"People are shit-scared. And rightfully so. I’m avoiding my hometown at the moment. It’s probably the sharkiest place in the world right now. That’s the reality of it. We’re not dealing with tigers or bull sharks, either, we’re dealing with Great Whites that get hold of you and you don’t survive.” | Photo: Shark Smart

Australia’s Great White crisis: “Esperance is the sharkiest place in the world right now… these are big, big sharks…they’re eating humans like seals. It feels like we’re being hunted!”

"If people knew how many people are bumped off boards, how many Whites we’re seeing close to shore, they’d be shocked.”

Esperance surfer Mitch Capelli is an ordinary man, a teacher by trade, who has been thrust, by circumstance, into an anything but ordinary situation. 

His phone has been running real warm this past week, after surfer Andrew Sharpe, a popular Esperance local, was disappeared by a “monster” Great White in front of his pals last Friday at Kelpies, just outside of town. 

A buddy, Jan Golebiowski, who tried to save Sharpe, has his own history with Whites. His little brother Zac was hit by a ten-foot White in 2006, the animal taking his entire right leg.

In 2017, Capelli, who is twenty-seven, created Ocean Safety and Support, which has a centrist approach to Whites, after teenage surfer Laticia Brouwers died in front of her family after being hit by a Great White at Kelpies, the same place where, three years before, surfer, Sean Pollard, had an arm and another hand bitten off by a Great White in 2014.

The teen’s death was enough to spur Mitch into doing…something.

He wasn’t sure what that was going to be, just something.

Better to act, he figured, than watch more people die or be maimed, more families traumatised. 

Ocean Safety and Support aims to be that middle ground between those who believe the White is a unicorn whose existence on earth is proof that magic surrounds us and therefore the animal is sacred, and those who want to kill the bastards. 

Action has to happen, and now, says Capelli, not at some vague point in the future. 

When I interview Capelli he apologises at a few different points in the interview for becoming emotional, passionate. He admits to being rattled as fuck, too, spending the last three months chasing waves between in the north-west.

Anywhere but Esperance.

“(Great Whites) are affecting our way of life,” he says. “We’re losing friends, family and community members. It’s so hard to deal with. The government has a duty of care, it’s teetering on criminal negligence. It’s got to that point. I might sound unreasonable but people are dying and nothing is being done. Tagging and lights and sirens and buoys are not solving the problem.”

Kelpies, he says, “is such a beautiful spot. Everyone wants to be able to go, park the car on the beach, have a paddle, be free to enjoy what our beautiful coastline has to offer. But people are shit-scared. And rightfully so. I’m avoiding my hometown at the moment. It’s probably the sharkiest place in the world right now. That’s the reality of it. We’re not dealing with tigers or bull sharks, either, we’re dealing with Great Whites that get hold of you and you don’t survive.” 

Like a lot of surfers, fishermen, divers, Capelli blames the dramatic increase in interactions with Whites on the Australian government’s decision in 1999 to list the species as vulnerable and protect it in the waters of all States and Territories of Australia.

“They were never endangered in the first place,” says Capelli. “Obviously the population has exploded. It takes ‘em five to seven years to be sexually mature, then the females have between two and twelve pups every eleven months. That’s exponential growth. And really basic maths… the scary part is the worst is yet to come. What we’ve seen in Esperance is not surprising for most of us. This is our reality. As a young fella, one day I’m going to have a family of my own. I don’t want to bring up kids and not be able to put ‘em in the water. All the older fishermen in town, they don’t have their kids in the water. The schools are looking at ending diving, the aquatics program, surfing, it’s affecting every aspect of our lives… the recreational dive industry is dead and it used to be an international thing, we have some of the most beautiful dive locations in the world. The clearest water. The abalone divers are all in shark cages. Surfers want to ride a wave and they’re being hunted. That’s how it feels. If people knew how many people are bumped off boards, how many Whites we’re seeing close to shore, they’d be shocked.”

As I wrote a week or so ago, there has never been a period in human history when humans, divers, surfers, whatever, have been killed by Great Whites in such numbers as in 2020: seven deaths this year, four surfers, Rob Pedretti, Mani Hart-Deville, Nick Slater, Andrew Sharpe and three divers.


