Below the surface: reports of rising shark attacks don't tell the whole story

Call it pessimism or a remarkable sixth sense, but Chantelle Doyle always had a feeling that a shark was going to bite her one day – and she was proved right.

One morning in August 2020, while surfing off Port Macquarie in New South Wales, Australia, the 35-year-old was paddling out when a 2.5m juvenile great white shark launched itself at her. It knocked her off her board and clamped on to her leg, readjusting its grip three times.

She felt a piercing sensation, similar to being “bitten by a dog” and then intense pressure. It felt as though the shark was “gnawing” on her, like a dog with a bone, and it only relented after her husband, Mark Rapley, rained down blows on its head. He would later describe it as feeling like “punching a ball of muscle”.

Using her surfboard as a stretcher and its leash as a tourniquet, Rapley and others carried Doyle up the beach, although her blood made things slippery.

Six months on, Doyle, an environmental scientist, holds up her leg and points to where the shark latched on to her knee and calf, leaving her with an impressive teeth-shaped scar. She currently has no feeling from the knee down, but she survived and, in 2020, not everyone attacked by a shark did. Last year, there were eight fatal attacks in Australia, the highest annual death toll in 90 years. The victims ranged from teenage surfers to spear fishermen to veteran divers. For the past half century, the average annual death toll has been one.

What’s going on? Are the seas off Australia suddenly awash with sharks? Have the ocean’s apex predators somehow become more dangerous?

Culum Brown, a professor at Sydney’s Macquarie University specialising in fish behaviour, says the key statistic is that the total number of shark bites in 2020 – non-fatal and fatal – was 26, which is about average for recent years. (So far in 2021 there have been six.) “What’s unusual is not the number of interactions, but the number of people who died. And fatalities really come down to where you get bitten and how close you are to getting help.”

Sharks, unlike crocodiles, rarely eat people they kill; when someone dies, it is almost always due to blood loss. Today there are more people – swimmers, divers, surfers, spear fishers – in the water than ever. More Australians live by the coast and there’s greater access to beaches. People are venturing further into the ocean or to more secluded spots and that means there are more opportunities for encountering sharks. And if you’re bitten on the torso or upper thigh while at a remote location, your chances of surviving start looking slim.

Even if the high fatality count can be chalked up to the bad luck of being caught too far from aid, there’s a troubling long-term statistic: the overall number of shark bites in Australia is increasing. There has been an uptick in the total number of bites – fatal and non-fatal – compared to previous decades. According to the Australian Shark Attack File, in the 1990s there were 82 recorded attacks in the entire decade. In the 2000s: 161. And in the 2010s: 220. Reporting has improved, but that only partly accounts for the hike.

Contrary to some breathless speculation, great white (also known as white), tiger and bull sharks are not breeding like rabbits. All are slow to reproduce, maturing late and bearing only a handful of pups per pregnancy. Tiger shark numbers have dropped by more than 70% in the past 30 years. As for whites? Recent surveys of the species, legally protected as “vulnerable”, suggest their numbers are stable, although population modelling indicates they may be increasing slightly. It’s difficult to determine, but the east coast population is estimated to be about 5,460.

Juvenile white sharks aged under five, like the one that attacked Doyle, are the most prolific biters of humans; with jaws in the process of changing shape, they’re adapting to bigger food sources and are figuring out what they like. Even so, “Biologically, it’s impossible for the white shark population increase to single-handedly explain the rise in shark bite numbers,” says Charlie Huveneers, an associate professor at Adelaide’s Flinders University specialising in shark ecology.

One possible factor is that sharks’ distribution and movement could be shifting, leading to more overlapping with humans. The idiosyncrasies of ocean upwellings (surges of cold, deep water to the surface), currents and temperatures affect fish distribution, and sharks follow prey. Huveneers says this might at times lead sharks nearer to shore.

More significantly, climate change is heating the waters off Australia’s east coast. When combined with strong currents and, last year, La Niña, which meant there was more hot water “sloshing” over from the Pacific, the water “is like a bath”, says Brown. That means sharks are venturing south in search of cooler spots and, of particular note, subtropical tigers and bulls are heading to southern Queensland and northern New South Wales, where many people live. “The reality is they’re going to come into contact with a lot more people,” he says.

A similar situation is happening on the west coast, where warmer waters mean salmon, herring and other fish are going south, causing sharks to follow. “That doesn’t mean their population is booming, it just means they’re changing their behaviour,” says Jessica Meeuwig, director of the Centre for Marine Futures at the University of Western Australia.

