Some man-eaters can take a human at one bite. Others require two. A punch in the nose may deter them
LESLIE F. HANNONFebruary11949
Some man-eaters can take a human at one bite. Others require two. A punch in the nose may deter them
LESLIE F. HANNON
IT’S SUMMER now along the great beaches of eastern Australia and hundreds of thousands of surfers get into the Pacific at every opportunity. The sharks are waiting out there, just beyond the breaker line. Every year the metropolitan newspapers of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane carry the screaming headline, “Shark Tragedy.” Australians read the horrible details, then gaily dash down the beach for another plunge.
Throughout the South Pacific the man-eating shark is a deadly menace to ocean bathers. These monster fish, however, don’t always stay in warm southern seas. Attacks on humans in North American waters are rare, but tragedies in the Gulf of California and on the Massachusetts coast are near enough to Canada to be taken as warnings.
, The shark danger is generally accepted by the Australian surfer with a shrug of the shoulder.
“Thousands surf every week end,” he says. “It’s just stiff luck if your number comes up.” The Australian Government takes a less casual view. Its shark fishermen—the equivalent of our predator hunters—set mesh nets off the beaches during the summer months. Some of the most popular beaches have permanent nets strung on cables, all have shark observation towers equipped with alarm bells, and ambulance men stand by to rush mangled victims to hospital.
It will come as a surprise to most Canadians that their coastal waters—particularly the western— abound wi th sharks. At least 10 species have been recorded and all these are fished commercially, mainly for the valuable oil extracted from their
livers. None of these sharks have been known to attack man, but the fishermen treat their catches with respect.
Sharks are a puzzle, even to the fish experts (ichthyologists, if you like) at the University of Toronto and the Royal Ontario Museum. They range from the fearsome great white shark which grows to a length of 40 feet and can swallow a horse, to the five-foot dogfish. Some bring forth their young alive; others lay eggs. Some eat anything that looks like food.. Others browse off the microscopic plankton, the minute organisms which drift in all seas. Indications are that sharks are prolific breeders. A 13-foot tiger shark caught off the New South Wales
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coast had 64 young in her. What proportion of the eggs laid by other types survive to hatch has not been established.
Although most people regard all sharks as dangerous, only about a dozen of the nearly 100 species have been known to attack man. But even there it’s difficult to be definite. A person attacked by a shark is very seldom in any condition to identify or classify his attacker. These are the known killers: the great white, tiger, whaler, blue nurse, grey nurse, blue pointer and hammerhead.
Only the blue pointer—known here as the porbeagle or salmon shark—has been noted as far north as Vancouver Island. Canada’s resident sharks, a much more profitable lot, include the spotted cow, mud, mackerel, basking, thresher, soup-fin, dogfish and sleeper sharks. '
With the exception of the nightmarish hammerhead, all sharks look roughly alike. They have no bones in the true sense; instead, their frames are a structure of extremely tough cartilage. A torpedo-shaped body, underslung mouth, fins top and bottom, and a strong tail—those are the distinguishing features. Color ranges from the brilliant camouflage of the wobbegong or carpet shark to the black of the tigers, but most are grey or bluish-grey.
Jonah Was Wrong
The great white shark—the largest of all—is typical in conformation. Its large sail-like dorsal fin, affixed halfway down the back, keeps it balanced in the water as the huge caudal fins (tails to you) thrust it forward. The rudder controls—pectoral, pelvic and anal fins—are underneath. Named for its white belly, the great white has been recorded at odd times throughout history. In fact the Swedish naturalist, Linnaeus, once wrote that it was a great white which swallowed Jonah and not the kindly whale of legend. Fossils prove that this brute once grew to 100 feet in length, and 40-foot specimens have been caught in recent years.
Only the hammerhead differs drastically from the general run of sharks. He has a blunt, square snout, set at right angles to his body. His mouth is nearer the front.
Even the smaller breeds have the viciousness which characterizes the man-eaters. Sharks will attack whales, sea lions, and even fishing boats.
For all t heir strength, sharks are not generally a good game fish. Exceptions are the mako, found off the coast of
northern New Zealand, and the hammerhead.
The commercial value of sharks has been fully recognized only in the last few years. Now fishermen in many parts of the world, including Canada, Australia and New Zealand, are trawling for sharks and hauling them back to shore stations. Shark-liver oil is fast overtaking cod-liver oil in popularity. Livers of certain species are 25 times richer in vitamin A than cod livers, and currently fetch a minimum of 20 cents a "pound.
Shark meat is eaten by some South Sea Islanders and will occasionally turn up in European fish shops under the name of flake, but is coarse and strongsmelling. In B. C. the carcasses of the easily caught dogfish are ground into fish meal and into a highly potent fertilizer.
They’ll Swallow Anything
Sharkskin—known commercially as shagreen—is used in women’s shoes, handbags and other accessories. The skin is rough and prickly to the touch, and tans into a leather tougher than oxhide. One ton of shark will produce from 80 to 100 square feçt of leather.
Off the eastern coast of New South Wales, fishermen lower nets 500 feet long and 20 deep, parallel to the beaches, on a rotating schedule. Two boats are out every day of the bathing season. Setting 66 nets a week over an eight-month period, the meshers once caught more than 500 sharks, including over 200 dangerous ones. Before the war one boat got 84 sharks in four days.
