In May 2010, 250 kilometres offshore from the Queensland city of Mackay on the outside of the Great Barrier Reef, at a reef system known as the Swains, I was diving with a team of researchers when we were enveloped in a swarm of billions of small fish. The cloud of life was thick in the clear water, blocking out the sun. It was the kind of spectacle that sometimes plays out on television nature documentary footage shot from helicopters, yet this was real – I was in the water inside a baitball that stretched as far as I could see in every direction. There are times when you are scuba diving that you see the stunning things you expect to see, and then there are the occasions when something happens that you never thought was possible. The living cloud dancing and shimmering around me seemed like a magical illusion set in crystal water, a canvas of coral –a storm front of fish. There were so many teeming millions of them they were like huge droplets of rain being driven sideways yet moving as one. Eventually, though, the cloud passed and continued its rolling, morphing journey through the sea.
Amongst the beauty of the reef, it was often easy to forget that it is an ecosystem and that as well as wonders, there are many dangers. Such a cloud of fish is not referred to as a baitball for no reason – the little fish attract birds, marine mammals and bigger fish, which invariably attract those even bigger fish at the top of the marine food chain. In the past when I had dived on the reef and seen something scary it had been a furtive, uncertain feeling on the edge of my peripheral vision – a fast flash of something big that was often gone before I could be sure whether I had really seen it. The reality is this: nearly everyone who dives frequently in the ocean almost never sees one of the recognised shark species that are known to be dangerous to humans. After hundreds of dives, probably the most dangerous shark I had seen to that point on the Great Barrier Reef was a lemon shark in the lagoon of One Tree Island, off Gladstone. So what happened in the wake of the cloud of baitfish passing was a shock. As my dive buddy and I collected our coral samples for a scientific study being conducted by the Australian Institute of Marine Science, a huge bull shark slid by, only a few metres away. It was a very large fish and easily the biggest and most intimidating, dangerous shark I had ever been near. It really did feel as though we were suddenly in the wrong part of town – on the ocean side of the Barrier Reef you enter the environment of the biggest pelagic sharks. The bull shark was in no hurry and, slowly, lazily swam away. After exchanging some concerned hand signals, geneticist and close friend Petra Lundgren and I continued working. A few seconds later the ball of baitfish returned, only this time they were frantically fleeing, chased by giant trevally. In turn the trevally were being hotly pursued by half a dozen bull sharks. Now there was nothing lazy about the way the two and three metre predators were moving – they were at a full blistering pace, only swerving around us divers at the last second. It was like standing in a field as a pride of lions pelted past, hunting antelope. It wasn’t that we were invisible to the sharks – I had a sense, a really strong sense, they knew we were there – it was just that they were not interested in us. Even so, my instinct was to join the crush trying to escape. I remember wondering, what do you do in a situation like this. Should I act like I would in the face of a dangerous dog on dry land? Should I pull out my dive knife as I always imagined I would if I was faced by a big shark? In the end there was nothing I could do. But I did feel that I was in the crossfire of a fight that was not mine and so in a strange way, while all the players knew we humans were there, we were also afforded some immunity. It is true that bull sharks are regarded as ‘maneaters’ but what was baffling that morning was that if we really were a favoured target then why weren’t we eaten?
I realised that a lot of what I thought about sharks – and so a lot of what most people think about sharks – is actually wrong. I am a child of the 1970s and my whole view of what would happen if I ever came face to face with a big shark at the bottom of the ocean was informed by the following words from the trailer of the movie Jaws, a deep authoritative voice-over with its unforgettable musical score as a background: ‘It is as if God created the devil and gave him . . . jaws.’ But at that moment in the sea off Mackay, I knew that all this time I’d been had. There was a lot more going on than I understood and a fact that I had held as fundamental – that big sharks are always dangerous to people – was wrong. In fact once I began researching what happened to me that day I found that my experience of being ignored was not unique and is well recorded in the scientific literature. World leading expert on attitudes and public policy towards sharks, Christopher Neff, who normally confines his comments to well-thought out academic writing, puts it bluntly: ‘We are not prey, we are in the way.’ More formally, in his peer-reviewed writing, he explains it like this:
Observations of sharks in proximity to human swimmers in the ocean demonstrate that the animals do not usually take an interest in people. Sightings by New South Wales Fisheries staff, including Vic Peddemors and Amy Smoothey, have revealed that bull sharks regularly swim close to hundreds of human swimmers in Sydney Harbour and ignore them all. In Cape Town, South Africa, the Shark Spotters program has reviewed more than 1,100 sightings of white sharks swimming around surfers and near bathers Bathers were alerted and got out of the water, and the visiting sharks swam away. This story repeats itself in Port Stephens, Australia, where shark biologist Barry Bruce has studied juvenile white sharks that consistently ignore people in the nearby surf.
