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The shorebreak at Bronte... It looks nasty at the northern end. Bronte always is a difficult beach to read, particularly if you're coming in without having seen it first from the shore. Chris Ivin took this pic.

Swimming in sharky water

3 Points Challenge and Swim, North Curl Curl, Sat, Dec 6, 2014
Bondi-Bronte Ocean Swim, Sun, Dec 7, 2014

During the week, The Guardian in Stra’a published an excerpt from a new book on sharks. Not just any sharks: Great White Sharks. The headline was, “Great white sharks: 10 myths debunked”.  It was a contribution to a discussion that does not take place often enough in that rational tone. There’s plenty of talk about sharks, of course, but it’s usually in response to excited reports in the meeja and kneejerk responses to them by politicians. It’s the topic de jour at dinner parties, alongside Jacqui Lambie.

When ocean swimmers discuss the issue with landlubbers, the question they raise first is, “Aren’t you afraid of sharks?” Our response is that we (like to think we) have them in context: there are lots of sharks out there – some areas of water, such as Cabbage Tree Bay, off Manly, not to mention Sydney Harbour in toto – are jam-packed with them -- but most sharks are not a problem. We recall our first “swimming with sharks” incident in the Solomon Islands in 2003. We saw a shark about 10 metres below us, and our instinctive reaction was, “S/He’s not interested in me. S/He’s chasing fish.”

We know of only three species that could be a problem: Great Whites, Tigers, and Bulls. (Yes, yes, we’ve heard about bronzies and hammerheads, but we’re talking Stra’a, the east coast…) The fact that, whilst they might be a problem, they rarely – almost never – are, is testimony to the low level of the “problem”. Great Whites are there, but they don’t “go” punters on beaches; Tigers are “out there”, but as we understand it they prefer distressed prey, which ocean swimmers generally aren’t; and Bulls... well, bulls are our issue. (Caution: we write here as a lay person. We are novices. We are not experts, and we have little to go on here apart from personal experience and – draw a deep breath – what we’ve read in the meeja.) We point out to those disbelieving landlubbers that we don’t swim in Sydney Harbour at shark feeding time, ie the low-light periods of very early morning and early evening, or overnight, for that matter. Mind you, why there aren’t more shark encounters, given how early and late many surfers are in the water, has long been a source of amazement to us. But there you go.

Many of the so-called “shark attacks” off Sydney and NSW beaches tend to be wobbegongs, which will bite in retaliation, in self-defence, when someone stands on them, and that’s not a hard thing to do given how wobbies like to just lie on a rock in their cammo gear. They make for riveting lead items on the tv news, but little else. The main problem with wobbies, as we understand it, is that they have dirty mouths – “the dogs of the seas” – and the wounds can become infected if not cleaned thoroughly, and that can be uncomfortable for the victim. But we’re not talking threats to life here.

Glistening Dave was at North Curly...

{gallery}events/Curly 14{/gallery}

The Guardian piece was an excerpt from a new book about Great Whites by one James Woodford, an environment writer. It was useful in that it treated the subject rationally and quoted numerous authorities, so it added generously to the sum total of general knowledge. But it seemed garbled in parts, for some of the advice provided in debunking the “10 myths” about Great Whites seemed to be more pertinent to other sharks, rather than Great Whites. This may not have been a problem had the book been about all sharks, but as far as we can see, it’s about Great Whites, so advice that’s not as relevant or as pertinent runs the risk of misleading. Now, this may have been the fault of some sloppy sub-editor, or a reporter who’d filed incomprehensible copy. (James Woodford seems to have an excellent reputation as a serious reporter and writer, however; a bit more than your regular hack; so we can’t imagine him filing sloppy copy.)