Capelli talks of his frustration at not being able to cut through at a governmental level, the Western Australian premier blowing off another surfer death as an example of the risk we face when jumping in the water.

“So many of the boys who were surfing with him are traumatised. They don’t know if they can go back in the water now. Psychiatrists are being organised to see those guys, what they witnessed was so messed up.”

I tell Capelli that as brutal as it is, it won’t be until the larger population gets a taste of what an attack looks like that attitudes will change, and reference the Vietnam War. If it wasn’t for the war photographers and writers like Micheal Herr, no one back in the US would’ve known a damn thing about the horror there. 

It’s the same with the footage of Nick Slater being hit by a White at the Superbank last month and Tadashi Nakahara bitten in half by a White at Ballina. Beach cams recorded it all. The owners of the footage were quick to disappear it. Well-intentioned, yeah, but if people saw what a White hit looks like? 

It’d change minds.

“It shouldn’t have to come to that,” he says. “Surely the fact that people are dying enough. I don’t think the stories need to be shared. They’re too gruesome.”

Well, that’s the point. I tell him I spoke to the surfer who fought the White off teenager Mani Hart-Deville, who says he won’t speak about what he saw out of respect for his family. 

“What I can say,” says Capelli, “is that they never had a chance. These are big, big sharks. It’s all over really quick. It’s not mistaken identity, not having one bite and letting go, but chomping ‘em in half, taking the whole body and gnawing on it until it’s gone. Eating it on the surface like it’s a seal. The mistaken identity thing, they don’t wanna attack, they don’t like humans, is bullshit, mate. Utter bullshit. They are are the apex, predator, opportunistic, ambush predators. If a feed is there, they’ll take it.”

I ask, what would you do, if you were given the keys to the State gov? 

“Drum lines instantly after an attack. Instantly. They just killed someone so therefore there’s a problem animal hanging around. Prevention requires intervention. If sharks are hanging around and showing signs of aggression, it should be removed. It won’t have any effect on populations. Their habitat is not threatened.”

After that, mitigation strategies, keep the number in check. 

It’s hard work and it ain’t paying the bills. 

Still, “No one else is doing it, fucking just doing it, man.” 

(If you want to get in touch with Ocean safety and Support or buy a trauma kit, click here.) 

"The only thing that worries me is my bosom. It’s there all right, and it sure looks good when I’m undressed, but I have a hard time making it count in a sweater or such. Most of the kids in Franklin High are a lot taller and have a lot more to show—but most of them wear those damn falsies that stick out all over the place and I’d rather be caught dead than be a phony about a thing like your bosom." Sandra Dee as Gidget, the movie.

Warshaw on best surf fiction ever written: “I’m really quite cute… the only thing that worries me is my bosom. It sure looks good when I’m undressed, but I have a hard time making it count in a sweater”

"Great surf characters rise up across the acres of surf fiction like wild mushrooms after a three-day rain, some delicious, others poisonous…"

There’s a lot of surf fiction out there, short and long, and damned if I can recall a single passage that gets anywhere close to a bullseye in terms of actual wave-riding.

Tim Winton’s Breath, maybe—the early chapters, before it all goes big-wave-life-or-death-psycho-sexual-triangle. But as a rule, you will sooner lasso a cat with a piece of string than you will capture the rush of a late drop at Sunset.

This is not unique to surfing, of course.

You also can’t write your way into the heartbreak of a song like “Caroline, No” —so take five, grab a Kleenex, and listen to Chrissie Hynde’s version from last year. My god. What a singer and what a song.

On the other hand, great surf characters rise up proudly across the acres of surf fiction like wild mushrooms after a three-day rain, some delicious, others poisonous, and I’d like to pay tribute to a few here.

My favorite (this week, anyway), is a 1950s big-wave leatherneck named Jonas Vandermeer, from A Native Son of the Golden West, by James Houston.

Part Buzzy Trent, part Sin City Mickey Rourke, we’re introduced to Joe in his rundown Waikiki hotel room as he greets Hooper Dunlap, an old friend who just flew in from the Mainland.

“Joe is twenty-one, has lived in the sun for eight years on California beaches wearing no more than he wears this morning, an old pair of striped golf knickers trimmed above the knee. And Joe has never tanned. Nor has he burned, or even reddened. The sun can do nothing to Joe’s skin but assault each layer till it flakes away and hope the one below is thinner or newer or somehow subject to change. But Joe’s skin has never changed, always dusty white, sprinkled with blond hairs and stretched over knots and clumps and welts of muscles hardened in his daily wrestle with the sea.

