More on the Great White Shark menace

More on the Great White Shark Menace

by Andrew Penniket

Call me a coward but I have never been a great fan of sharks – they just don’t do much for me. I don’t mind the little jobs but great whites and tigers are not high on my list of nice creatures. And I don’t subscribe to this theory that great whites should be protected from the evils of humanity. In fact, I wouldn’t be too concerned if they were all exterminated – at least over here. Maybe keep a few in Australia. The problem is, however, it seems that great whites don’t know about territorial waters. And as I recently learnt they travel around a bit.

For someone not too thrilled with sharks it was with some trepidation that I found myself on the way to none other than Shark Bay, and guess what – there are lots of sharks there. There’s a series of three huge bays world famous for their killer stromatolites. Actually that’s a lie – stromatolites don’t kill, they just sit there and photosynthesise but they are among the oldest organisms in the world and quite fascinating. I didn’t get to see them as I was there to film baitball action at Turtle Bay at the entrance of Shark Bay. And what a sight.

Dozens of sharks had herded a massive school of sardines, pilchards, anchovies and a whole pile of other small fish I can’t spell, up against a sandy beach. Overhead, It was a rare and spectacular event and without a moment’s hesitation, yours truly and several lobotomised Australians leapt into the melee (no wimpy cage diving in WA). The fish swirled and twirled, constantly moving, as whalers, black tip reef sharks, trevally and shark mackerel plunged into the swarm.

Not content with this, the team decided to chum up a bit to get a few tigers in. Great joke, chaps. I had already had my dose of excitement when sitting at the edge of the baitball, filming passing predators: out of the blue a manta ray swam past. It quietly winged its way by, not seeming to take any notice, then just as it disappeared into the distance, I turned to find a huge tiger shark casually swimming up to me. It turned and disappeared in a different direction and then a huge shadow passed onto me. At first I thought it was the boat but then a 12 metre Brydes whale lunged overhead and disappered too. That, I thought, was the most spectacular 30 seconds I can remember for a long time!

So that was my fix of shark action for the month but then I found myself at the joint conference of the New Zealand and Australian Marine Societies. Travelling incognito, as a closet representative of the pseudo-science league, I listened to many excellent presentations on every topic from marine pollution to mariculture, climate change and conservation.

There were papers about studies on the declining grey nurse populations which were hunted heavily by various shark heroes in the sixties and seventies. Now grey nurses are protected but prospects for their future are still not good. Then there was a presentation by some Tasmaniacs about their great white shark studies. Chilling stuff. Using various satellite tags and TDRs (time depth recorders) they are slowly building up a picture of the movements and behaviour of white sharks (notice how the great has been dropped from their name- oldest propaganda trick in the book). One particular young 2.4m, 150 kg white shark – Neale- is at this moment cruising up the NSW coastline. Neale’s progress was displayed to us all on a giant conference screen marked by an arrow in a tasteful shade of blood red. Since March when he was tagged near Port Albert in Victoria, Neale has crossed Bass Strait and hunted as far south as Bicheno in Tasmania, then headed north, hung out in the snapper spawning grounds near Eden and then meandered up past Sydney and was last heard of at Coffs Harbour. So what’s this tell us? Well, they travel bloody long distances (2964 km in less than 4 months) but some of the time they may be resident in an area for a week or more.

By this time I was perspiring heavily, urgently needed to go to the toilet and was regretting not going to the alternative sessions run concurrently, in particular: Biofowling in Aquaculture: a Temperate-Tropical Comparison; or the even more tempting: Microbial contributions to the mangrove detrital diets of amphipods!

