The fatal shores

Sydney Morning Herald

Feb. 3, 2001

Blood in the water ... the great white shark.

Five deadly shark attacks in three months - compared with a previous average of one per year. As great whites circle Australia's coastline, protected and even encouraged, a growing number of people are arguing we have brought the tragedy upon ourselves. Frank Robson investigates.

On the second day of summer, Jeff and Katrina Wright drive through Port Lincoln, South Australia, in their elderly four-wheel drive. The sun is bright and seabirds wheel in great masses over Boston Bay, where pilchard swarms ruffle a placid sea. Jeff, as tall and dark as his wife is petite and fair, talks of how seafood in all its forms shaped the destiny of this busy port at the edge of the bountiful Southern Ocean: "We have tuna boys, rock lobster boys, abalone, oyster, prawn boys ... the industry touches everybody, and for as long as anyone can remember, sharks have been a constant presence."

For the Wrights, who moved here from Adelaide with their two young sons in 1985, that constant presence has become more than a figure of speech. Since September 25 last year, when their son Jevan was killed by a massive white pointer while surfing, the couple's thoughts are rarely free of what Jeff calls the "vivid picture" of the 17-year-old's last moments. They weren't with him when the attack occurred at Elliston, 170 kilometres north-west of Port Lincoln, but eyewitness accounts of what happened on that overcast Monday afternoon suggest their son probably died not knowing what had hit him.

The shark struck as Jevan paddled ashore from a popular reef break at Blacks Point, where he'd been surfing with his girlfriend's father, Graham Chapman, and a couple of local boardriders.

"He was almost to the cliff face [where surfers enter and leave the water] when the shark came up from behind and took him," says Jeff. "Chappy [Chapman] and another bloke were paddling in behind him. They saw the shark's tail thrashing, and the shark..." He hesitates, adjusts his glasses, starts again.

"It was quite shallow there, perhaps three metres. We believe the shark ... had Jevan and the board in its mouth, and they were forced against the rocky bottom with such pressure the board snapped in two at the bite mark." Jeff says Chapman and the other surfer got off their boards and stood on a partly submerged reef, about 10 metres to seaward. "They couldn't [accept] what they'd seen. One of them yelled, to people up on the cliff, 'Where's Jevan?'... then they saw part of his board pop up and start floating back out on the rip. Chappy jumped in, grabbed the board, and paddled to shore across the same area where Jevan was taken."

As boats searched in vain for some trace of the victim, Chapman and the other surfer, Craig Pringle, gave statements to police. Jeff: "They said they could smell death, and smell Jevan, but there was no visible blood in the water. It was a very big shark, and there was no struggle. Jevan was just gone." The Wrights learned of the attack in a phone call from their younger son, Reece, who'd been travelling with Jevan and others. Incredibly, the call came as they sat in their kitchen reading a newspaper report about the previous day's fatal shark attack at Cactus Beach, 300 kilometres north-west of Elliston, where New Zealander Cameron Bayes, 25, was torn from his surfboard and devoured within seconds by another large white pointer.

Jevan (Welsh for "warrior") was farewelled by 400 friends at a memorial service on what would have been his 18th birthday, October 7. A month later, on November 6, businessman Ken Crew died when his leg was ripped off by a four- to five-metre white pointer during an early morning swim at Perth's popular Cottesloe Beach. Jeff Wright, himself a longtime surfer and sailor, wept as he read of Crew's fate while crossing the park with the morning newspaper.

The next victim, on November 20, was Port Lincoln abalone shucker Danny Thorpe, 47, who - because of his terror of sharks - had opted to cling to an upturned boat while his friend Howard Rodd survived a marathon swim to shore near Ceduna. (The discovery of Thorpe's tooth-shredded life jacket and lunch box left little doubt as to his fate.) Including Michael Peter Edwards, 39, who was taken by sharks after falling from a fishing boat off Townsville on August 27, that brought the toll in the spate of attacks to five dead in three months.

In Port Lincoln, those who had seen attacks, or lost a friend or loved one, began meeting at one another's homes to, as one puts it, "rationalise" their feelings of grief and horror. And still the menace persisted: in late November, police chased hundreds of bathers from the waters of Boston Bay when several big whites were seen in the shallows. The Port Lincoln Yacht Club abandoned a weekend's sailboat races for juniors, and a local State school cancelled its summer camp at a beach where sharks had been sighted. Even in December, when white pointers patrolling the Great Australian Bight normally move to deeper water beyond the continental shelf, fishermen and divers continued to report "freakish" numbers close inshore from Adelaide to Ceduna.

