A nervous dip in shark waters

02:03, Feb 20 2012

The water is an almost impossible blue, the sand dazzling. Humpback whales gradually motor past like container ships, their shiny black backs reflecting sublime afternoon sunshine.

It is hard to imagine Bunker Bay, in Western Australia's south-west, as a spot of unbridled terror.

But just a couple of months ago, it became the site of a deadly great white shark attack. It was one of four fatal shark attacks in Western Australia in the past 14 months. Australia usually averages about one shark attack death each year.

Given this bloody recent history, anyone who travels to the state yearning to jump into the Indian Ocean could be considered somewhat mad.

I know Melbourne, my home town, can be deadly too. We have syringe lotto on St Kilda beach and King Street drunks, but surely just sniffing an ocean breeze in Western Australia is more dangerous than those combined.

The West Australian government must think so. It announced a $14 million package to reduce the risk of shark attacks earlier this month.


Nevertheless, I was unperturbed when I decided my WA escape had to include a significant amount of beach time. I decided to follow the basics of shark attack mitigation: don't enter the water at dawn or dusk (incidentally, also when you should steer clear of King Street), avoid storms and overcast weather, and stay out of the ocean if seals or schools of fish are about.

I was uneasy before my plane even landed. Having being told of heavy rain in Perth that night, I feared sharks may have commandeered the tarmac.

I negotiated the airport and on my first West Australian morning ventured to Cottesloe, the darling of Perth beaches. Another swimmer disappeared, presumed taken by a shark, at the beach last month.

Ominously, the beach is deserted when I arrive. I conclude that it could not possibly be because it's 9am on a Tuesday, with a vicious onshore wind and stubborn rain.

The resplendent Indiana Tea House lies dormant, keeping a silent watch over the beach which once provided countless customers.

Pondering the empty waves, I pick up the local paper. But it provides no respite from the shark fear. Apparently two were sighted, this time IN...A...RIVER.

I bravely decide to go for a jog around the Swan River, keeping a careful eye on the banks (perhaps sharks are amphibious here) and convincing myself the Fremantle Football Club theme song blasted from Marshall stacks five metres below the water would be enough to keep GWS (great white sharks) at bay.

I complete my jog but stay well clear of the river's edge, fearful my increased heartbeat could signal that I'm easy prey. I decide it's best to stop breathing all together until I'm at least 100 metres away.

Feeling better, if not slightly dizzy, my mind wanders to Rottnest Island, and my last visit to the magical land of the quokka. Three years ago, I snorkelled gleefully in several bays, dipped at a few other beaches, and longingly watched the outer reefs imagining their potential for waves.

Less than a month ago, another swimmer was killed on one of those very reefs about 500 metres off Little Armstrong Bay. And just last week the beaches on Rottnest were closed for several hours after a two-metre shark was sighted.

Perhaps my Rottnest exploits this time around will be a bit different. Maybe I should become a fully fledged West Australian and just grope sand for the day.

But with the sand unresponsive to my caresses, and the blistering sun making the water no less inviting, I ruefully grab my snorkel and plod slowly towards Little Salmon Bay. The name of the bay itself is troubling. Do I want the salmon to be so small that sharks aren't attracted at all? Or I do I want them to be a decent size so any feasting beast leaves satisfied?

The question unanswered, and my snorkel mask freshly spat in, I dipped my toes in the deep blue before ungracefully becoming fully submerged.

Breathing underwater, I now feel more vulnerable. I am in their world.

Fish move past, some seemingly pausing longer than others. Are they trying to tell me something?

The salmon seem an almost perfect entree size. Concerning.

I am the only person in the water, and can see nothing beyond 15 metres in front of me. That's not far for a five metre, one-tonne shark to cover. Especially if they come from behind.

Still I swim, getting deeper, the marine life around more gripping with every stroke. How does such a kaleidoscope of coloured fish exist on the same backdrop?

I dive down, watching large slack cod reclining on the ocean floor and under rock shelfs.

I forget about perfectly designed teeth disembowelling me nonchalantly. I just float, being taken where the ocean wants.

Several days earlier, while overlooking Bunker Bay from Cape Naturaliste lighthouse, I had discussed how unlucky shark attack victims were with my guide.

"Even if you went surfing by yourself at dawn while there was a storm and seals in the water and you'd stuffed your wetsuit full of meat, you'd still be rough if a shark got you," I said.

She had smiled nervously, in a "I really hope he isn't going to do that but he might because he's a strange man from the east" kind of way.

Snorkelling at Rottnest Island, the water perfectly warm and a menagerie of fish for company, I know who the unlucky ones are. It is those who don't jump in at all.

The Age