Political correctness rules our lives these days and while I’m all for equal opportunity, what about the right to bite and be bitten? No, I haven’t crossed over to the twilight world of vampires, wooden stakes and werewolves, but where are equal rights when it comes to some of the wildlife which shares our great country?
Why is it considered acceptable for one or two species to regularly claim human lives, while another is hunted down and killed in retribution after what might be little more than a nip? If you are unlucky enough to be eaten or bitten by a creature of the sea, you are intruding in its territory, you knowingly took the risk, and the chances are very high the protected predator will be allowed to swim off in search of its next feed, the taste of a new and easy prey species fresh in its declared-innocent jaws.
Killer sharks have a great team of spin doctors. They mistook you for a seal, they say, or they didn’t really mean to bite you in half or rip your leg off. This must be a great consolation if you survive.
Crocodiles, another prehistoric killing machine, also seem to lead charmed lives, being usually relocated if they become a nuisance, despite repeated calls for a cull by the likes of federal MPs Bob Katter (Kennedy) and Warren Entsch (Leichhardt). Just like sharks, they are responsible for all too frequent attacks on humans, fatalities and near misses. According to Outback Australia Travel Secrets, “Saltwater crocodile attacks do happen in Australia on a regular basis. Most attacks are on pets and livestock, but unfortunately there also regular accidents involving humans, and about two per year are fatal.”
Don’t get me started on venomous snakes which, like great white sharks, are fully protected despite obviously abundant numbers and frequent bites to humans and our pets. Some of us can probably recall the days when an eastern brown or red-bellied black snake in the garage or laundry could be despatched with a .22 slug between the eyes. These days that would bring a huge fine and anyway, you’d have to be a bikie or a drug runner to have a gun within easy reach.
But then we have the other controversial bite situation; when a human is attacked by a dingo, even through negligence or stupidity, on Fraser Island (sorry, by a wongari on k’gari’ according to recent headlines) revenge is usually permanent. Shoot the dingo and its mate, consider another cull, place a cumbersome tracker around their necks … but aren’t we intruding on their territory too?
The answer is obviously yes and this lopsided set of values against Australia’s closest cousin to the wolf, befriended by indigenous tribes, has persisted for many years. Who gives a damn? Nobody much, apart from Facebook group, Save Fraser Island Dingoes Inc, whose stated mission is to conserve and protect the island’s dingoes.
Let’s take a step back and compare the risks. Yes, the dingoes have been frequently in the headlines recently, with the latest reported incident on August 26, when a woman walking alone was “nipped on the leg”. She was taken to Happy Valley settlement to treat “scratches on her thigh,” rangers were urging tourists not to walk alone and to carry sticks for protection.
There have been some more serious attacks and the dingoes do appear to be growing bolder, but maybe that’s because they are half-starved, with backbones and rib cages protruding on scrawny frames. Possibly, it’s a result of the devastating bushfire that was allowed to rage for two months, destroying 87,000ha of bushland and God knows how much native wildlife before finally being brought under control in October 2021.
But how many recorded dingo attack fatalities have there been? One in 2001, when a boy, 9, was killed on the island; before that in the whole of Australia, we have to look all the way back to 1980, when a young mother uttered that immortal line in the Ayers Rock camping ground, “A dingo’s taken my baby…” Those words from Lindy Chamberlain and her subsequent trial and conviction for murdering her own child, Azaria, divided the nation almost as much as the Voice debate, but those of us on Lindy’s side always believed in her innocence and celebrated her belated exoneration.
Now let’s look at sharks. According to trackingsharks.com there have been seven attacks so far this year in Australia, “zero provoked and two fatal”. The previous year there were nine attacks with one fatality, and in 2021 there were 24 attacks and three fatalities, with an average number of attacks over five years of 16.
There were no dominant species responsible, with wobbegongs, whites, tiger sharks, bull sharks and reef sharks all recorded.
I don’t buy the claim by some academics that sharks never really mean to bite humans, as some of the reported attacks involve the sleek predators returning for a second or third strike after they’ve obviously determined we are not seals or any other seafood. And I do have some skin in the game, having survived several close encounters in my younger days as a skin diver and spearfisherman up and down the East Coast.
Here’s my account of an incident near the only settlement in Australia to have a date as a place name,. the town of 1770, honouring the visit by James Cook back when it was accessible by a sandy track through the wallum and melaleucas:
The clear waters off Round Hill Head were home to mackerel, schools of barramundi, big cod and curious giant gropers that followed us around to see what these strange looking interlopers with facemasks and big flippers were up to in their territory…
Sometimes they came close, but they never acted aggressively and we were never tempted to spear them… However, the barra were a fitting target, with just one problem. They obviously considered sharks less of a threat, so they mingled with a pack of bronze whalers about 35 feet (10m) below us. My mate Elliot and I took turns, one “riding shotgun” (or speargun) while the other dived to spear a fish before returning to the rocks with a thrashing barra in tow.
That’s what I was doing when Elliot followed me and signalled me to surface. His face looked a whiter shade of pale.
“Mate, that was too bloody close for comfort!”
“ Er, what do you mean, I didn’t miss it”. The barra on my spear was about 20 lb (9kg).
“Not the bloody fish, the bloody shark …. Didn’t you see it?”
“I saw lots of sharks, about eight or 10, so what?”
“Well one of them came straight at you when you were heading in. I thought you were a goner, but it veered off just behind your flippers.”
“Nah, mate, I didn’t see that one!”
Ah well, the classic case of what you don’t see can’t hurt you, but on one break back on dry land I looked out over the water and saw newbie diver Bob perched on top of a rock outcrop just covered by the tide.
He waved his arms and yelled out, “ Help there’s effing sharks all around me”.
I tried to reassure him. “Just stay calm mate and swim slowly back to shore. If you don’t splash about, they won’t hurt you. We’ve been diving with them all morning.”
“No way, I’m staying put!”
Oh crap, we can’t leave Bob stuck out there, so I swam back out to him and coaxed him off the rock.
“Just follow me in, you’ll be right”.
And we were. The circling sharks kept their distance but that was the end of it for Bob. He packed his dive gear and sat and watched until it was time to make the long haul back up the hill and back to the road with the day’s catch…
But that Saturday night back at our regular watering hole, I knew I was in real trouble when my primed mates recounted the adventure in front of my pregnant wife: “That shark missed you by this much…”
John Mikkelsen is a former editor of three Queensland regional newspapers, columnist, freelance writer and author of the Amazon Books memoir, Don’t Call Me Nev.