The coastline of Western Australia’s south-west is a series of untidy cliffs, dunes and hills, covered with hardy salt brush and buffeted by the roaring 40s. The water is clear, light and fresh, a product no doubt of the Leeuwin current. On a winter’s overcast afternoon, with a steady offshore wind, the water can have a "sharky" feel to it, not least near Gracetown. For years fisherman in the south west have joked that surfers wouldn’t go near the water if they knew how many sharks lurked out to sea.
Open and exposed to the Indian Ocean, at Lefthanders Bay the bottom is a mixture of sand and limestone reefs covered with leafy fronds of dark seaweed moving in creepy flicks and languid flows. With the sun lowering in the horizon, vision is obscured. When overcast and grey, the water green and glassy, is impenetrable. Who knows what lies beneath, just near your cold exposed feet as you sit on your board? In one’s mind eye, you can see the open mouth surging towards your feet or that large black battered dorsel fin appearing through dark water, just out of sight.
Not surprisingly, what happened to Bradley Smith with possibly two sharks on a Saturday afternoon at Lefthanders, a break just south of Cowaramup Bay, is every surfer’s nightmare - or at least it's mine.
It is difficult to imagine the horror of his last seconds; the ferocity of the attack, a great gaping mouth appearing from nowhere, in a rush of foam, powered by a body the size of a car. He probably never heard the shouts of encouragement from the other surfers, "Come on mate, swim! You can make it". Were they thinking "There, but for the Grace of God, go I"?
Of course there is some confusion as to how many sharks were involved, at the time of writing one story is that a smaller shark, 3m in length (possibly a dusky or bronze whaler) knocked Smith off his board. The larger shark, the great white, then joined the fray.
For anyone who has seen a dolphin dart like quicksilver underneath their surfboard, it doesn’t take much imagination to picture what a creature 4 or 5m in length, the girth of a small car, skilled in ambush could do to you if it wanted to. Smith tried to fight it. From witness accounts he punched and grabbed the dorsal fin, no doubt remembering years of folklore that sharks were cowards and if you fought back they swam away. Not this time.
What do you do with a man-eating shark after an attack like that? Western Australian Fisheries policy is to kill the offending shark, if it can be positively identified. Smith’s brother opposed the killing of the shark, seeing it as an act of revenge. Interviewed later, Campbell Rowe, who along with Mitch Campbell went back into the ocean to retrieve Smith (both deserve a Bravery Medal), saw little point in killing the shark, if indeed it could be found. There does seem an element of futility involved, however the question of destroying the shark deserves further attention.
Arguments against destroying the shark appear to centre around three core themes. The first is that in taking to the water, we are entering the shark’s territory and we should know the risks. The Augusta Margaret River Mail ran a vox pop on the fate of the shark. The common thread was that in entering the water we were "invading" the shark’s environment and we should know the risks. The Premier, Dr Geoff Gallop, expressed the view more sensibly when he said "we love our coastlines and our beaches, but there are dangers involved". Entering the ocean involves some measure of a risk calculation, as we were told when we were young, "when in doubt, don’t go out".
The second theme is the "wrong time, wrong place" argument: if your "number is up, then your number is up". A matter of bad luck. Sharks, we are told, may attack humans by mistake and even then victims are rarely actually eaten. Indeed it is possible that humans confuse sharks: attacks are merely an attempt to sort exactly what a human is, it is a shark accident rather than shark attack.
Shark experts argue that there is no evidence that having attacked a human, they will attack again. The third theme centres on the unlikelihood of ever finding the actual man-eater - we wouldn’t want to kill the wrong shark after all.
These are three reasonable positions. It is hard to fault the logic that in entering the water, we should be aware of the risks. Equally, there is little doubt that a shark attack is a freak event and that a man-eating shark will be hard to find after the event. However, there are some important caveats.
Kate Davey from the Australian Marine Conservation Society said: "What we actually need is a public education campaign to teach people how to live with sharks." Davey makes it sound like living with an ailment or a medical condition, like how to live with heart disease or how to live with dandruff. The problem is I can’t live with a shark, especially a Great White. If one happens across me on my surfboard and gets curious, I’ll probably bleed out in minutes. Living with sharks simply isn’t rational, but reducing the risk when in the water is.