers to be politicians' unwillingness to take serious measures. "I'm criticized for daring to suggest that humans are more important than sharks," he told me. "No politician wants to look like they're supporting killing sharks in order to protect surfers."

That's not to say local governments in Australia haven't made halting steps to address the concerns of shark-wary beachgoers. Lighthouse Beach, near the New South Wales town of Ballina, which has become an epicenter of attacks in recent years, has installed a short section of shark netting, and plans to eventually have nets stretching some three-dozen miles fronting a series of popular beaches in the area. The nets are festooned with devices to keep marine mammals like whales and dolphins at bay, but experts and activists aren't convinced the nets won't kill scores of unintended marine life—whales, dolphins, and sharks included. Back in November, one protestor went so far as to dress up in a shark costume and throw a net over a government official as he made his way from a meeting with engineers who would oversee the project.

A hundred miles to the north, Queensland's beaches are largely protected by drum lines and nets, a practice that has killed tens of thousands of sharks since it began in the area in 1962. But do nets and drum lines effectively prevent shark attacks? Are they worth the expense and the threats to marine life? It's hard to say. Queensland has seen a decrease in annual attacks in the years since the nets and drum lines were installed, but data show that attacks were already on the wane before the measures were introduced. Lots of the lines and nets were put in at beaches that hadn't recorded serious attacks, making any statistical comparison of shark activity before and after mostly meaningless.

Western Australia spent millions of dollars on their own version of drum lines back in 2014, killing dozens of sharks until the practice was halted amid protests only a few months later when The Western Australian Environmental Protection Authority were unable to determine what impacts the drum lines were having on the marine population.

The tiger shark is one of several species found off Australia’s east coast. Photo: Medina

Pawle doesn't necessarily want a widespread culling of sharks, and understands why scientists would be wary of tinkering with the natural environment, but he does wonder how many sharks are enough for conservationists. Pawle claims that marine researchers have successfully argued in favor of protecting of white sharks, but with no real idea of how many of the predators constitutes a healthy balance. He argues that there's no point at which scientists are likely to say: "Okay, we've established the proper amount of white sharks off Australia's coasts. That'll do."

Pawle also argues that conservationists and environmentalists are misanthropes and have their priorities backward. He asked me if our concern with ensuring a healthy amount of sharks in the ocean was worth endangering the lives of surfers. And furthermore, if we're worried about meddling with the natural environment, isn't protecting sharks from fishing—which is partially responsible for driving their population numbers upward—a form of environmental manipulation?

I put his questions to Dr. Lowe.

"We know that sharks are responsible for controlling the populations they feed on," he told me. "You start to eliminate sharks, and there would be a lot of marine populations that would suddenly explode, by feeding on what sharks would be feeding on, and then depleting the fish that we eat. Anytime we try to regulate the numbers [of wild predators], we end up doing ecological damage."

Probably more importantly for surfers, Lowe stresses that sharks aren't out to eat, or even bite, humans.

"I can guarantee you sharks do not consider people a food source," Lowe says. "Very few people bitten by sharks have flesh removed, and very few people killed by sharks are actually consumed." And it's not as if sharks don't have plenty of opportunity to develop a taste for humans. "Go to somewhere like Manhattan Beach [California], or Waikiki [Hawaii] in the summer. If you're a shark and you want to eat people, there are plenty of beaches where it's like a Costco for sharks. A human buffet. But we don't see widespread attacks."

Lowe also tends to dismiss the idea that sharks mistake people for favored prey animals like seals and sea lions, pointing to sharks' extraordinary sensory perception. They can smell blood from great distances, and have no difficulty sensing movement and minute electrical impulses generated by prey. According to Lowe, it seems very unlikely that a shark would be unable to discern between a surfer and a seal.

So if sharks don't typically think of people as food, and they're too perceptive to mistake us for their normal prey, what else could be prompting unprovoked attacks? Lowe thinks sharks might be biting people as a kind of defensive posturing when a surfer or swimmer unwittingly invades a shark's personal space. Lowe cited the work of his mentor, Dr. Don Nelson, who showed that sharks will strike out when they feel they're being encroached upon.

"Reef sharks, if cornered by a diver, arch their back, drop their fins, and begin swimming very slowly, before exploding at the diver, biting them, then swimming away," says Lowe. "They act almost like a cat would, and try to look big and intimidating, to get the diver to move away."

As a surfer sits on their board, drifting with the current, or paddles through the lineup, they may come too close to an unseen shark, prompting a defensive display. Of course, the surfer doesn't see the shark, so when its display is ignored, the shark rushes in to bite, the surfer flees, and the threat is eliminated.

