I sat in the competitor's area during the final of the 2015 J-Bay Open between Mick Fanning and Julian Wilson, pondering how quickly I could write my daily event coverage, post it to our website and then go surfing myself when Mick now famously encountered/got attacked (depending on how you look at it) by a very large shark. At that moment my plans for both my normal event coverage — and jumping in the ocean afterwards — went straight out the window.
Amidst the chaos I stuck around to try and make sense of what had happened, then I gathered my thoughts and wrote about it. What I didn't do, however, was go surfing — despite the fact J-Bay was 4- to-6 feet, perfectly offshore and hardly anyone was out.
Sharks have been cruising the lineup at Jeffrey's long before surfers. They're there today and they'll be there in a weeks time when the entire CT shows up. I remember discussing sharks with one local spearfisherman on a flat day last year. Straight out of the ocean and still in his wetsuit he told me he'd seen two sharks (he reckoned both Mako's) cruising above him at Boneyards, a section of the reef just up the point from Supertubes, the event site. They're always out there, he said, without flinching. No sense in worrying.
And he's right. But at this year's J-Bay Open, we'll finally know for certain when they're present.
For the 2016 event the WSL is employing Perth's Shark Mitigation Systems to deploy their "Clever Buoy" at the event. The buoy, which is able to detect sharks based on their unique movements, will bob beyond the lineup and send alerts back to shore anytime a shark is present.
And that's great news, right?
I'm not so sure.
I don't doubt the Clever Buoy works. It's already been tested at Bondi Beach with great success detecting sharks, which were then also positively identified by lifeguards. The water at Bondi was cleared and (maybe) lives were saved.
But at J-Bay, while the world's best surfers are both warming up and competing, it's going to be interesting to watch the Clever Buoy's detection system in action.
Let's just say that, for instance, the Clever Buoy confirms what we already know: Sharks cruise the massive point at J-Bay, and they cruise it often. Well, what then? The lineup is cleared every time a shark is pinged? For how long? What surfers scramble for the rocks and which ones stay out and take their chances during the freesurfs (like they do, you know, every time they enter the lineup at J-Bay anyway)?
I totally understand the WSL's responsibility to surfer safety, so I can see the allure in implementing this new technology. I just wonder what happens if this new Clever Buoy ends up working too well. What if sharks cruise by everyday? What if they come by so often they can’t even run the event?
A lot of questions remain and I'll be in South Africa starting July 6 to do my best to answer them. I'll also be the first one scratching for the rocks when that alarm sounds. — Zander Morton