Like others touched by the grim season, Jeff and Katrina Wright believe depleted fish stocks, environmental changes, and the ban on killing great white sharks - protected by Federal law since 1997 - all have a role in what's been happening. They've called for changes to the protection laws so that a shark which has attacked a person can be killed immediately after the attack. (As things stand, anyone killing a white pointer - even during an attack - faces a fine of $50,000 or two years' jail.) "Governments have a duty of care to do this," says Katrina, "because there's strong evidence that [some] killer sharks keep on killing." The Wrights also want warning signs placed at known danger spots, government funding for the development of an effective shark protection device, and an end to what they see as a deliberate campaign to downplay the risk of shark attacks in Australian waters.

"Every time there's a death," says Jeff, "the media go straight to a handful of so-called experts who say things like, 'It's sad, but he or she knew the risks of entering the magnificent endangered sharks' domain.' But people don't know the risks, because the same bunch who got white pointers protected have told us for decades we have more chance of dying from bee stings or falling coconuts ... It's absolute bullshit! These things are the ultimate stealth killing machines, and there are a lot more of them around our beaches than the 'experts' would have us believe..."

In the beginning, when life was simple, we killed them all. Sharks were the enemy, and no one quibbled over the difference between small, relatively harmless species and large scary ones such as tiger sharks and great whites. Our shark authority figures were Sydney film-makers Ron and Valerie Taylor, Queensland shark-hunter Vic Hislop, and Rodney Fox, an Adelaide spear fisherman who survived a white pointer attack in 1963 and went on to become the world's first successful pro-shark entrepreneur.

For a while, all of them slaughtered sharks. Collectively, they killed hundreds - probably thousands - using set lines, spears, powerheads and guns. The Taylors and Fox made documentaries of their sporty hunts, with hyperbolic scripts and spooky music. Hislop, who still operates a couple of savagely realistic shark shows, used to turn up at the scene of every shark attack with his boat and set lines, and crowds cheered when he dragged ashore the huge whites or tigers deemed responsible.

Later, when conservation and environmental themes swept the world, Fox and the Taylors adjusted their output accordingly. Hislop, a driven man who genuinely believes he's providing a much-needed service, continued killing large sharks at every opportunity. For years, the divided experts slugged it out in the media, each camp accusing the other of being motivated by financial gain in adopting its position on sharks. "If it wasn't for me," cried Hislop in 1993, "people would be ready to have white pointers as pets!" By then, he'd already lost the image war, while Fox had become world-renowned as the Man Who Always Finds Pointers.

It was Fox, now 60 and reputedly a millionaire, who, in the '70s, introduced cage-diving with white pointers as the ultimate eco-thrill. He became the darling of international film-makers and marine researchers, leading more than

200 expeditions and establishing the waters off Port Lincoln as the world headquarters of Carcharodon carcharias ("ragged tooth") - the ever mysterious and increasingly revered great white shark. (Much earlier, in the same waters, Fox and his dive cages were involved in the filming of underwater scenes for the original Jaws movie, in which a midget stunt diver was used to make the sharks look bigger.)

By the mid-1980s, the theme of that horror story had been all but reversed by the green lobby. Men like Hislop were the new "mindless predators", while great whites became "magnificent survivors" which attacked humans only through mistaking them for seals, or because they were "curious" or "playful".

This clashed with reality, but it suited the cage-diving industry, which at its peak had seven companies competing for international eco-tourists in South Australian waters.

But the continued success of the industry was linked to the area's reputation for unfailingly producing lots of large, impressive white pointers. And by the mid-1980s, according to Fox and the Taylors, the larger sharks had stopped showing up. There could have been many reasons for this: whites are migratory, following whales in their annual trek up and down the Australian coastline, and researchers say environmental changes affect their movements in ways that are yet to be understood.

Fox called in acquaintances at the Cousteau Society, and after a couple of expeditions with Fox and the Taylors off Port Lincoln, the researchers aboard Alcyone declared that white pointers were close to extinction in South Australian waters - "with just 45 to 50 left here..." How they established this knowledge of a transient creature in the vastness of the Southern Ocean wasn't revealed, but the figures were often quoted in the campaign to have whites protected. (Over the same period, 200 white pointers were tagged in a small area off Port Lincoln in an ongoing project to learn more about their movements. Fox says now that the decision to protect whites was based mainly on reduced numbers caught in beach protection nets along Australia's east coast.)

