A bite of life
“Isn’t it a bit sharky there?” my partner Coralie said to me a few days before the dive. I was quick to shrug it off, “the island is dived multiple times a week without incident! There’s sharks everywhere in the ocean and it’s extremely unlikely we’d see one.” Then I went on to recite how they’re more scared of us than we are of them, they’re intelligent and we’re not their prefered food, you’re more likely to be struck by lightning blah blah blah. The usual spiel most ocean lovers will deliver when asked about sharks in the ocean.
The island in question was Martin Island, Port Kembla, Australia. It’s about 1km offshore on the end of a string of intercontinental islands, known as Five Islands. Why did we want to dive there? Seals. Lots of seals.
I’d been on the shallow side of the island previously and had an incredible experience freediving with the seal colony. They’re playful and curious. Every whisker living up to the name, ’puppies of the sea’. When my mate Callum asked if myself and Coralie could make a boat trip to the island to freedive with the seals I was quick to sign us up. With a brand new camera and demo dive housing I was itching to capture some magic!
The sea was angry that day. An overcast sky and big swell had a foreboding feeling, but that was soothed with the easy banter from the dive crew. There was seven of us in total, Callum, Coralie and myself freediving, while the others were on scuba. Crammed into the Zodiac we bounced our way to Martin Island. Getting closer we found that the shallow side I’d previously dived was taking a beating from the northerly swell so we ducked around to other side to find it more protected. I looked over the side to see the deep royal blue of clean, clear water. Excited by the good conditions we rushed to drop anchor and pull out weight belts, masks, fins, final checks of the dive housing.
I look down between my kicking fins and see infinite blue. We’d dropped into deep water (~35m) and couldn’t see the bottom yet. I looked back up to our legendary boat captain and diver Avril who was still prepping her scuba gear, “time is 8:57, we’ll be back here at 9:45. We’ll just be in close with the seals. Enjoy!”.
Maybe sensing my nerves above the blue void, Coralie reached out her hand and we kicked over to the shoreline together. As we got closer to the island the seafloor rose up sharply to a more comfortable 10-15m. Suddenly large dark shapes startled hurtling towards us and we relax to see half a dozen seals begin to spiral through the water. Finally! I take a shallow test dive, point the camera for a few shots and I see Callum close by doing the same. Back on the surface I notice the shots were dark. Later I’d realise that at some point I’d switched the ISO from auto to 50, underexposing all my shots.
Motion to my left catches my attention and I turn to see a monstrous grey and white mass rushing into Callum. Grey and white? Not a seal. That fin? Not a seal. That tail? Not a seal. That size? Not a seal.
The one and only, the great white shark.
Frozen I watch as the shark pushes past Callum, spins 180 degrees, dives down, levels out and makes a wide and slow arc. As it moved away from Callum I raise my camera, point, hold the trigger and shoot four photos through the layer of bubbles on the surface until it disappeared. That was the last I saw of it.
In the brief seconds during the encounter I experienced a range of thoughts. First was awe. The size, power and speed is truly humbling. To see it move so effortlessly seemed beyond comprehension. Second was an almost scientific examination of the situation. The shark is leaving. Callum was treading water, no visible blood in the water, I assess that he was in fine physical condition. I mentally add check marks to the form. Conclusion? This is good. The shark had simply come in for a close look and figured out we’re not food.
The final and lasting feeling was deep and primal terror. Pure and all consuming, the message was clear; You’re in danger. Get out of the ocean. NOW.
I raised my head out of the water and screamed towards the boat. HEEEY! SHAAARK! I wave my arm and I can see all the divers on the boat looking at us. Coralie is close by and screaming too. The boat is anchored and I realise they won’t be coming over for a few minutes at least. That was a few too many minutes for me so I turned to the rocks covered in seals, and decide to gamble with the big swell and climb to safety. So I fled.
Head down I kicked as hard as I could to the rocks, paused to time a wave and with camera in hand I rode it up a to barnacle encrusted column. The wave sucked out from below me, leaving me clinging uselessly to the ledge as I await the next wave. Maybe all that hangboarding had a greater calling after all? The wave explodes from underneath, pushing me higher until I’m crawling on a slimey rock shelf, finned feet dragging behind me. I drop the camera on a corner and pull my fins off, looking back into the ocean. Callum and Coralie saw me take the first wave up to the rocks and were quick to follow suit. I meet them halfway down, pulling Coralie out of the water as she was tumbling over the rocks. Callum popped up nearby, I offer a hand and he passes me the camera and pulls himself up to safety.
