Researcher puts in a good word for Sydney Harbour’s much-feared sharks

Shark bite victim Lauren O’Neill thanked heroic neighbours and first responders for saving her life in a statement written from her hospital bed.

Lauren O’Neill is likely to make a full recovery after suffering a serious bite to her leg while swimming near a jetty at Sydney’s popular Elizabeth Bay at dusk on Monday.

The horrific attack was the first serious shark incident inside the Harbour since 2009, when navy diver Paul de Gelder lost a leg and a hand to a bull shark.

NSW Minister for Agriculture Tara Moriarty said after assessing O’Neill’s injuries, the state government’s shark scientists declared a bull shark was also likely behind this week’s incident.

Scientists warn that climate change is altering the territory patterns of some shark species.

Many Sydney beach lovers have declared they will not be put off swimming in the Harbour after the attack, but others are not so sure.

Is it safe?

So are the waters of Australia’s largest city safe to swim?

While the water of Sydney Harbour may look calm, it covers an active ecosystem teeming with life.

Wildlife scientist Vanessa Pirotta described it is a diverse marine environment with a variety of marine creatures, from fur seals to dolphins, penguins to sharks, and occasionally whales.

“Living within close proximity to these waters means humans and wildlife have the potential to overlap in their movements,” she said.

Bond University associate professor of environmental science Daryl McPhee said it’s not unusual for sharks to be in Sydney Harbour, particularly during summer and early autumn when the water temperature is above 20 degrees.

The period of time bull sharks spend in the harbour will also likely increase as water temperatures warm further due to climate change.

“Bull sharks are one of the few species of … shark that’s quite happy in rivers and inshore areas,” McPhee said.

“That’s part of their habitat. Whereas tiger sharks and white sharks, the other two species that are mostly associated with serious bites and fatalities, are generally on beaches or offshore areas.

“The risk of a shark bite anywhere is low, and the risk hasn’t changed from this week compared to last week. It was just a terrible accident that happened to the young woman.”

Shark bite versus attack

Rebecca Olive, RMIT University vice-chancellor senior research fellow, agreed the chance of a shark attack or bite is low – and there is a difference between the two.

While acknowledging O’Neill’s injuries were serious and publicly-available details of this week’s event are sparse, Olive said it’s likely O’Neill received a bite, not an all-out attack.

“[Sharks] don’t have hands to feel something out and see what it is; what they do is bite in order to sate their curiosity of what an object is,” she said.

“Shark bites can have very big consequences for people because they’ve got jagged teeth, and they’re much stronger than us.

“So they are going to do damage, but the shark isn’t intentionally always hunting a person and trying to kill them.”

Informed choices

While some people might be hesitant to wade back out into Sydney Harbour in the wake of this week’s event, Olive said drone footage over recent years shows shark-human encounters are more common than previously thought.

Most end peacefully.

“Now when I’m swimming, the main images I see are of sharks  … nosing at someone’s feet, checking [them] out from behind, and most of the time swimming away,” she said.

“There is a risk of bites as well … but I don’t think there is an absolute here.”

Olive said just as Australian children are taught what to do when they encounter spiders or snakes, more education is needed around encounters with marine life.

For example, it is generally advised to avoid swimming at dawn, dusk and night, as sharks can be more active during these times.

Swimmers should also avoid murky water, as sharks may be more prone to biting if they’re having a hard time seeing objects and are curious.

If people want to swim in those circumstances, they should at least be educated and aware of the risks.

“The only way to fully avoid a shark bite is to not go in the ocean, and I’m not advocating that for anyone,” Olive said.

“For me, the choice was ‘Do I want to give up swimming because I’m afraid of a shark bite or being killed by a shark?’

“The answer for me, and the answer for someone else might be different, was I want to be able to keep swimming and using ocean.”

Stay informed, daily
A FREE subscription to The New Daily arrives every morning and evening.
The New Daily is a trusted source of national news and information and is provided free for all Australians. Read our editorial charter
Copyright © 2024 The New Daily.
All rights reserved.