He says to Hooper, “You want to go in the water?”

“Can you get me a board?”

“Where’s yours?”

“I sold it.”

Jonas jumps up and stands over him, grimacing and blinking.

“Jesus Christ, Hooper, why’d ya do that?”

“I needed the money.”

Joe shouts, “That was a great board! A fantastic board!”

Joe paces for a few moments, then slaps a fist into his palm and observes the action of his triceps in the long mirror on the closet door across the room.

“I really feel good this morning. I feel like getting wet. You know how it feels after you take a good, quick, heavy dump?”


“Well, let’s get going then. You can use my extra board.”


Next up is Mike Freesmith, antihero of Eugene Burdick’s bleak political-noir debut novel The Ninth Wave.

This is what I’m talking about when I say it’s impossible to write about surfing itself, but very possible indeed to create a magnetic surfing character—who in this case (spoiler alert if you’re going to read the book) turns out to be a power-mad backroom politico psychopath.

Burdick went on to write a pair of Cold War best-sellers, The Ugly American and Fail-Safe, both of which were made into movies.

Burdick, to his credit, didn’t let the heaviness of the work weigh him down. Here he is table-top dancing in Papeete, Tahiti, 1960, four drinks beyond caring about domino theory or the Tito-Stalin split.


I’ve said it many times before, but the written version of Gidget is 75 times better than the character in the movie that you’ve all seen and kind of loved but mostly laughed at.

Gidget, really, is neither Kathy Kohner or Sandra Dee or Sally Field. Gidget belongs to Frederick Kohner, Kathy’s dad, a Czechoslovakian-born Nazi-dodging Jew who landed in California during World War II as a middle-aged adult and performed an act of American cultural absorption not far off the gold-standard mark set by fellow Euro ex-pat Vladimir Nabokov.

Gidget’s 16-year-old voice, as written by Kohner, is giddy and bright and confident; she is a cocooned and half-spoiled leading-edge Boomer, but losing her naivety by the week

“I’m really quite cute. I’ve real blond hair and wear it in a horsetail. My two big canines protrude a little which worries my parents a great deal. They urge me to have my teeth pushed back with the help of some crummy piece of hardware, but I’ve been resisting any attempt to tamper with my personality. The only thing that worries me is my bosom. It’s there all right, and it sure looks good when I’m undressed, but I have a hard time making it count in a sweater or such. Most of the kids in Franklin High are a lot taller and have a lot more to show—but most of them wear those damn falsies that stick out all over the place and I’d rather be caught dead than be a phony about a thing like your bosom. Imagine what a boy thinks of you once he finds out. And he finds out sure as hell the first time he takes you to a show.”


Gidget sidebar: there is so much more to Moondoggie than we ever knew.

Finally, I have not read many of the fiction classics, and at this late date who knows if I’ll even make the effort. I probably should. But after struggling through Herman Melville’s overstuffed take on surfing, it is as certain as the Manhattan waiting for me downstairs that I will never read Moby-Dick.


(Like Matt Warshaw’s flavour? This story comes from his weekly mail-out, called Wednesday Wrap, which is sent to all good surfers who cut three bucks a month to subscribe to his bottomless archive of surf history. Join here.)

Early Billabong ad with Joe Engel.

Billabong founder Gordon Merchant files “massive” lawsuit against tax firm; say bum advice cost him $58 million

Quite a hit…

Gordy Merchant, the one-time almost billionaire creator of surf brand Billabong, has launched a lawsuit, described as “massive”, at tax heavyweights Ernest & Young and one of its partners, blaming bum advice for costing him around fifty-eight mill. 

Merchant says the company’s advice on how to structure a company sale in 2015 got the Australian Tax Office on his tail, cost him thirteen mill in penalties and had him banned from running his self-managed super fund. 

And, although he hasn’t calculated the exact damages, these things take time as you might imagine, Merchant says it’s been about fifty-eight mill so far. 

The whole thing goes back to when Merchant sold out of bioplastics company Plantic in 2015 for fifty-four mill.

