It's refreshing that Queensland shark encounter has avoided Jaws hysteria

21 Jan 2013

Sharks may be seen close to the shore - here a Basking Shark affords beach goers a close encounter © Rory Goodall.AUSTRALIA// A remarkable encounter with what was initially identified as a Dusky Shark (Carcharhinus obscurus) on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast was caught on film over the weekend, with the shark entering knee-deep water on a busy Caloundra beach before being removed by onlookers concerned at the danger it posed to swimmers.

[Sharks may be seen close to the shore - in the image to the right a Basking Shark affords beach goers a close encounter © Rory Goodall.]

This story is interesting for two reasons: the first being that the near-hysteria often accompanying the presence of a large shark was mostly absent, seemingly replaced by a genuine appreciation of the stunning oceanic predator. And secondly, while moving into such shallow water is certainly interesting behaviour for a Dusky Shark, some of the footage suggests the shark may in fact have been a Blue Shark (Prionace glauca) – making it an altogether more fascinating story for marine biologists.

To see a Blue Shark so close inshore is unusual. Known to undertake epic trans-oceanic voyages of over 9000km, Blue Sharks are sleek, perfectly adapted oceanic wanderers, predominantly found beyond the edge of the continental shelf in the open ocean. Indeed, they are one of the most widely distributed shark species in the world, found in all temperate and tropical waters – including a seasonal appearance around the UK and Ireland each summer. What brought this Blue Shark into the bathing waters of Caloundra’s Bulcock Beach can only be speculated on – however the shark’s presence in such shallow water could perhaps have been the result of the animal becoming disorientated, perhaps swimming off-course in pursuit of small pelagic fish – its preferred prey.

As large, wild animals, Blue Sharks should be treated with the utmost respect and caution. In 2012, sharks in Australian waters made the news for all the wrong reasons, with a series of tragic fatal attacks in Western Australia. Naturally this generated a sense that shark attacks – and the threat posed by sharks – were on the rise, with a heated debate emerging as to how authorities should protect people from shark attack.

The likelihood of shark-human interaction must be viewed in context. Central to this is the rapid growth in coastal populations, with some forty per cent of the world’s population now living within one hundred kilometres of a coast – a figure expected to increase significantly in the coming decades. Consider also the burgeoning popularity of water-sports such as surfing, kayaking, scuba diving and snorkelling. Fuelled by ‘life-style’ marketing and improvements in equipment (wetsuits in particular), more people are drawn to these sports in a wider range of locations and are spending longer periods in the water.  Similarly, the ‘3-S’ tourism attractions – sun, sand and surf – remain favourites within the global tourism industry, itself one of the largest and fastest growing industries in the world.

Combined, these trends mean that each year around the world hundreds of thousands more people are entering a wider range of marine environments for longer periods of time – environments which they will share (whether they realise it or not) with large marine animals: dolphins, seals, whales and, of course, sharks. Although many water-users understand the inherent risks and unpredictable nature of their ‘playground’, a great deal more are likely to be unfamiliar with the associated risks – including sharks and their behaviour.

While there is often a degree of statistical anomaly in shark attack figures, the number of attacks each year is relative to the number of people entering the water – a figure which, unfortunately, can be expected to increase if current lifestyle and demographic trends continue.  This is somewhat ironic given the critically low population levels of many shark species as a result of global overfishing.

Blue Shark © Karin Leonard, Marine Photobank.

There is absolutely no doubt shark attacks – fatal and non-fatal – are hugely terrifying and tragic incidents.  Although the number of attacks will reflect the ever-growing number of water-users, in relative terms the likelihood of shark attack remains extremely low, with the risk of death by drowning, car accident – even lightning strike – considerably higher.  The risk of shark attack is lessened further by an improved understanding of shark behaviour and movements, with early-warning and shark monitoring programs offering more effective protection, and the ability to minimise human-shark interaction. And on those occasions when interaction has been unavoidable, the percentage of fatal attacks relative to total attacks continues to fall as more people survive as a result of advances in medical treatment. 

To see a live Blue Shark so close to shore is a privilege, and for most media stories on the incident to have largely side-stepped the traditional Jaws hysteria is refreshing.

Related Links:

Its refreshing that Queensland shark encounter has avoided Jaws hysteria - The Guardian

Blue Shark Factsheet

Dusky Shark Factsheet