Dave Pearson, who was bitten by a bull shark in New South Wales in 2011, says that surfers, who have always seen the odd fin, are becoming warier. “One thing I’ve noticed in the past five years is that a lot of surfers are really worried about sharks now, more so than ever,” he says. A decade ago, if you went to a new surf break you wouldn’t say much to the locals. “Now, new people will paddle out at our beach and they’ll say: are there many sharks around here? You never would have asked that question before.”

Pearson is the founder of the Bite Club. The Facebook group, which has 400 members around the world, is one of the only support networks for animal-attack survivors. Its members include people who have fallen foul of sharks, crocodiles, hippos and lions, plus victims’ families. Survivors are united by “the realisation you are part of the food chain,” says Pearson.

He started the group shortly after his attack because he was subjected to fierce online trolling by people blaming him for being bitten and “saying things like, ‘Oh now he’s going to want every shark killed’,” which wasn’t true. He wanted to understand why this was happening. He had other questions, too, like when would the pain in his arm – or the bad dreams – go away? Members share advice and have access to a counsellor and psychologist to help with PTSD.

Of course, the Bite Club’s members represent rare statistics. In the overwhelming majority of cases, when a human and a shark are in the same vicinity, nothing happens. Meeuwig says the chances of a shark nipping are “infinitesimally small”.

Brown says: “999 times out of 1,000 there’s no interaction whatsoever.” Indeed, there’s an oft-quoted statistic that you’re more likely to be killed from a lightning strike or a coconut thwacking you on the head than by a shark attack.

That attacks are rare seems surprising given how often Australians hear about them. Each one has an outsize impact and sticks in people’s minds. The public will often be oblivious to traffic accidents or drownings, but everyone in Australia will know if a great white has felled a surfer.

Chantelle Doyle was aware of the hubbub a shark bite can create and while in hospital she and her husband decided not to fuel the media frenzy. In interviews they asked for donations to marine conservation charities. And they did not call her experience an “attack”. “We chose to use ‘encounter’ because we wanted to take some of the hype out of it,” she says.

Her point about the power of language is important. Over the years, Meeuwig has made countless calls to broadcasters and papers complaining about sensationalist words like “stalking” (“sharks don’t stalk, they’re not ambush predators”) and, her worst, “mauling”. She says these aren’t scientifically accurate and amount to fearmongering.

By taking a megaphone to shark incidents, the media triggers responses called “availability heuristic” and “probability neglect”, says Christopher Pepin-Neff, a public policy lecturer at the University of Sydney. It feels like attacks are happening everywhere, so we overestimate the likelihood of being bitten. “I saw a shark bite in Florida on TV and now I’m going in the water in Sydney, and I’m convinced that the odds of a shark bite are greater, because it’s at the front of my mind,” he says.

Generally, in the wake of a bite, the government “takes a terrible situation and makes it worse,” he says. “These are ungovernable events, and government’s job is to govern bad things. No one likes to hear that sharks swim in the ocean and we need to be careful.” So, he says, politicians blame the shark, cook up erroneous theories like that of the “rogue” beast with a “taste for human flesh”, implement ineffective measures like shark nets, or promote culling.

Are responses to shark attacks a political play that’s pure theatre? “I would say 75% of the time,” he answers.

In mid-2020 New South Wales announced it was spending AU$8m (£4.45m) on mitigation measures, including drones and “smart” drum lines in which sharks are baited, tagged and led offshore. To Brown this is evidence that shark policies are emotional, not rational. “If you did a rational risk analysis of the things you’d spend money on, sharks wouldn’t make the top 100. So that’s the fear factor.” It’s a bit like immigration policy, he says, in that “there’s a bunch of politicians who play the ‘fear of the unknown’ card. I suspect that’s because they know there’s votes in it.”

Even if mitigation measures do not represent the most efficient allocation of resources, they can be effective. Brown says the best option is “hybrid drones” – a mini-helicopter-blimp cross – that hover above beaches, identifying sharks and alerting beachgoers. New South Wales and Western Australia’s non-lethal drum lines are useful in monitoring the animals and learning about their behaviour. Meanwhile, personal deterrents – cords attached to devices worn around the ankle or waist – are available, and while most are ineffective, some that use an electric current stop an incoming shark 60% of the time. There’s also a new type of neoprene that’s considerably stronger than regular wetsuit fabric. It lessens the severity of a bite, meaning that, crucially, it can reduce blood loss.

Brown says that, as authorities use more drones, they’ll see that “on just about every beach, all around Australia, sharks are swimming by surfers and swimmers. We’ll realise sharks are there all the time. Now, I think initially that’s going to scare people, but eventually they’ll realise that the vast majority of the time, nothing happens.”

It’s certainly a reality check. Yet for some it might not be comfort enough. For the moment, shark shields and new-fangled neoprene may need to suffice in the off-chance that lightning – or, rather, a set of powerful jaws and needle-sharp teeth – strikes.