Chantelle Doyle never saw the great white shark that attacked her that fateful morning two months ago. But the spherical head and dead black eyes were clearly visible to her partner, Mark Rapley, who was surfing near her in the clear blue waters off Port Macquarie.
This part of New South Wales with its postcard coves and beaches is typical of the idyllic coastline that makes Australia so attractive to both surfers and swimmers. Yet here in paradise death seemed so inevitable for Chantelle, a 35-year-old environmental scientist and mother of one from Sydney.
Great whites have one of the strongest bites of any living animal – they exert three times more force than a lion and 20 times as much as the human jaw.
With 300 serrated, triangular teeth arranged in multiple rows, they shake their prey from side to side to create a sawing action that tears off pieces of meat.
Chantelle Doyle and Mark Rapley appear on "This Morning" in August
Recreational diver Gary Johnson had just teamed up with partner Karen Milligan (pictured together) and jumped into the water when he was fatally attacked by a shark near Cull Island
Great whites have one of the strongest bites of any living animal – they exert three times more force than a lion and 20 times as much as the human jaw
By the time Mark reached Chantelle, the killer had already adjusted his grip three times. Each new bite jerked her leg further into her mouth as she clung to her surfboard, which was now slippery with blood.
There didn't seem to be any way to save her, but Mark climbed onto Chantelle's back and put his left arm on the shark's eyes with his right fist. Finally it opened its jaws and swam away. With the help of two other surfers, he managed to get Chantelle back to the beach and take her to the hospital.
There it was found that the shark had removed a piece of her right calf and severed the nerves under her knee.
But she's one of the lucky ones. For this year, the Australian coast is all too reminiscent of the horrors envisioned by Jaws, the famous 1975 film about a great white shark terrorizing a small American beach town.
Mani Hart-Deville was surfing on Wooli Beach in New South Wales when he was bitten
It wasn't until the weekend that it was reported that Wylie Bay, a normally popular beach on the south coast of Western Australia, was abandoned by a shark after the death of Andrew Sharpe, a 53-year-old businessman who lived in the nearby town of Esperance should have been at least four meters long. Although his friends did their best to save him, he disappeared under the waves and has not been seen since.
"I have never seen such a large dorsal fin, not even in the media," said one witness.
But it's not so much the size of the sharks that alarms Australians, but the frequency with which they appear to claim the lives of surfers and swimmers.
Andrew Sharpe's death was the seventh fatal shark attack in Australia in 2020. That is the highest number since 1929 – a fact that is all the more alarming since we are not yet at the end of the year and Australia is only now its summer (December ) approaches by February). As we'll see, a number of causes have been blamed, including climate change and even Covid-19.
On a January morning this year, a shark claimed the life of 57-year-old diver Gary Johnson. He and his wife, Karen Milligan, had brought their boat to Cull Island, four miles off the south coast of Western Australia. The place was one where they had dived together countless times before.
HOW TO SURVIVE A SHARK ATTACK
- Swim, surf or dive with other people. Sharks most often attack individuals.
- Avoid wearing contrasting clothing or shiny jewelry that may look like fish scales.
- If you bleed, stay on the beach. Sharks can smell and taste even the smallest amount of blood from a mile away and trace it back to its source.
- When an attack occurs, defend yourself with all weapons you can. Focus your blows on the shark's eyes or gills. A shark's snout is also said to be sensitive.
- If a shark actually puts you in its mouth, "playing dead" doesn't work, says George Burgess, former director of the International Shark Attack File Organization. "Try scratching the eyes and gill openings, two very sensitive areas."
"It was calm, it was clear, it was beautiful," says Karen. But Gary had only been in the water three minutes when she saw he was being attacked. She managed to escape and after making an emergency call telling the operator, "My husband was captured by a great white man," she was taken ashore in a lifeboat and was in shock.
Although Gary's dive vest and oxygen tank were later recovered, his body was never found.
In April, 23-year-old Zachary Robba, a Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service ranger, was fatally struck by a great white man while he and his colleagues were swimming off the stern of their boat after a day of maintenance near the Great Barrier Reef.
He suffered serious injuries to his leg, hand and elbow and was taken ashore. He later died in the hospital. This attack took place many thousands of miles from those on Gary Johnson and Andrew Sharpe. Hardly any of Australia's vast coastlines seem immune to these savage attacks.
In June, 60-year-old surfer Rob Pedretti, a recently retired tiler, was surfing with friends off north New South Wales when he was attacked by a ten-foot tall white man. He died on the beach and although his companions tried to fend off the shark, one of them remembered how futile their efforts were. "It was a female shark and she wouldn't let go," he says. "I'm happy to be here – very happy – because she wanted a piece from someone."
While this suggests some merciless revenge from the sharks, the reality, according to marine experts, is that they have no real interest in humans – often only attacking when they mistake us for seals or other prey, or when provoked.
One of this year's attacks – on an unnamed 36-year-old man who spearfished off the Queensland coast in July – could fall into the latter category, as the sharks may have been attracted to the blood of the fish he killed.
But there was certainly no "provocation" from other victims, including 15-year-old Mani Hart-Deville, who was also surfing at Wooli Beach, New South Wales in July when he was bitten.
After his death, marine biology expert Robert Harcourt blamed the increasing attacks on warmer waters where their prey would normally swim, claiming that as a result, sharks would spend longer at popular surfing spots.
"Great whites off the north coast of New South Wales used to stay about two months, but now it's about five months," he told the Australian newspaper.
Meanwhile, some have suggested that overfishing depletes the shark's natural prey of large fish, seals and even dolphins, forcing them to keep searching the food chain for food.
Rob Pedretti, a recently retired tiler, was out with friends in northern New South Wales when he was attacked by a ten foot white man. He died on the beach and although his companions tried to repel the shark, one of them remembered how futile their efforts were
Others have blamed Australia's domestic tourism boom from Covid-19.
"People who normally vacation in Bali or elsewhere are now vacationing in Western Australia," says Dr. Simon Allen, Adjunct Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia's School of Biological Sciences.
"Regional tourism has exploded this year and the amount of recreational fishing and other uses of coastal waters has increased dramatically."
Whatever the reason, there seems little chance that the shark attacks will abate anytime soon – causing misery to more families like that of 46-year-old Nick Slater, who was first killed by a shark last month Australia's Gold Coast in more than 60 years.
One viewer described Slater being "as good as gone" by the time he was dragged back into the sand.
"Pretty much everything was taken from the groin to just below his knees," he said.
With such a visceral image, one could forgive many Australians for doubting whether it will ever be safe to get back into the water.
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