Fox and Valerie Taylor have never concealed the commercial aspect of their interest in the ocean's largest predator. "A dead white pointer is a useless piece of meat; a live one is a valuable asset which brings tourists, film-makers and researchers to the area," wrote Taylor in 1988.

Oddly enough, in the years between the bombshell that whites were all but extinct off South Australia, and their protection under federal law in 1997, cage-diving continued to flourish. According to its own promotional material, Fox's Adelaide-based company enjoyed "good exciting cage diving action" on 102 of its 117 expeditions, with only seven trips in 33 years failing to see sharks. A rival company says its cage diving charters have averaged an almost 100 per cent success rate, with up to 14 white pointers encountered during the four-day trips.

Over decades, tour operators have dumped countless tonnes of offal and fish oil into the sea off Port Lincoln to attract whites to their cages. Fishermen and abalone divers say the berley trails extend up to 30 kilometres and attract dangerous sharks inshore. Some also believe that finding caged humans at the end of the enticing trails is teaching far-ranging sharks to associate people with their feeding patterns. ("Sharks are good learners. Some have been trained to swim through mazes and seem to learn as well as rats, pigeons and rabbits." - The Cousteau Society magazine, Dolphin Log, July, 1990.)

Vic Hislop says Fox used to stuff wetsuits and attach them to surfboards, or lower them to the seabed, then film white pointers attacking them. "He stuffs wetsuits with fish," says Hislop. "If that's not training sharks to eat people, I'm f...ed if I know what is."

Asked about this at his shark museum in Adelaide, Fox says he did it only once, and that the wetsuits were stuffed with foam, not fish:

"It happened two or three other times, but that involved film companies..." Fox in turn accuses Hislop of using "scare tactics to promote his own business interests".

South Australia's wild west coast is so empty a landscape that motorists wave to one another as if to confirm their existence. During stops, I mark a map of my 500-kilometre trip from Port Lincoln to Cactus Beach with the locations of seven shark attack fatalities since the 1970s. (Details of many other attacks in these parts have been lost to time.) Newspaper files show that - like the attacks on Jevan Wright, Cameron Bayes and Ken Crew - each fatality was marked by the swift and deadly intent of big white pointers.

Port Lincoln student counsellor Jeff Hunter, who saw Bayes taken during an early morning surf at Cactus Beach, says there was no hint of the predator having confused him with another type of prey. It circled in behind the surfer, who was looking out to sea, then charged him with "...unhesitating ferocity". Himself a surfer for 30 years, Hunter was holidaying at the remote beach, near Penong, with his two children. He says the four- to five-metre white raced in circles around Bayes with such speed that it looked like several sharks, then took him down.

"From [atop a sandhill] I saw him come to the surface, get his board and start paddling towards the shore. I saw his face ... he looked quite calm. But he only made about three metres before it attacked again ... then, suddenly, he was gone. There were a few bits of board floating, and a pool of blood." Bayes and his wife, Tina, had been on their honeymoon. "Tina was woken in their tent to this news," Hunter told me. "I went to her, and of course she was absolutely distraught ... I held her hand, she said, 'I don't want to be a widow: I've only just found the man who loves me.'"

The Hunters cut short their holiday and headed for home. Next day, when they were at Elliston, Jevan Wright was taken. The horrible coincidence was compounded by the fact that Hunter knew Jevan: they'd worked together in a group trying to get a skate park established in Port Lincoln. "When they told me Jevan was gone," he sighs, "I believed it instantly. It was the same scenario; I'd seen it the day before..." Hunter says he hasn't surfed since, but hopes to get back to it soon. "It won't ever be quite the same ... because we know now that as soon as you enter the water - anywhere - you can be taken."

It's like Jaws all over again. But with a novelist twist: in this real-life version, Peter Benchley - reportedly appalled by the mindless slaughter of sharks unleashed by his blockbuster - has joined the pro-shark backlash. His reaction to the recent Australian attacks appeared in newspapers around the world. "Though I did not witness the hideous moment [of Ken Crew's death]," he wrote, "I can say absolutely that the shark was not acting with malice towards the man; not with intent to do bodily harm..."

In Benchley's seemingly omniscient view, the spate of attacks were innocent mistakes, and humans were still more likely to die of - yes - bee stings. The soothing bee comparison is repeated endlessly by local shark authorities in a bulging clippings file on the car seat beside me. (On examination, it turns out to be meaningless: on average, bee and wasp stings kill two Australians a year, but only 2.7 per cent of the population is affected by the generalised allergic reaction to stings that can cause death.) And in quoting the "official" toll of humans killed by sharks - an average of one a year according to a file kept by John West of Sydney's Taronga Zoo - no-one mentions that only witnessed attacks are recorded. Given our vast coastline, logic suggests at least some of the many people who vanish from the sea without a convenient witness (like Harold Holt did) are shark victims.