There was, according to Brisbane’s Courier Mail,

“A series of deals between Mr Merchant’s entities including his self managed super fund that he claims were done in accordance with specialist EY advice.

“Part of the deal included Mr Merchant transferring over 10m of his Billabong shares at a loss and writing off debts from cash he had loaned to Plantic. In 2017 the tax office audited the income tax affairs of Mr Merchant, his family trust and superannuation accounts and later looked into the deal.

“It last month declared Mr Merchant and his super fund owed about $45m in tax and interest and it also imposed penalties worth about $13m…Mr Merchant is claiming damages for breach of contract and negligence alleging EY should have known he was “vulnerable to suffering economic loss if EY failed to use reasonable care and skill” in structuring his affairs.” 

The most I’ve ever lost via dumb tax advice was thirty-six gees.

The accountant said set up a trust, do this, do that, pay this on that day, all will be good my brother don’t you worry about a thing, and then, a few months later, a letter came in the mail advising the thirty-six k figure. 

Called him and he denied everything. 

The first instance of gaslighting I’d experience although it wouldn’t be the last.

Funny world. 

Killer Whale (right) attempts to eat the tongue out of a human boy's head.
Killer Whale (right) attempts to eat the tongue out of a human boy's head.

Apocalypse Now: Killer Whales turn on humans, attack boats in revenge over injuries sustained by rudders!

Gird your loins.

2020 etc. etc. blah blah blah. And have we, the people, ever been so fractured (since 1977)? Republicans hating Democrats, policemen hating activists, Armenians hating Azeris, surfers hating SUPpers and, by extension, the Chief Executive Officer of our own World Surf League.

We, more than ever, need a common enemy and Covid-19 ain’t it. It’s too… esoteric and, let’s be honest, silly. But what about Killer Whales?

Could we unite to fight the great black and white?

They have united to fight us and do you recall reading here, just one month ago from today, that a pod of Killer Whales have teamed up and begun attacking boats in unison off the coasts of Spain and Portugal?

It was never-before-witnessed behavior and stumped scientists.

Until now.

For now, scientists believe that the Killer Whales were carrying out their orchestrated attacks (someone in the comments lambasted me for not using ORCA-strated under the original story and I almost retired then and there) as revenge over their Killer Whale brothers and sisters of getting whacked by rudders.

These un-stumped scientists told Great England’s The Guardian that, “The trigger for this strange and aggressive behaviour could have been an aversive incident that the orcas had with a boat, and in which the speed of the boat could have been a critical factor. For the moment, we have no clear evidence of when it happened, nor can we say for sure what kind of boat may have been involved, nor whether the incident was accidental or deliberate.”


The researchers added that as a result of possible injury by boat, the orcas “may have felt compelled to act when they saw a sailboat in order to slow it down by going after its rudder” — and adding “the killer whales could simply be toying with sailboats ‘out of curiosity’ now that they had discovered the ability to slow or stop a large moving object.”

Sounds like war.

Humans, gird your loins.

We’re back.

Surfboards and passion burn.

Surf-lit: “Surfing is pain. It shouldn’t be easy. Enlightenment through self-flagellation…”

"I look at guys walking down the beach with their new boards with forgiving rails, gentle rocker, subdued outlines. And I think to myself, they don't understand."

I rode my big board on the Point today. It was stormy, hot.

Summer weather. Dark clouds marched out to the horizon on the humid offshore breeze. The waves were only small but had a perfect angle. Little rights ran down the cobblestones almost to the keyhole.

Vulnerable learners pressed in against seasoned locals and chirping groms to get their slice.

I sat at the top of the pack, five metres further out, and had my pick.

I can do that on this board. I can do that because it’s my Point.

Let me tell you about this board though. She’s big. Fat. Brown and battered. It’s almost like she’s been shaped in reverse – a long narrow nose with hard rails that softens out into a fat ol’ ass. Less a tear drop then a honey blob.

She’s hard to paddle. Can’t turn for shit. Has an old school raised, fibreglass leash bridge that’s broken more feet than a Chinese slipper. But the roll-in-fade-to-bottom-turn, when one unlocks all the right elements, is better than any air reverse or cheese whiz.

When people ask me about the board I like to say, she’s ugly but she’s mine. And I pat her like a faithful dog.