Up on the shelf we embrace. Callum is laughing. Coralie is crying. I feel sick. The rocks around us are bleached with acrid seal piss and the bones of fish, birds and seals fill the cracks. Out to sea is the entire seal colony we’d just scared into the ocean. Packed together the flotilla moves out as one unit. I scan for sign of the shark but can see nothing.
We take inventory. Limbs are intact, wetsuits are torn from the battle up the rocks and Coralie and Callum are missing a lot of gear. The waves had ripped Coralie’s fins and mask off her. I look to Callum and he explained that the shark had bitten his fin when it came in, taking it straight off his foot. It wasn’t until later in the day when I looked back at the photos I saw his foot clearly without a fin as the shark pulls away.
The boat swoops in but can’t get close enough to hear us. We do our best hand signals and indicate that we’re going to walk to the other side of the island so Avril can pull the boat in closer. We pick our way past pools of seal piss and notice the gangly pink pelican chicks on the ridge above us. Big waves crash up and down the cliff edges and we try to look for a safer spot to jump to the boat. Avril sweeps in close but risks brushing up against the rocks and we realise we’ll have to swim.
Perched on the edge of the rocks we watch the water, everyone alert for shadows and fins. Nothing. Avril swoops past and Callum makes a leap for the boat, divers onboard pulling him quickly in. Still nothing. Sobbing, Coralie jumps on the next pass and is pulled in. The boat makes one last pass and I jump in, reaching the boat to be pulled out as well.
Now almost 2 months after the incident I’ve done a lot of reflection on the attack. Mainly on two things; Why Callum was attacked and how we reacted.
So, when the shark came in to bite Callum, it bypassed Coralie by swimming underneath her. Callum was in a dark navy wetsuit, with black fins. Whilst Coralie and myself had green/purple/blue fins and a half blue camo/black wetsuit. Did Callum look more like a seal hence it went after him? From my research it seems that the answer is inconclusive, but some divers choose to avoid dark colours in white shark territory. I’ll be doing the same in the future.
The year before I’d seen a presentation by Kimi Werner, who’s incredible spearfishing talents gained international renown after she was filmed holding the dorsal fin of a huge white shark. Her advice when dealing with sharks was to show that you’re a predator, and not prey. When she first saw the white shark she immediately swam towards it, as prey wouldn’t react that way. It’s like when you’re little and you’re told not to run away from a dog, as their instinct is to chase. On a similar sentiment from spearos who deal with sharks regularly, you should try to appear threatening to the shark. They’re intelligent and cautious, so unlikely to risk injury for a feed. If you stay together, don’t run away and when one gets too close you poke it with your speargun, you’ll appear threatening and the shark is less likely to see you as food. It’s a total bluff, as the shark is apex in the ocean and could properly fuck you up if it decided you were food.
So what did I do in the heat of the moment? Despite having played the scenario out in my head countless times beforehand, I totally forgot all training and advice. To be fair, from speaking with shark experts about the incident, this wasn’t a ‘normal’ encounter. There was no slow pass to come check us out, it was a full on and literally out of the blue ‘I think you’re food so I’ll have a bite’. I regret not grouping up and failing to communicate that I was escaping to the rocks. Straight after the attack Callum swam up to Coralie and when he couldn’t see me he assumed that I’d been taken by the shark, which caused further panic.
So how can I take this forward as a positive learning experience? A close call freediving and a broken leg rock climbing all within the past 6 months has made me look closely at my assessment of risk. Am I unlucky or doing inherently high risk activities? Terribly unlucky it seems, but I’ll be adjusting the way I operate in the outdoors from now on. When I’m freediving/spearfishing/climbing I want to make sure that the worst case scenarios, likelihood and course of action are regularly discussed. I believe that keeping that conversation routine will help reduce the severity of the shock response and hopefully the response will be more calm and collected than frenzied panic.
Finally, all advice is from my own reading and personal anecdotal evidence. Make up your own mind! I wrote down this experience and my reflections as a means to deconstruct, and hopefully overcome, a deeply traumatic experience. I don't want it to influence people to go and hunt down sharks, or give up their ocean passions. My views are that sharks play a crucial role in maintaining our ocean ecosystems and aren't malevolent monsters wishing death upon humans. However, it is their domain we're intruding and the bottom line is that we have to respect that. Since the attack I've been freediving a few times, and the fear is slowly being overcome with the same old wonder and awe I've always felt.
Chase the psyche and it will lead you well 🤙