At Elliston, local surfers Dane Grocke and John Newton show me the spot where Jevan Wright died. "Blackfellas", as they call Blacks Point, is a lonely expanse of kelp-studded sea at the entrance to Anxious Bay. Swells roll in from the icy south, hit a rock shelf and rear into one of the most admired left-hand breaks in Australia. Atop the crumbling sandstone cliff, a rock pile commemorates the lost surfer, Elliston's first shark fatality. "It sorta buggered up the innocence of the place," says Newton. "Now, when you're out there, it's always on your mind."

Like many other west-coasters, Newton, an abalone diver, believes large whites are being drawn inshore by warmer than average currents. In the past, he says, considerable numbers of coast-cruising whites were killed accidentally in the four kilometre-long set nets of fishermen catching gummy and school sharks for seafood markets: "One of my mates got 12 whites in one spot over a year ... Another bloke got six tangled in his nets in one night." But as catches of table shark fell off over recent years, the fishermen hung up their nets and turned to other pursuits, ending the accidental control of coast-cruising white pointers.

Dane's father, Geoff Grocke, 43, says he and scores of other abalone divers are returning to the use of motorised anti-shark cages since the recent attacks. "In Geoff's case, I insisted," points out his wife, Jo. "I'm a born worrier anyway, and with both our sons surfing, and Geoff diving, sharks are always on my mind." Most west coast divers have had close encounters with whites, but being on the seabed - aware of what's around them - they're at less risk than surfers.

Grocke gives a hair-raising account of how a fellow diver almost lost his mind after being "played with" for an hour by a large great white: "It held him down, lay on top of him, dragged him along the bottom, knocked him around like crazy. He punched it as hard as he could, but it was like it was laughing at him. It knocked his mask off ... he felt around and put it back on. When he could see, there was this head about half-a-metre away, just looking at him. He crawled from rock to rock trying to escape, but it just kept after him. He told us he was hysterical, howling and screaming into his mask. In the end, it just got sick of him and swam off. He wasn't the same after that: he gave up diving for a while, and now he won't even talk about it."

At Ceduna, retired shark fisherman George Mastrosavas is still burdened by his role in the death of a young shark victim in 1975. Mastrosavas lives alone in an old house fringed by sea and fish factories, a stone's throw from where his Greek-born father once ran a corner store.

He doesn't respond to my knock, so I follow the advice of his son, encountered in the local pub, and go inside. It's noon, and the fisherman, 62, is lying on a small bed with his face to the wall. He gets up, waving aside apologies, and settles on a broken sofa as though not disinclined to talk.

He says he always loved fishing, and began catching whites that were wrecking his offshore set-lines in 1958. "People told me, 'You're mad! More of them will just keep coming.' And I said, 'I'll get rid of them all eventually.' That's how we thought then. There were so many whites around then, you'd see at least one every day..."

Had he known another season like this for shark attacks?

"Never, never ... and the strange thing is that when white pointers were so plentiful, you hardly ever heard of an attack." Mastrosavas estimates he killed 100 whites over the years, but others reckon his tally was much higher. He recalls terrifying scenes as he battled them at sea, the huge sharks rearing up "like frilly-necked lizards", or ripping chunks from the boat while his young helper lay sobbing at his feet. "There was no real market for whites until the Jaws movie came out," he says. "That's when the demand for their jaws and teeth began ... the first I knew of it was when a bloke from Sydney offered me $4,000 for five sets of jaws."

In February of that same year, 1975, a boy called Wade Shippard died after his leg was severed by a white pointer at Port Sinclair, near Cactus Beach. The attack occurred behind a sheltering headland where Mastrosavas and his fishing partner were gutting and cleaning school sharks they'd caught at sea.

"I told my mate we shouldn't clean them there," says Mastrosavas. "I told him kids might swim there, and the blood would bring sharks. But he was the skipper, and he said, 'Blow the kids! They can swim in the dam.'

" A bout 6 pm we saw this young lad swimming, and next thing he was yelling that a shark had bitten him. We sped towards him in the boat, but before we got there we saw the shark - a small [three-metre] white - come up behind him and swallow his leg. It just rolled and snapped his leg right off ..."