Great Whites are the topic de jour following a rash of attacks in the West and the gummint’s decision there to lay drumlines which have succeeded in catching 163 innocent Tiger sharks, but no Great Whites. However, the issue we face “in this space”, in Sydney, NSW, Stra’a, generally are not Great Whites; the issue here is usually Bull sharks. And while we welcome Woodford’s contribution to the discussion, we need something broader. We need something that puts the entire shark issue in perspective, which adds to the sum total of knowledge broadly, not narrowly. We're not the mugs to provide it, of course. We're hacks ourselves, and hacks are notoriously generalist. But we need something definitive. Just as we need something definitive on blueys…

Far be it for us to discount Woodford’s work, but it does show a need to get the issue in a more complete context. For while there have been very few incidents involving sharks and ocean swimming -- surprisingly, some might say -- it is an issue that sits there, in the back of one’s mind, like Banquo’s ghost, as you schlepp along the backward reach tracing the shark net.

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The broader view of the detail above... The Bronte shorebreak. Not to be trifled with. (Chris Ivin)

It’s an issue that occurs to us at Curl Curl, particularly, and especially whilst swimming north to south, as we did on the opening back reach of the 3 Points Challenge swim.

We have a friend who lives at Curl Curl, you see, who used to swim each morning in the ocean pool at the southern end of the beach. Swimmers are creatures of habit, like sharks, apparently, and one morning, our friend – let’s call them “Fifi” – turned up late, to find someone else in her normal lane space. So instead of swimming laps of the pool, Fifi decided to swim two laps of Curl Curl beach, south-north-south.

All was going well, until about half way back, when Fifi was crossing a channel. She sensed she was not alone, and when she rolled right, towards the shore, she saw she was being shadowed by what she took to be a bronze whaler. The bronzie was on her inside, thus between her and the shore. So it’s not as if she could suddenly change direction and head for the beach. So Fifi kept swimming; kept trying to keep her head. Eventually, the shark gave Fifi some space, and she headed in as quickly as her arms would push her.

Fifi is an artist, and for some years after the incident, much of Fifi’s art involved sharks.

Woodford’s story talked how omnipresent Great Whites are, even around the NSW coast. We tend to think of them as cooler water sharks, such as along the Great Australian Bight, and into the warmer waters of sou’-western Australia, up past Perth, where most of the fatal incidents involving Great Whites seem to occur. Indeed, these tend to be most of the incidents involving all sharks.

Woodford’s excerpt in The Guardian told of Hawks Nest, on the northern side of Port Stephens, just 200km north of Sydney, and its role as one of the two main Great White nurseries in Stra’a. ABC watchers would have seen a doco on this on the telly a few years back. The bay on the northern side of Port Stephens apparently is teeming with Great Whites, in their nursery. We have a friend, a swim organiser himself, who used to take his family camping at Hawks Nest, who told us of enjoying evening beers on the deck of the Hawks Nest surf club, watching the Great Whites cruising up and down the beach behind the break.

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It was like Pink Ribbon Day at North Curl Curl. (Glistening Dave)

Despite all this, though, there seems to have been very little nasty contact between Great Whites and people around Hawks Nest. There have been plenty of shark incidents in the area, but mainly inside Port Stephens and involving, as we understand it, bull sharks. Great Whites have been innocent.

Yes, bulls, rather than Great Whites, or Tigers, are the issue we seem to face. Woodford’s advice included a list of Don’ts assembled by the keepers of Taronga Park Zoo’s Shark File, who look at “incidents” and their characteristics. But this appeared aimed at sharks generally, not just Great Whites. The list included, “Do not swim in dirty or turbulent water (there is little chance of seeing a shark in these conditions)”. And, “Avoid swimming at dusk, dawn or at night (some predatory sharks are active during these times and in low light you may not be able to see an approaching shark)”. In our experience, this advice is far more relevant to our situation than stuff relating only to Great Whites, and as such it may unintentionally mislead in a book about Great Whites. If you want to avoid bull sharks, then don’t swim in dirty water after a storm near a river or harbour mouth. But you might wait a long time to run in to a Great White or a Tiger.