Sharks are scavengers, eating fish, lobsters, and general sea refuse. Even sacks of coal and logs of wood have been gulped down. A large shark caught off Soquel, Calif., had a young sea lion in its stomach, while a tiger in Sydney Harbor, N.S.W., swallowed a swimming Newfoundland dog. One murder mystery was solved in Melbourne, Australia, when a captured shark was found to contain the tattooed forearm of a man. The discovery deflated the murderer’s hitherto sound alibi.
It is believed that sharks do not instinctively attack man, but regard him as just another tasty tidbit.
Dr. F. A. Lucas of the American Museum of Natural History states firmly that the danger of shark attacks on humans in temperate waters is very slight. Other authorities claim that the shark is often blamed for attacks perpetrated by the ferocious if much smaller barracuda, especially off Caribbean beaches. One American fisherman, Herman Oelrichs, once offered $500 reward for an authentic case of a shark attacking a human along the Atlantic coast north of Cape Hatteras. The
reward stood for years, but was never claimed.
Numerous attacks have occurred in the waters off Florida, the West Indies, and southern California, but Australia’s appalling tally of authentic man-eater attacks remains unchallenged. Since ocean bathing became popular with all classes soon after the turn of the century, 150 shark attacks on humans have been recorded in Australian waters. At least half were fatal.
You can surf on Australian beaches for at least six months of the year in ideal weather, from November through April. Many enthusiasts spin the season out to seven or eight months. The surf season is at its height during the breeding season for most of the 70 species of sharks that haunt the Australian coast.
Surfing, Australia’s favorite outdoor sport, is no game for the fainthearted. The long combers swelling in toward t|ie beaches break between 50 and 150 yards from shore, then surge in to the sand with express-train speed. A surfer swims out to where the wave is breaking. He judges his moment with keen precision, swims a few strokes on the crumbling roller, flattens out, and rides the foamy avalanche right in to the beach. This is called “shooting the surf” and is the surfing climax.
When you know that hungry sharks up to 30 feet long may be on the prowl, you are inclined to hesitate for a while by the beach; but soon the natives will make you a little ashamed of your fears and you’ll be out there trying your skill. As if by prearranged plan, all the good surfers remain at a certain breaker line. Anybody who goes farther is regarded as “shark bait.”
Most Australians have their pet shark story, but few have seen an actual attack. The theories on how to get away alive from an attacking shark range from punching the fish on the nose to clapping your hands under water.
Last year two surfers were killed and another badly mauled by sharks along the coast of New South Wales. The first two months of the year are the most dangerous, because then the female whaler shark is delivering her young and is terribly vicious.
Here is an eyewitness story of how a 16-year-old lifesaver, Ronald Johnson, of North Stockton, near Newcastle, N.S.W., was mauled to death by a
12-foot shark at Stockton Beach in 1947.
Johnson was swimming about 40 yards from the beach in six feet of water with a group of his mates from the Stockton Surf Club.
Lifesaver Don Lindstrom, 17, was about 10 yards from Johnson when he heard his friend scream, “A shark has got me!”
“Ron screamed again, and blood came all over the surface of the water,” Lindstrom reported later.
Beach Inspector Harry Stephenson, who was manning the shark tower, said that in the second before the attack he saw the tail and dorsal fin of a shark moving toward Johnson.
“Johnson tried to swim to the beach,” Stephenson said. “I shouted ‘shark,’ and Lifesaver Albert Linich ran out of the pavilion, struggling into the lifesaving belt. I scrambled down from the tower.
“Linich rushed straight into the surf. It was one of the bravest things I have ever seen.
“He waded out to Johnson, who was still conscious, picked him up in his arms and brought him to the beach.
“Blood was pouring from Johnson’s terrible injuries and he was only able to gasp, T never had a chance!’
Within five minutes the boy was dead.
At Christmas, 1946, a 12-year-old girl was bitten almost in half in a few feet of river water at Oatley, near Sydney. A pretty Sydney beach girl lost both feet to a shark while sitting on a rock at Bronte, splashing her legs in 24 inches of water.
The oldest fallacy about sharks is that they must turn over to strike. They have been seen biting from all angles, and once they slam their jaws shut they will twist and turn until they tear off the piece.
Don’t Like Noise
Australian surfers say that as long as you keep within breaking water you are safe. They base this on the knowledge that sharks strongly dislike noise and vibration. The Hawaiian trick of clapping hands under water, and threshing with hands and feet, is highly regarded as a shark scarer. Calm reaches are regarded as dangerous and thus no one in his right mind would swim in Sydney’s beautiful harbor. There are several harbor bays popular with swimmers (as distinct from surfers) but these are all fenced by nets. The blue shark is particularly fond of following ships into the harbor.
A shark has woefully bad eyesight, but makes up for this by having an extremely keen sense of smell. This was established by Australian experiments in which a shark’s nostrils were plugged. The hungry shark swam right over a meat bait; unplugged, it immediately discovered even hidden food.
Repellent liquids were issued during the war to anyone who might be forced into the sea and immediately after the war they were tried out off Australian beaches. However, the smell scared off not only the sharks but the surfers.
Aircraft have been used on shark patrol around Sydney. The pilots said they would never surf again. They reported the sea beyond the breakers to be alive with sharks.
The average Australian surfer is very shark-conscious. He has seen the slim, wicked bodies swimming round and round their tanks at Taronga Park Zoo and the Manly Aquarium, and he knows what those serrated jaws can do. Yet for all that, when the 100-degree weather arrives and the blond beach girls bring their new season’s suits to the sands, he grins and says, “Well, it doesn’t have to be me, does it?” ★
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