Life in Australia's shark capital. Photo: Ian Lloyd Neubauer
Life in Australia's shark capital. Photo: Ian Lloyd Neubauer

‘Horror movie’: Man’s fight to stay alive

With low-lying fences, orange brick homes and nature strips spotted with caravans and boats, Lennox Head on the North Coast of New South Wales is a bucolic snapshot of middle-class Australia.

That is with one major snag: statistically, those who enter the water here and at other nearby beaches have a higher chance of being attacked by a shark than just about anywhere else in the world.

According to New Jersey's Shark Research Institute, five people have been killed here in the past 30 years while 22 others narrowly escaped with their lives.

The most recent victim, schoolteacher Sam Edwardes, had a piece of flesh the size of a football chomped from his leg while surfing 20km to the north at Byron Bay in February.

"I'd just paddled out when I felt a big thump that knocked me off my board. When I looked down and saw this big grey mouth wrapped around my leg," Mr Edwardes told news.com.au while recovering in hospital.

"It kept on pushing me back as it thrust from side to side, tearing at my flesh until it got what it wanted and disappeared. I didn't feel any pain at the time but I was really freaking out; I just wanted to get the hell out of the water. I started paddling like crazy towards the shore while trying to signal to my mate not to come in.

"Once I was on land, I looked down at the wound. It was heinous - a huge vacant area on my thigh with arteries dangling out and blood pissing all over the place like a horror movie.

"I thought, 'Oh my god, this is really bad.' When my mate caught up with me he got me to lie down and tourniqueted my leg. All I could do was breathe and try to keep calm as the pain kicked in. Luckily, the ambulance guys arrived pretty quick."

 

Mr Edwardes had a piece of flesh the size of a football chomped from his leg during the attack.
Mr Edwardes had a piece of flesh the size of a football chomped from his leg during the attack.

 

 

The shark that attacked Mr Edwardes was identified as a juvenile great white about 2m long - less than half the size of the monster that bit Japanese expat Tadashi Nakahara in half at Shelley Beach 7km south of Lennox Head in 2015 - one of five fatal attacks around the country within a 12-month period.

"When Tadashi was killed, it changed everything. We'd had attacks before but they were always isolated incidents," says David Wright, Mayor of Ballina Shire, who has given more than 2000 shark-related interviews throughout his career.

"In 2015 and 2016, we had 10 per cent of the of the entire world's shark attacks in our little shire. Just a few days before Tadashi died, another surfer was bitten in the back at Lennox. But the 4.2m shark that got Tadashi - it came up from behind like Jaws and bit him in half.

"I was only 10 minutes away when the alarm went off. When I got to the beach a couple of surfers were doing mouth-to-mouth on half a body. They were completely traumatised," says Mr Wright, who paid for a small memorial for Nakahara on the boardwalk at Shelly Beach - the only warning of the danger that lurks beneath the seas in this otherwise paradisiacal stretch of coast.

Tadashi Nakahara was attacked at Shelley Beach at Lennox Head in Northern NSW. Photo: Ian Lloyd Neubauer
Tadashi Nakahara was attacked at Shelley Beach at Lennox Head in Northern NSW. Photo: Ian Lloyd Neubauer

SHOTGUN APPROACH

Five months after Nakahara's death, bodyboarder Mat Lee had his legs torn to ribbons by a 4m great white while surfing at the North Wall south of Shelly Beach. And while surgeons managed to sew Lee's legs back together again, the attack pushed the local surfing community to breaking point.

"We had a public meeting at Lennox Head Reserve where about 200 surfers attended," Mr Wright recalls. "It was the toughest moment of my career and I copped a fair bit of abuse. They were pretty upset and wanted something done immediately. They said we have boats, we have shotguns, we're going out there kill every shark we see because they're breeding like crazy."

David Mcgarrity, a resident of a Lennox Head, is among many local surfers still calling for a cull.

The memorial for Nakahara on the boardwalk at Shelley Beach. Photo: Ian Lloyd Neubauer.
The memorial for Nakahara on the boardwalk at Shelley Beach. Photo: Ian Lloyd Neubauer.

"The problem started in 1998 when legislation was introduced to protect great whites," he says. "That moment changed our history and the hippies and greenies that pushed the legislation through, they are liable for what's happening right now, they've got blood on their hands. Look at the regrowth period and you do the maths.

"That was 20 years ago and now our beaches are infested with sharks - and it's only going to get worse. Soon people won't even be able to go into the water because it's going to be like an Alfred Hitchcock movie out there."

"The solution," Mcgarrity opines, "is to roll the legislation back and let fishermen go out and get them with the same bag limits that apply to other species. The scientists say great whites are vulnerable, that there are not many of them out there, but ask the guys working on fishing trawlers - they see a sh*tload of them every day."

