Sean Doherty: The Question of Flight or Fight When It Comes To Great Whites

24 Aug 2020 12 Share

Sean Doherty

Senior Writer

Photo: Elias Levy

Photo: Elias Levy

COASTALWATCH | SEAN DOHERTY

The Wilson-Greenough Effect

Three fatal great white attacks this winter on the east coast, followed by two further white attacks recently – one at Bunker Bay WA last week, one at Port Macquarie last weekend, both victims fortunately surviving – feel darkly familiar. We’ve been here before and we still have September and October to go, notable months for surfer/white interactions as the whale migration moves south down the east coast.

The reporting of them has almost felt matter of fact. The usually ghoulish preoccupation mainstream news has with shark attacks seems to be waning. The attacks this winter have been reported on the day, but then the news cycle has moved on to some other outrage. It probably says as much about the current state of the news cycle as it does the increase in attacks, but recently even the focus of the reporting has changed.

The attacks themselves have become less newsworthy – the shark attacking the surfer. The focus of the recent reporting has actually flipped. Bulletins in the past would lead with, “Shark Attack”, “Shark Horror” and “Shark Frenzy”. The weekend attack at Port Macquarie was led by, “Husband Attacks Great White Shark.”

During the recent run of attacks, there has been a common theme. All four attacks on surfers have seen nearby surfers paddle over to intervene… while the shark has still been circling aggressively. When Rob Pedretti was attacked at Casuarina in early June, two nearby surfers had to fight off the shark as it shadowed them across the inshore gutter. When Mani Hart-Deville was hit by a white north of Wooli and dragged underwater, another surfer raced over and on the third attempt managed to spear the shark with the nose of his board, forcing it to let go of the teenager. Both rescues above were sadly in vain.

More recently, the Bunker Bay attack saw a white “as big as a Landcruiser” hit 28-year-old local, Phil Mummert, blowing his surfboard to pieces. When he resurfaced, the tail of the board was floating between him and the shark. He used it to hit the shark, following up with his fists before it slunk back into the water and began circling him. It was then that three nearby surfers paddled over as a group, threw Phil on one of their longboards, and clustered together as they paddled him a hundred metres to shore. Alex Oliver, Liam Ryan and Jess Woolhouse showed otherworldly calm and bravery.

On 9.30am last Saturday morning, 35-year-old Chantelle Doyle was grabbed on the right leg by a juvenile three-metre white while surfing Shelley Beach, a town beach in Port Macquarie. The hero in this case was her husband, Mark Rapley who jumped on top of the shark and started swinging. The shark released, and with the help of fellow surfers he got his wife to the beach where a legrope was used as a tourniquet. Again, Chantelle was taken to hospital and stitched up. She’ll recover.

As white attacks on surfers have become more common in recent years, the collective psychology in the water has shifted. In times past, a shark in the lineup – let alone an aggressive shark with a surfer in its sights – would be the cue for everyone else in the water to scatter. Primal instinct. Flight over fight. Surfers had been conditioned their whole lives to get the fuck outta there when a shark shows up. What’s happening now is sign of a psychological shift in surfers generally.

Personally, my epiphany came two decades ago when interviewing a South African freediver who’d recently become famous for swimming amongst big whites. Not only was he not getting eaten… he was patting them like pet dogs. Free swimming with whites is more common these days but was unthinkable back then. When I asked him what advice he had for surfers confronted at close quarters with a white in the lineup, he said, “Bru, don’t run from it. All its food runs from it.”

A more recent and more high-profile moment popularised the idea of fight over flight. When Mick Fanning was bumped by a white during the J-Bay final five years ago, the remarkable aspect of it was not only that it was happening, not only that he survived without a scratch, but that in the corner of the frame Julian Wilson was paddling toward Mick and the shark, and not the other way. As the rum commercial soon after would say, “Who swims toward a shark attack?” Julian Wilson, that’s who. And so The Wilson Effect was born.

It crystallised a shift in thinking that was already well underway back at home in Australia. At the same time, both the Ballina-Byron stretch on the North Coast and over at Margaret River were subject to a series of rolling encounters between surfers and sharks. For a while there it felt every few weeks some guy was getting nudged and harassed by a teenage white. Surfers were forced to confront the scenario in their own minds: “What would I do if that was me?”

On this front, they were out on their own. The best formal advice anyone in charge would offer were the same old maxims that have been offered for decades – don’t surf at dawn and dusk, don’t surf near rivermouths or baitfish, don’t surf in dirty water on overcast days. Not only did it seem these no longer strictly applied – most of the white attacks in that period happened out of the blue in clear water, on sunny days – but they didn’t help you much if you suddenly found yourself staring into the bottomless black eye of a white. There was no guidebook for that.

The thinking of surfers on this front changed organically. Conversations were happening between surfers at beaches around the country, comparing survival strategies. What would you do? Punch it in the nerve centre on the nose. Go for the eyes. All that stuff. These strategies had to evolve quickly and a radical, counterintuitive line of thinking soon gained traction. Its origin is hard to pinpoint, because no one in any kind of official authority was ever going to tell you to paddle toward a shark.

George Greenough meanwhile was telling anyone who’d listen. George has been ahead of the curve on several fronts for the past 50 years, but this was maybe his most radical proposition. But George knows sharks. He’s fished off Byron since he moved there in 1970, and has also splashed around on his mat, wearing flippers, impersonating great white prey for decades while surfing in the shark lanes under Cape Byron, surviving a number of close calls.

We published a catalogue of his close encounters in Surfing World a few years back, half a dozen of them. Lennox beachie, Seven Mile, Wategoes. George coolly recounted all the details… no emotion, just science and fish psychology. Exact location, water temp, water clarity, sun position, shark speed, shark trajectory, shark behaviour, all in detail. Most pointedly however, he unpacked his own actions. Why he did what he did. He thinks about the behavioural dynamics at play between the two animals – him and the shark.

George is a pretty highly evolved aquatic animal himself. He’s spent his whole life in – and on – the water, and he’s had more close quarter encounters with whites than pretty much any surfer ever. While his first instinct – like anyone’s – is always to get out of there, when that hasn’t been an option he’s developed his own strategies to deal with the shark. He stays vigilant. If there’s one around he keeps his eyes locked on it. If it’s coming at him he holds his ground and faces it. He’s aware of other surfers and where they are in relation to him and the shark. If there’s another surfer around he’ll try and cluster together to make a bigger outline. George has pretty good survival instincts in the water. He’s still here.

The recent attacks have had George calling me to debrief. Saturday afternoon about 2pm, after a surf and before the gardening. He’s been watching what’s been happening lately. He’s been encouraged to see surfers holding their nerve when these encounters have happened and getting the victim to shore. Conditioning yourself as to how you’d react when confronted by a circling white is one thing, staying ice cool and actually pulling it off when the shark is a board length away is another.

George is concerned however about the run of attacks. He’s worried that white numbers are on the rebound and that these encounters are becoming more common. He knows you can be prepared, but in some cases it won’t matter.

Video: George Greenough on the Innermost Limits of Pure Fun

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