Letter from Byron: Living with shark paranoia.
Life as a surfer in a town where getting hit by a Great White ain't just a hypothetical.
One of my duties as Ballina Shire’s third best but busiest part-time surf journalist, maybe the most pleasureable, is engaging in back and forths with BeachGrit Principal Derek Rielly.
The man, as evidenced by his tete a tetes with Matt Warshaw and Louie Samuels, is the best back and forther in the business. I like to taunt DR with images of perfect surf and he, I think, likes to keep tabs on me during late-night coverage of international surf contests. Making sure I’m on the tools etc etc and not skiving off and making up the story by cribbing others people’s words and styles, as some surf journalists are wont to do.
Couple of days ago I sent him a pic of a perfect head-high left wedge breaking in a remote rainforest clad cove with nekkid gals glossy as seals frolicking in the shorebreak. No one out. If Lewis Samuels could describe Kelly’s machine wave as having a sacred dimension then you would be justified in describing the phenomenology of surfing this joint as numinous. Needing to get the tub stink off me I surfed solo, describing the experience to DR as perfect, save for the aroma of shark paranoia which haunts the beaches here.
He said, “Please describe”.
I do thusly.
There are two steep tracks down, whichever one you choose, should you choose to surf alone, you won’t be getting back up with half a leg chewed off. If you get bit, you’ll fade to grey on this beach right here, surrounded by paradise. I chose the northern track, a sketchy slide down a crumbling rock cliff, so I could get a good aerial view of the left and adjacent rocks. Any shapes, bait balls, strange water movement could be inspected. The water was clear, which used to be a sign of safety until Paul Cox, then Tadashi, then Matt Lee all got chomped in sunshine and clear water.
The paddle out is joy, a little conveyor belt ride out in a rip next to the rocks, eyeballing lefts sucking off the sandbar. The waves ride so punchy and fun, easy speed off the wedge, a turn or two, a closeout smash, a backdoor tube, the fins out on the coping. Perfection, as it turns out, is not monolithic. The gals have robed up, disappearing like ants single file into the jungle track, still long minutes away from Instagramming the shots, sexting lovers. Too late anyhow, for interlopers to arrive before dark.
I am, as the saying goes, alone with the perfect wave and my thoughts. The mind games begin. A stupid voiceover intrudes, it’s recurring: The attack when it came was swift and brutal. I can push it away with a counter-vailing thought: fuck off you drama queen. That suffices for a while.
I look around. Nothing. Water, swishing around the rocks, afternoon glare, the shadow line from the high cove is moving towards me. A perfect place for an ambush predator to cruise. This I know.
The strategy is, if you are being circled to slowly motor towards the shark, let it know there’ll be a face off. That’s not made up. You can’t face what you can’t see.
Whatever happens, I don’t want to get ambushed. Don’t want to get hit from behind. I lift my legs up and lay on the board, but now I can’t see. I’m too low down to the water. If you can see, you’ll survive. The strategy is, if you are being circled to slowly motor towards the shark, let it know there’ll be a face off. That’s not made up. You can’t face what you can’t see.
Something moving rapidly on the periphery of my vision startles me. A surge of adrenalin as I swivel to face it. It’s just a juvenile gannet, mottled grey, gliding at sea level from behind the rocks. It looked like a fin for a microsecond.
Another wave ridden, this time I paddle back out slowly with one arm, trying to look behind me into the glare and the shadow line. It’s not accurate to describe this state of heightened arousal as fear. I’ll jam this fucking board straight down it’s throat I think. But then, remembering the last guy at Cobblestones, the shark came back after he speared it. Fanning lost his board, the stoner from Denmark lost his board. My strategy seems weak if it involves a swim. I want a new strategy but I can’t think of one.
A good friend was one who dragged Tadashi’s legless body to the beach. He fell into death quickly, while they tried to hold onto him. This friend, a type common in this area, harder, fitter and more competent at 50 than they are at 20, fell to pieces. A year later he was fat, sagging, lifeless eyes.
A piping bird song comes out of the bush and I pay attention to it, to take my mind off it.
Is the paranoia justified?
I knew both.
A good friend was one who dragged Tadashi’s legless body to the beach. He was grey, still conscious, he fell into death quickly, while they tried to hold onto him. This friend, a type common in this area, harder, fitter and more competent at 50 than they are at 20, fell to pieces. A year later he was fat, sagging, lifeless eyes. He’s come back now, I’m happy to say. But it was a long road.
Matt was grey when they got him to the beach, ripped to pieces. By a miracle the chopper was close by and carrying reserves of blood. He died three times on the chopper ride, and again at the hospital. In a small town these incidents linger deep and last long.
Three times I have been bumped. The first at a reefbreak in the Marshall Islands. A closeout, non surf spot in front of a cemetery and abandoned war dump. Nothing more than dodging coral heads after 21 days at sea. Duckdiving, some huge mass that felt like a bar fridge had been thrown at me, knocked me off the board. Beside me a chunky blacktip accelerated away. It took me half the paddle in to feel my leg, but it was all still there.
Twice at Lennox Point, once way out the back I was swirled at ultra close range by a white, that dragged me off my board by the whirlpool it created. Then down the inside section when the mullet were running I got bumped hard underwater last May. A bull, I would think. Fair play when the mullet are thick.
I sat on the gunwhale reading a book when the engineer came and gave me a big shove overboard. We’d been having an argument about sharks and his view was that whalers were basically timid and shy. So he pushed me into a school of them to prove the point.
Another time on the FV Alliance, an 85foot steel hulled trawler a hundred nautical miles north of Groote Eylandt in the Gulf of Carpentaria, I was cleaning nets with 40-50 whaler sharks all burleyed up. Finishing, I sat on the gunwhale reading a book when the engineer came and gave me a big shove overboard. We’d been having an argument about sharks and his view was that whalers were basically timid and shy. So he pushed me into a school of them to prove the point.
Amongst his tears of laughter he shouted, “your book! Get your book!”. I went back in and got it. It was a paperback of Nietzsches’ Twilight of the Idols. No way to replace that a thousand miles from the nearest bookshop.
All of which is to say, sharks are not the unknown to me. My fear is not irrational.
But I don’t want to end up like Tadashi. Or Matt, or the guy at Cobblestones. A minor leg bite, probably would be good for business, but who could engineer that?
Good to get the feet back on the sand. Euphoric even. Booze and drugs can destroy a man. But so can the routine of soft options. Danger, real or imagined, sharpens the mind wonderfully.