But no, as your dedicated reporter I stuck it out and there was more to come. Next we heard how white sharks spend most of their time near the sea floor. Cruising at about three kilometres an hour they are either searching for bottom prey like rays and small sharks or stalking around, watching for silhouettes on the surface – like seals and surfers and divers. But the sharks also spend something like 10% of their time at or near the surface sneaking around the coast and this is when the satellite tag does its business. Come evening the sharks usually head out to sea and cruise in mid-water, presumably relaxing and watching satellite telly. It is thought that being primarily visual hunters they don’t work 24 hours a day. You can follow the exploits of the tagged sharks and get some excellent information from the website:

At this point I detected a few other people shuffling uncomfortably in their seats, swallowing and glancing nervously at their watches to see if a quick gin and tonic would be appropriate. It seems I am not the only person who believes in white shark conservation, but not in my back yard – somewhere over South Africa perhaps. But that seems to be part of the problem – white sharks travel big distances and I am sure a jaunt across the Tas. to New Zealand is totally feasible. What’s more, in South Australia they are training these creatures to come to boats where they find tasty burley trails, nice chunks of fish and cow, and cages of divers taunting them through bars. Now presented with this, the average white shark wouldn’t need a PhD in Human Behaviour to learn to associate divers with food. If you want to see some stunning photos of what I mean check out this website Its quite a shocker!

For all this concern, I must confess that in 30 years of diving I have only seen one white shark – in my youth when I was snorkelling around the coves at Cape Karikari. I swam around the side of a large boulder and came face to face with a very toothy shark which got just as big a surprise as me and vanished at rapid speed. Not exactly a ferocious encounter but it scared the pants off both of us. It was only a bit over two metres long, a baby, but it was the depth that struck me – a huge gut well out of proportion with its length. It was some time later that I identified it as a juvenile white.

Far more terrifying than that was Roger Grace’s encounter many years ago. His story and disturbing photo appeared in the Vol 13/2 issue of Dive mag. Remember, this is a large and most definitely great, white shark and there’s no wossy cage around Roger. In his own immortal words:

‘It was Easter 1973 and late one dull and overcast morning, my buddy, who was a very new diver, and I anchored my 12ft tinny about 50 metres from the rocks just south of Taiharuru, between Bream Head and Tutukaka. We descended the anchor rope 70 feet to a gravel bottom with a few small rock outcrops covered in Ecklonia kelp. Visibility was about 15 to 20 feet.

As I looked across the gravel bottom, I saw what at first appeared to be a large stingray cruising toward us, with its big wings sticking out the sides. But in a moment I realised it was a huge shark heading straight at us, its large pectorals looking like stingray wings. At about 10 feet away it saw us and turned left, presenting a side view of what was an enormous and scary beast. Russell, who had never seen a shark before, and I slunk down into the kelp on a tiny rock, trying to look as invisible as possible, while I started taking pictures.

There were big jagged teeth hanging out of its mouth, and the huge saucer-shaped eye stared at us blankly. This animal was FAT! About 12 feet long, it appeared to be about 4 feet thick and looked like it had just eaten a cow! Was it going to eat us? Or was it already full?

It continued to cruise around us in a big circle, mostly about 12 to 15 feet distant. I clicked away furiously with black and white film in my Nikonos III with 28mm lens and no strobe. After completing about 200 degrees of a circle, the shark turned away and continued on its previous course up the coast.

We carried on with our dive though we kept a pretty low profile amongst the shallower rocks. Coming back to the boat was the next scary part, but we never saw the shark again. ‘

Thank you for sharing those precious memories Roger. Unfortunately Roger’s camera was playing up (now isn’t that really unusual for underwater photographic gear?) and he actually missed the closest shots which is just as well as they would probably have put me off diving forever, instead of just a few months. I reckon they are the scariest photos of a white shark I have seen.

Since then of course there has been Jaws and the hysteria, then over fishing of white sharks, concerns for their future and now speculation that the huge recovery in fur seal populations is fuelling a big recovery in white sharks. And where do I float? Well, although I consider myself a staunch conservationist and I admire the sheer terrifying beauty and warm blooded killing efficiency of white sharks, I would rather admire it in a large jar of formalin, thank you. In my mind there are some things that aren’t worth saving – like small pox, anthrax, typhoid, mosquitoes, cockroaches and white sharks. Then again, there are some people who reckon there’s nothing in my mind worth saving.

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