That’s the secret, though. About this thing of ours. It shouldn’t be easy. Surfing is pain. Enlightenment through self-flagellation.

I look at guys walking down the beach with their new boards with forgiving rails, gentle rocker, subdued outlines. And I think to myself, they don’t understand.

That’s why I take any wave I want.

To hell with ‘em.

They just don’t understand.

Anyway I’m out on the Point and I see a guy with a board like mine. Big. Old. Ugly. Shit spray. A real dreadnought. I watch him get a couple, stalking the crowd, swooping in on his prey like a lion in the grass.

We paddle past each other and exchange a knowing nod. Krishna catching a glimpse of himself in the mirror.

Right on.

It comes time for my last wave. I wait for something special. One stands up on the indicator. Not the biggest wave of the day, but I can see in its line that it’s going to run.

I swing and begin to paddle. The crowds part, like they know they should.

All except for one.

The guy.

I see him turn and spin, too.

You can’t miss his board, even from a mile away. He drops in. On my wave.

Usually I’d be flicking my board at any interloper, aiming for their temple.

But not with this guy.

There’s something about him.

We ride the wave together, doing crossovers, bumping rails the whole time. Stern looks on our faces, eyes only down the line. But we vibe in each other’s presence. Connected on a different level.

Finally the wave closes out on the end section. We straighten out and I ride it in on my belly.

But not the guy.

Instead of heading for the key hole he rides his board up over the cobblestone rocks. I hear a crunch as he comes to a halt. He jumps off the board casually, confidently, like he’s done it a thousand times before.

That was great surfing, I say as we walk over the remaining rocks and up onto the sandy beach.

Thanks man.

I like your board.

Oh, this old thing. It’s a piece of shit. He throws it to the sand. But I love it.

Sounds like mine! I say. I paid $50 for it at a garage sale.

I found mine on the side of the road.


Check this out. He flips his board over to reveal three mis-matched FCS fins, all barely screwed in.

Oh yeah? I show mine – a home-made quad set up with two of the fins missing.


He smiles.

What about this?

He pulls off the gaffa tape wrapped across the nose to reveal the entire top couple of inches is completely snapped off.

I show him the same tape holding together what’s left of my board’s swallow tail.

We both laugh.

Yeah man, I don’t care about this board at all, he says. Or any of my boards. The shitter the better. Watch this.
He looks around as if to make sure no one is watching, then pulls a pocket knife from his leash and starts stabbing holes in the board.

Bam. Bam. Bam. 

Soon it looks like a piece of Swiss cheese. Bam!


I pick my board up and start punching it too. My knuckles quickly bloody, so that there’s little shards of fibreglass mottled into my skin.

Sah! Sah! 

I punch out the remaining fins.


The steady stream of people heading up and down the sandy point give us a wide berth, like a river diverting around an island.

To them we just look like  two guys beating up their surfboards.

But they don’t understand.

There’s a crack of thunder in the distance. The air charges with electricity.

We both take a break, and breath the atmosphere in.

Enlightenment through self-flagellation, I say. It’s the only way.

Then the guy says, How about this?

From nowhere he pulls out a lighter and some gasoline. He pours it carefully over his board, from taped up nose to thrashed out tail.

And then he sets it alight.

For a second the flames don’t take, as if they’re hesitating. Held back by some invisible force.

But then, whoosh. Off they go.

Unreal, I say again, and I throw my board onto the flames too.
It lights up quickly in the hot offshore wind.

We sit back in the sand and watch the conflagration. The smoke carries back out  across the line up. I can see the other surfers coughing and spluttering as the acrid fumes wash over them.

They don’t understand

A set rifles down the point unridden, the biggest of the day.

The gods must be pleased.

This is great, I say to the guy.

It’s so great, he responds.

This is what surfing is all about.

Then the clouds, so pregnant all afternoon, finally burst forth. We’re drenched in the downpour as the fire goes out.

The boards have burned down to a pulp now anyway. We bury what’s left of them in the sand.

Small shards still stick out, camouflaged in the yellow and brown morasse. Hopefully sharp enough to cut a foot open, or at least give someone a scare.

I nod to the guy and we go our separate ways. It feels strange walking back to the car in my board shorts with bloody knuckles and no board under my arm.

But that’s ok.

It was so good to meet this guy. So good to meet someone that finally understands.