Very few humans have an encounter like the one that I had, and for those that do, the overwhelming majority do not get bitten. And it wasn’t my first close encounter with a bull shark. At dusk a few years earlier, swimming on the south coast of New South Wales, with a friend in chest-deep surf, a two-metre long shadow tore through the breakers between us and vanished before we had a chance to even think about fleeing to the shore. I remember thinking two things at the time. First, if it had wanted to eat us we wouldn’t have stood a chance and, second, it didn’t want to eat us. On both occasions I was a huge piece of protein beside any of the fish being hotly pursued. I was a sitting duck, practically immobile compared to the fish tearing for their lives through the sea. Diving off the Swains with Petra, there was no choice but to watch, transfixed, as one of the bull sharks sped past me. It specifically seemed to see me, caught my eye and pressed on. At that moment I was utterly vulnerable. There wasn’t time to take any kind of evasive action and the idea of attempting to flee in the face of so many creatures a thousand times faster than me was just ridiculous. More than anything I was surprised because what had happened was so much more complicated and interesting and impressive than what every Australian is raised to believe about sharks. Still, we exited the water off the Swains Reef quickly rather than take the chance that they might become more interested in us in a second pass . . . As I gratefully pulled my legs onto the inflatable my mind was racing. What did that shark think when it saw me? What kind of animal was a creature like that? Soon afterwards, there was a horrific spate of shark attacks in Western Australia, and each time another person was killed, my mind went back to that day underwater and far out to sea, when the bull shark and I locked eyes. I also remember thanking God there were no white sharks in the tropics because otherwise things would have turned out very differently . . . wouldn’t they? I was wrong again.
I quickly discovered that it could just as easily have been white sharks in the water that day instead of bull sharks. Beginning at Christmas 2011, not long after my encounter at the Swains, the CSIRO tracked a 3.1 metre female white shark via satellite as it completed a mighty six-month return journey from 90 Mile Beach in Victoria to the Swains Reef, off Central Queensland, where I had seen the bull sharks.
Also around that time I was on a family holiday at Lady Elliott Island at the very southern end of the Great Barrier Reef, further south than the Swains Reef. As I prepared for my first dive off the island, the dive master said that the previous week they had been on a wreck a few hundred metres offshore when a large great white had suddenly appeared. But, as in my experience with the bull sharks, it showed no interest in eating anyone and after some curious investigation casually turned tail and disappeared. It was one thing for a bull shark to decide to leave me in one piece, but why would a great white shark leave those juicy, defenceless divers alone? After all, the great white shark is the most magnificent and supposedly dangerous of them all.
This was the second time in my life that white sharks had gotten snagged in my consciousness. The first had been in the early 1990s when I was a cub science and environment correspondent at the Sydney Morning Herald. While there, two books came across my desk that I felt compelled to keep. The first was an original edition of Peter Matthiessen’s book The Snow Leopard that I requested from the office library for a profile interview I was preparing of the world-famous author. For some reason his expedition in search of the Himalayan big cat resonated through my bones and soul as if someone had struck a huge bell. It took a decade-long campaign by the newspaper’s librarians, and finally a threat to have all my borrowing rights revoked, before
I returned The Snow Leopard. I still rue the day I gave it back. The second book was actually a review copy of a coffee table paperback called Great White Shark by Richard Ellis and John McCosker. Somehow I managed to convince my boss to let me borrow it from him and I never gave it back. The night I first got it I lay in my bed at home and could not put it down.
It was captivating – anecdote after anecdote, scientific insights, personal stories, facts, breakouts, stunning historical pictures including the huge jaws of the white shark relative Carcharodon megalodon, which are on display at the Smithsonian Institution – jaws so enormous that six dapper fish scientists are framed by the reconstructed model of a Megalodon’s jaws. But there was one page that seared itself into my mind forever – an account of an attack by a great white shark in 1962 at the Farallon Islands off San Francisco, where Al Giddings and Leroy French, partners in a dive company, had taken a group of divers. Before pulling up anchor Giddings did a head count and realised French was not on board. He looked out to see French in the jaws of a great white shark. Revisiting the exact site later, Giddings recounted to McCosker:
I saw a great tail come up over Leroy’s head, behind him. He couldn’t see it but he could see reflected in my eyes the terror and total amazement and could hear the rush of water behind him. And, of course, he had already been hit once, so he knew it was coming again. Before my unbelieving eyes, the tail went up and then went down alongside him. [Leroy] disappeared and was gone. I continued to the spot where he had disappeared, and as I was looking around frantically, he popped up next to me, clawing, spitting an screaming in a way that I would not have thought humanly possible. Somehow I swam behind him, turned him on his back, and took off with him.
Miraculously, the pair made it to the boat, covered in blood. French was evacuated by helicopter and required 450 stitches. But two years later he was walking again. The blood, the violence, the strength of the fish, the courage of the rescuer and friend were all the stuff of white shark bite stories the world over. What haunted me was the fact that the victim knew the shark was attacking from behind because of the expression on the rescuer’s face. Imagine what that face must have looked like. And imagine what it must be like to have been bitten once and then to see the terror in the rescuer’s eyes. It was one of the most horrifying things that I had ever heard and I cannot imagine how Leroy’s certainty that the shark was on its way back, without actually seeing it, must have felt. And it was a moment like that I was braced for when we were stampeded by bull sharks. When it never came, I was left with a thousand questions.
This is a story about a fish – from the tips of its teeth to the end of its tail. It has the body of a torpedo, the jaws of a bear trap, the stomach of a wheelie bin, the power of a truck, eyes as big as billiard balls and a brain smaller than the top of the thumb of most men. It emerged from a lineage predating dinosaurs and its personality has the ill-deserved reputation of being somewhere between a psychopath and a member of an outlaw motorcycle gang. It is the subject of countless urban myths regarding its obsession with eating humans – from being able to detect urine from kilometres away to flipping to rogue after a single taste of human flesh. The simple fact is that each and every white shark is a rogue shark. Rogue is their permanent state of being and they are always dangerous. They are dangerous not because of what they usually do but because of what they can do when they make a mistake. They are everything that is both terrible and wonderful about life and food chains and oceans and primal power. They are what happens when time, chemistry, engineering, physics and competition to survive in the world’s harshest environments strive to build the planet’s most perfect fish predator.
A great white shark is evolution’s Manhattan Project.