Shark sightings near Victoria’s beaches are at higher levels this summer than previous seasons. One day it's Great Whites forcing the closure of a popular surf beach, and the next it's a blue shark washing up on St Kilda Beach.
Marine ecologist Dr Kirby Smith says as long as people exercise caution and respect for the ocean, this is nothing to be overly concerned about. She says the risk of being attacked is relatively low as humans are not a shark’s natural food source.
Smith says it’s possible sharks are coming closer to shore in search of food – a consequence of overfishing – but also adds that the rise in sightings may be due to more vigilant monitoring during such a hot summer (and therefore more people in the water) rather than higher shark numbers.
“In Victoria, there’s not really such a thing as a ‘shark season’,” she says. “Because Victorian waters remain relatively cool all year-round, sharks are always there, we just don’t always see them.” As an example, further north, sharks – such as populations of grey nurse sharks – do migrate up and down the east coast in response to changing ocean temperatures.
Fisheries Victoria speculated that wind conditions and ocean currents may have brought schooling bait fish closer to shore, attracting sharks that are already in the area to mate. These fish may also have thrived in the nutrient-rich waters caused by heavy rainfall in Victoria in late-December.
Large predatory sharks like Great Whites do swim in water near Victorian surf beaches exposed to Bass Strait, as do Bronze whalers, which have been sighted in large numbers recently and are potentially dangerous to humans.
While sharks capable of doing serious damage to humans may occasionally turn up in bay beaches, Smith says Port Phillip Bay tends to be home to less dangerous species such as sevengills and gummies, in addition to benign bottom-dwelling sharks such as wobbegongs and catsharks.
On the rare occasions when humans are attacked by sharks, it is often the result of an “exploratory bite or bites,” says Smith, who’s also an experienced diver. “If someone does die from a bite, very rarely are they eaten by the shark, but instead die from blood loss.”
If you are unlucky enough to be attacked, Smith says you can punch the animal’s sensitive snout, grab at its eyes, or poke any equipment you might have (such as flippers or a spear gun) in its direction to try and deter it.
Though your chances of being attacked by a shark are slim – and of dying from an attack, slimmer still (the last confirmed person to die from a shark attack in Victoria was in 1956)– you can keep track of shark sightings on the VicEmergency website or download the app.
“Sharks are as wary of us as we are of them,” Smith says. “But beachgoers need to exercise caution and common sense.”