Mastrosavas says he bashed the shark with a gaff as it came through the boy's blood for another attack, then pulled the boy into the boat. "He seemed all right for a while ... but we couldn't stop the bleeding because the leg was severed so high up. I ran down the jetty with him in my arms, and his mother asked me to drive their car because of the state she was in. We drove like mad towards Ceduna, and after a while the lad sorta sat up. He called out, 'Mum!' And that was the end - he died in the car." Mastrosavas dabs at his eyes with

a well-used hankie. "It was our fault," he says.

"It should never have happened. We caused it."

How did the mother cope?

"She got drowned not long after that. They were farming people, and they went out fishing. The boat turned over, and two of them drowned."

At this point, the story grows even more harrowing. Mastrosavas says he got letters suggesting it should have been him "lying on the beach with my guts cut open". He took them to his former fishing partner, and they had a fight in which he was hit repeatedly over the head with a heavy broom. Mastrosavas thinks the blows induced a return of the schizophrenia he had suffered as a teenager. A few years later - obeying voices in his head - he drove his car into an approaching motorbike, killing its rider and pillion passenger. "I was committed to a psychiatric ward in Adelaide," he says. "I stayed in there 10 years."

After Jevan Wright's death, a large white was seen frequently in a bay off Elliston where children swim. Geoff Grocke phoned Kate Rodda, a South Australian government research scientist studying white pointers, to ask if anything could be done about the lurking shark. "She wouldn't hear of it," he says. "She said, 'Don't you dare touch that shark; no-one is to go near it!' She said they'd send a couple of boats to chase it away, which made me laugh. When I saw her up here a few days later she said, 'How's that beautiful creature in the bay?' I told her if I had my way, it'd be hanging from a tree..."

I catch up with Rodda at the South Australian Research and Development Institute in Port Lincoln, where she's involved in a white pointer tagging program around nearby islands. Rodda says 200 whites have been tagged over 12 years. (As she admits, the Cousteau/Fox claim of 40 to 50 whites left in the State's waters was "clearly not correct".)

Does she see any justification for killing a suspect shark hanging about after an attack?

Rodda: "Personally, [no]. I think they are a creature that needs respect ... we have to realise it is an endangered species, and we need to conserve it."

Australia's rich tuna industry is largely based at Port Lincoln, where pole fishing has given way to the more lucrative practice of exporting the fish live to Asian markets. Tuna are netted at sea, then towed slowly inshore in floating cages - followed, inevitably, by hungry sharks. The tuna are placed in holding pens eight kilometres off the shores of Boston Bay, and fattened for months on tonnes of dead pilchards. There's no doubt the process attracts sharks, but the town's dependence on the industry is such that protests remain muted.

One of the large tuna companies is Lukin and Sons, although these days the sons - including former Olympic weightlifter Dean - have left town, leaving the business to their irascible father, Dinko. A few days after declaring in the local paper that man was the "master of global life" and white pointers should be killed, the towering Dinko Lukin, 66, ushers me into his boardroom for a chat.

I tell him his comments evoke the scriptural concept of man holding dominion over all creatures. "There is nothing wrong with that, my friend," booms the Croatian-born empire-builder. "That is the way it is!"

Okay, but what about...

Lukin holds up an enormous hand, then issues a sort of mission statement. "I am a fisherman," he roars. "I am destined by God, by nature, to be what I am. And if I fall in the water, and I am attacked by a white pointer, it is an enormous loss. In this new country I have adopted, I have contributed enormous value ... I have done a lot for mankind. And if I want to take a white shark from [Boston] Bay, why shouldn't I?"

But don't tuna pens attract sharks?

Lukin smiles. "Beaches attract sharks, too, because humans are there. A shark is only interested in how he's going to get a mouthful. And if they come to the tuna farms, then they are being diverted from the beaches ... if we are allowed to, we can kill them at the tuna farms. Then they will never make it to the beaches!"

Before leaving Port Lincoln, I pay another visit to Jeff and Katrina Wright, who've just heard that the inquest into Jevan's death has been set down for this week in Adelaide. We drink a few beers at the kitchen table, and they talk about how they're coping. Jeff says he alternates between longing - "for the sound of Jevan's car on our gravel driveway; a glimpse of his face" - and anger over the improbability of his fate. Katrina had lain awake for hours the previous night. "I can't stop myself trying to imagine it," she says. "Did he have any pain? Did he see the shark, or was it that quick that he saw nothing? It just ... won't stop."