Crab fisherman and popular local radio personality "Captain" Cliff Corbett concurs.

"When they passed that legislation, every fisherman in Australia thought what the f**k are they doing? White sharks aren't endangered, they never have been.

"You want to know why we have so many sharks here? It's dead simple," he says. "This is the most easterly point in mainland Australia. The geography creates a funnel on both ends of the coast and all the marine life gets funnelled right to this point.

 

Mayor David Wright has given more than 2000 shark-related interviews throughout his career.
Mayor David Wright has given more than 2000 shark-related interviews throughout his career.

"The spike in attacks? Well, maybe that's got something do with all the people in the water. Chuck in the legislation that stops us keeping the population in check and you've got a perfect storm where white sharks grow as big as semi-trailers and rule the big underwater valleys that lie off the coast.

The smaller sharks, the juveniles, they can't go out there because they'll get eaten so they stick to the coast. Sharks don't like the taste of us - 99 per cent of the time they just swim around people in the water. But every once in a while one of the juveniles get curious and takes a bite."

Mr Corbett says a cull is not the answer: "Even if you kill every shark you can see, you won't get rid of them because the ocean is full of them. They're the flies of the ocean but instead of wings, they have fins. They're prehistoric creatures, they were here long before us and they'll be here long after we've gone."

Mr Corbett reckons the solution is to install the same kind of nets used to protect swimmers and surfers in and around Sydney and north of the border in the state of Queensland.

But nets are unacceptable to most voters in Ballina Shire because of the bycatch - manta rays, turtles, dolphins and nonlethal shark species that get caught in nets. "They've got nets in Queensland and nobody's getting eating up there."

GET SMART

In 2016, the NSW Government allocated $16 million to trial a series of new shark-attack mitigation strategies in Ballina Shire and other shark-attack hot spots across the state.

The first strategy was Eco Shark Barriers - a netting product made from flexible plastic instead of nylon string with large gaps designed to allow smaller marine life to swim through undisturbed.

But the trial was a disaster. Half the barriers couldn't even be installed because of the extreme tidal conditions affecting this part of the coast. "I told them it wouldn't work but they didn't listen to me," Mr Corbett says.

For those barriers that were successfully installed, the bycatch was horrific. "They caught two sharks but they also caught about 600 other marine creatures," Mr Wright says. "I never wanted them in the first place but I had no choice because of all the flack we were copping for not putting nets in."

 

Beaches in northern NSW are among the most dangerous beaches in the world when it comes to shark attacks. Photo: Ian Lloyd Neubauer.
Beaches in northern NSW are among the most dangerous beaches in the world when it comes to shark attacks. Photo: Ian Lloyd Neubauer.

The next solution that was and is still being trialled - SMART (Shark-Management-Alert-in-Real-Time) drum lines - has proved far more successful.

A hi-tech version of the controversial baited drum lines used to kill and remove sharks from popular beaches in Queensland since 1962, the invention sends emails and text messages to operators whenever a marine creature gets hooked on a baited line. If it's a dolphin, turtle, manta ray, whale or nonlethal shark, the creature is released immediately.

If a great white, tiger or bull shark is caught, it's pulled to the surface where satellite- and acoustic-tracking tags are inserted into the dorsal fin before the creature is released further offshore.

If the shark returns within 500m of the coast, the tags are picked up by a network of shark-listening stations that broadcasts warnings to lifeguards and the general public via the SmartShark app and twitter account.

"SMART drum lines have proved incredibly effective," says Mr Wright. "Since 2017, around 400 dangerous sharks have been tagged and released. Between that, the listening stations and the drones we're using for aerial surveillance, it's about as much as we can do.

"We can even use the drones to drop shark repellent and flotations devices over people who get in trouble in the water.

 

SMART drum lines are proving effective helping find an equilibrium between public safety and wildlife conservation. Photo: Ian Lloyd Neubauer.
SMART drum lines are proving effective helping find an equilibrium between public safety and wildlife conservation. Photo: Ian Lloyd Neubauer.

"I've also got another idea cooking that hasn't been tried anywhere else in the world - live feeds, that show exactly where tagged sharks (are), that people can watch on big screens at surf clubs or through the SmartShark app on their phones.

"Just this Saturday morning we had a big one swim right past. We didn't have to close the beaches all days because we knew exactly where it was and kept an eye on it as it swum away.

"The government is also investing money in the development of Shark Shields - electronic barriers set on buoys that use electric pulses to repel sharks. But for now, we've made people feel safe again and found an equilibrium between public safety and wildlife conservation."

Then what about Sam Edwardes, the schoolteacher attacked the week before?

Wright points out the attack occurred in Byron Shire, which is not participating in the SMART drum line trial. But he says there are still many things beachgoers can do mitigate their chance of being attacked by a shark:

"People shouldn't go out into the water at dusk or dawn or after heavy rains because we know sharks are most active at those times. The night before that guy got bitten, there was a big storm."

