A few days before leaving for my school expedition to Australia, a heartbreaking story emerged about 150 dead whales which had washed up on one of the beaches that we were planning to visit. If this wasn’t bad enough, I read an article that urged tourists and locals to stay out of the water – because sharks were attracted to the scent of the beached whales. As you can imagine, this was not good news for me – I was terrified of being eaten whole by a shark. Statistically, this isn’t likely – only one person died in 2017 due to a shark attack. But nevertheless, when my trip-mates and I were discussing the possible outcomes of this tragedy, I found myself wondering what impact the large shark numbers truly had on the locals and the environment.
While doing some preliminary research, I found that there had already been numerous conflicts over the shark issue in Western Australia. In 2013, the Western Australian Premier Colin Barnett and then Fisheries Minister Troy Buswell made public their intention to bait and kill tiger, bull and great white sharks using drum lines. This outraged the local communities, who despite having complained about the large shark numbers, pressured the government to find other alternative solutions to the shark problem. The conflict received international attention from the media and brought the Western Australia shark issue into the public eye. Since then, sharks have been demonized and hunted even further.
What does this really mean? On the second last day of our trip, we met a retired, world famous surfer, who had had many close encounters with sharks. When asked what his opinion was on the issue, he told us that when we go into the water, we enter their home. It’s their habitat – and whereas they can be scary, sharks are actually gentle creatures who hardly attack humans unprovoked. In fact, on numerous occasions, he had had a close run-in with sharks that simply swam away. It seems as though the shark-issue has been blown way out of proportion by the media.
Whereas my group never actually saw any sharks, we saw first-hand something we didn’t expect: a dolphin had washed up on the beach where we were planning to surf. The dolphin looked peaceful – but we were all shocked. It put a damper on the whole trip – because just the previous day we had seen happy dolphins, playing and jumping up out of the water. However this experience came with a perhaps ironic realization – nature is beautiful. Not always in the common sense, but beautiful nonetheless. There is a perfect balance under the sea. There are predators – like sharks – for a reason, and they are part of the ecosystem. They may not be as gentle as puppies or as cute as kittens, but they play their own part in keeping the planet alive. Not so scary anymore, huh?