"How many cases of shark bites are due to a shark defending itself? We don't really know," Lowe explains. "We rarely know the behavior of sharks before they attack. People usually don't see the shark coming."

Australia is ground zero for debates about whether using shark nets to protect beachgoers is worth the potential harm to marine life. Even those most exposed to the possibility of attack often lobby against measures that threaten sharks’ lives. Photo: Shield

After Pearson's attack in 2011, he suffered from more than just physical wounds. Before he'd even left the hospital, he was reading negative comments on an online article written about his attack. He'd become a target for people who wanted to protect sharks at all costs. "The commenters on the stories about me had no idea what had happened, but lots of them had an opinion—it was all my fault," Pearson told me over the phone. "They assumed I was surfing in the dark, I was taking risks. I tried to set them straight, but they only became more aggressive. I finally realized that they were blaming me for shark culling and netting. I spent hours on the computer trying to plead my case and I was just getting whipped on social media."

In the weeks following his attack, Pearson scoured newspapers and websites in search of stories about people like him throughout Australia, looking to speak with people who shared his burden. When he spotted one, he'd try to contact the survivor to offer a kind voice, and a little platform of strength to stand on as they tried to move on from the experience.

"When I'd see in the media there had been a new attack, I'd ring up hospitals and pass on my number," Pearson told me. He started hearing from survivors who didn't know who to talk to, or how exactly to deal with their life-altering trauma. Pearson started meeting fellow attack victims for beers, sitting down for cups of coffee, speaking with people he'd never met over the phone. Connecting with fellow attack survivors filled a void in Pearson, as it did for the strangers who came together and bonded over their terrifying experience. "The more I started talking to people who'd been attacked," Pearson says, "the more I realized there was a need for a support group."

Little by little, Pearson, who already has a full-time job as an engineer, brought together enough attack victims to form a non-profit charity organization called "The Bite Club," which provides a forum for survivors to talk about their experiences, and helps raise money to cover therapy bills when needed. Today, the organization boasts somewhere near 300 members hailing from a handful of different countries, including Australia, New Zealand, the U.S., Reunion Island, South Africa, and Canada, among others.

The Bite Club is also seeking to be involved when governments are deciding what to do to mitigate shark threats at popular beaches. The way Pearson sees it, everything about the attack is complicated, from the event itself, to the immediate treatment, and the next steps a victim and their loved ones must take to move on.

As for what to do about the sharks themselves and mitigating the danger of an attack, Pearson is sanguine in his own approach. He's surfing regularly again, but would understandably like to lessen the chance of lightning striking twice. "I'd like to find a shark repellent device that actually works," Pearson says, "but I'm more observant of the conditions now. I see lots of bait fish, I assume there are sharks around and I won't paddle out. I don't paddle out, and my mates don't either."

Unlike Lowe, Pawle, and countless others currently voicing their views on growing shark populations, The Bite Club aren't talking about this issue in the abstract—they know exactly what is at stake when humans and sharks meet in the ocean. But although The Bite Club may be united in how to treat attacks, even they aren't monolithic in their approach to tackling increasing numbers of sharks themselves.

"Everybody has a different stance on why people get attacked and what should be done about sharks," Pearson says. "None of us wants to see the ocean decimated. The general feeling in our group is that we don't want to go out and cull, but none of us want more people to go through what we've been through, either. It's a difficult position to be in."

After talking with Pearson, it seemed clear that even those directly affected by sharks had a difficult time wrapping their head around what should be done about the rise in shark attacks. Perhaps this is because part of what we, as surfers, find so alluring about the ocean is its very wildness. In a way, walling it off with nets, purging its waters of any potentially dangerous inhabitants, rendering it "safe" would strip away much of what rewards us every time we set foot in the ocean. Trying to decide which parts of the wild experience to keep, and which to eliminate could not only disrupt the natural balance of marine life, but diminish what we love about the surf experience.

I was reminded of something Lowe had told me during our conversation: "The ocean is a wild place—a lot of surfers like going to the ocean specifically because it is a wild place. It's not Disneyland. Your safety isn't guaranteed. You have to learn to deal with the risks that come from using the ocean."

Lennox Head, also on Australia’s NSW coast, is about as idyllic as they come. Lately, surfers and beachgoers have come to realize that sharks seem to feel the exact same attraction. Photo: Shield

[This feature originally appeared in our April 2017 Issue, “Evolution,” on newsstands and available for download now.]