 

Swimmers can protect themselves by staying between the flags. Photo: Ian Lloyd Neubauer.
Swimmers can protect themselves by staying between the flags. Photo: Ian Lloyd Neubauer.

Elton Cummings of Surf Lifesaving Far North Coast says swimmers can protect themselves by staying between the flags.

"We've never had an attack between the flags because sharks don't like groups of people splashing about. We've watched them with the drones and seen them swim around the flags," he says.

And what about surfers, whose aren't allowed between flags? "A big part of the surfing culture is being free to do what you want," Mr Cummings says. "But there's a risk attached to that."

CULTURE WARS

When surfing great Kelly Slater tweeted a shark cull was required to deal with a spate of deadly shark attacks that had rocked the island of Reunion off Africa's west coast, he received such harsh online criticism he was forced to tweet a retraction.

Lennox Head surfboard shaper Phil Myers has also copped heat for expressing pro-cull sentiments on social media.

"The abuse I got was unbelievable," Mr Myers recalls. "Threatening phone calls all through the night, people saying you're the one that wants to kill all the sharks, we know where you live and we're coming over. But we take whatever we want to eat out of the sea, so why are great whites so special despite all the lives and families they destroy?"

Surfer and Australian Greens Senator Peter Whish-Wilson who chaired the world's first parliamentary inquiry into shark attacks says great whites and their protection are highly politicised in Australia.

 

When surfing legend Kelly Slater tweeted that a shark cull was required the backlash he received was so harsh he retracted his initial post. Photo: Ian Lloyd Neubauer.
When surfing legend Kelly Slater tweeted that a shark cull was required the backlash he received was so harsh he retracted his initial post. Photo: Ian Lloyd Neubauer.

"Not only do they get caught in nets but they also get caught in the culture wars of this country," he explains. "The Liberal-National Coalition treats them as the terrorists of the sea and always beat up on the Greens and Labor for not making safety a priority and preventing them from being delisted as a protected species.

"But public policy needs to based on facts not myths, like the one that says shark populations are exploding. The evidence shows that simply isn't true. The CSIRO released a survey on shark genetics that showed while great white populations are stable, their numbers have reduced dramatically over the past century."

After travelling around the country and speaking to stakeholders on either side of the debate, the inquiry recommended the immediate phasing out of shark nets and traditional drum lines.

"Where I come from in Tasmania there are no nets or drum lines but people still surf while understanding the risks and not politicising it. I don't romanticise sharks. They're apex predators and very, very dangerous. But the chances of having a lethal encounter with one are extremely slim," Senator Whish-Wilson says.

 

Shark attacks and shark protection has become a highly politicised issue in Australia. Photo: Ian Lloyd Neubauer.
Shark attacks and shark protection has become a highly politicised issue in Australia. Photo: Ian Lloyd Neubauer.

"Drum lines and nets are fishing devices designed to reduce the population of marine species.

"They're not designed to make beaches safe so it's a pretty stupid thing to say that those who oppose them have blood on their hands.

"SMART drum lines are a step forward but they're still baited hooks that attract sharks and give people a false sense of security. I think there's still a big lack of education and awareness."

The inquiry recommended $50 million in funding to investigate new technologies like shark shields and clever buoys that use passive sonar devices and artificial intelligence to identify dangerous shark species by the way they swim - and alert beachgoers if need be.

"There's a lot we can do but people ultimately have to make their own decisions," Senator Whish-Wilson adds. "The shark debate is actually part of a wider debate in Australia about personal responsibility and government protection."

One individual who's surprisingly reluctant to throw his hat into the debate is shark-attack victim Sam Edwardes.

 

SMART drum lines have been criticised for giving swimmers and surfers a false sense of security. Photo: Ian Lloyd Neubauer.
SMART drum lines have been criticised for giving swimmers and surfers a false sense of security. Photo: Ian Lloyd Neubauer.

"Sharks are always going to be a threat," he says. "Should they be more controlled? I don't know. If a greenie were to say to me, 'It's your fault, you were in its territory,' I'd have to concede they were right. But if a surfer was to defend me and say I should be able to feel safe on our beaches, I'd say he was right, too.

"I know there's a big debate going on about this, but what really fascinates me is how people get so caught up in their own opinions. I don't think there's a right or wrong answer but I do think people should try to see things from the other side's perspectives," he says.

"Do I have any feelings towards that particular shark? Do I want revenge? Not really," Mr Edwardes says. "It was just doing what sharks do. But make no mistake, it's a prick of an animal."

- Ian Lloyd Neubauer is a freelance journalist who specialises in shark attacks in Australia. He has also swum with several shark species and cage-dived with great whites. Continue the conversation @ian_neubauer



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