We well remember the most frightening swim we’ve ever done. It was at Forster, just after heavy rain, and Wallis Lake was spewing muddy water into the sea. It plumed, like a mushroom cloud, for a kilometer or two before turning back towards the land, hitting Bennett Head just inside the point and sliding back towards Forster main beach. Dr Rip could have used it, rather than his Condy’s crystals, for it offered a textbook demonstration of what rips do, ie bring you back to shore after first taking you to sea. But the water was thick brown with all the run-off. Curiously, the water at Cape Hawke, on the other side of Bennett Head, was crystal clear. But the Forster organisers called off their swim because of the muddy water.

We swam anyway, in defiance (it wasn’t our idea, but we’re easily led). The peloton stuck together like glue; no-one would risk separating from the mob. The water was so turbid, you couldn’t see your elbow when you stretched. And each stroke, you expected to stretch and grab into the mouth of a bull. We got back to shore quick and smart.

Anyway, our personal favourite rules for years have been those two spelt out above: avoid dirty water, particularly after storms with run-off or rivers and lakes spewing dirty water into the sea; and don’t swim in low-light.

Curly reminded us of this, because we’d had a couple of heavy thunderstorms in the days leading up to the swim and the water was – how can we put it? – turbid. It wasn’t dirty, but it wasn’t clear. It was the kind of water you get off Sydney after heavy rain, with all the stormwater drains and lagoons. But being Curly, we thought of Fifi, and we thought of Woodford. The blurb to his book on the Pan Macmillan website says, “When James Woodford was confronted by half a dozen sharks swimming at full speed, he froze in shock. But he was even more surprised when they swam right past, completely ignoring him”.


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And see how it explodes up, out of the sand after it's dumped... (Chris Ivin)

Curly was a lovely swim. The breeze was almost non-existent; the nor-easterly swell was less than a metre in the northern corner of Curl Curl beach, although, looking south, it was bigger at the south end, as you’d expect. But since one didn’t need to traverse the break at the sarth end – the biathletes later had to, of course – it wasn’t an issue for swimmers.

The swell direction persisted into Sunday, and one report we had from a swimmer at Bondi-Bronte was that the backwash off the rocks from the nor-easterly swell was the only discordant note, but we can’t imagine it would have been that much of an issue. It still looked smooth, and fast. They were two very different swims: there were 133 finishers in the swim at North Curly (440 in the biathlon), and 1,656 finishers in the main swim at Bondi-Bronte. It’s a magnificent course, around Mackenzies Point, and Sunday was a very good day for it, in the morning.

The other place in Sydney where there’ve been a few shark incidents is Bondi, and we’ve often wondered why there isn’t more contact given how many surfers are in the water very early in the morning and very late into the evening. Perhaps the fact that there have been so few incidents underlines what we’re saying here: it’s an issue that sits there, in the recesses of the sub-conscious, peeking out occasionally, like Comrade Stalin watching the show trials from behind a screen, giving himself away only by the occasional flash of a match lighting his gasper. Mind you, in the show trials, the “guilty” didn’t get off.

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Punter flat out, North Curl Curl.


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Mea swimma

Saturday morning’s swim at North Curl Curl was my first for the summer and only my third open water swim in many years (I was a keen swimmer in my teems but I am long since past them now).  As such I was a bit taken aback when at the pre-swim briefing it was casually announced that “the course today is 2.3kms”. I felt 2km might be a stretch given my lack of preparation, however my concern was unwarranted.  It was a beautiful swim with just a gentle swell rolling down the back reach and hardly noticeable as we came back from south to north. Yes, true, I was slow (110th of 133) but my aim is not speed it is merely to get out there and enjoy the swim.

Thanks to all the volunteers who made a novice ocean swimmer like me feel much safer. I will be back next year to do this one again.

The photo of a “punter flat out, North Curl Curl” is me!  Took me a while to realise but yes that’s my lazy left arm stroke and my weird contorted breathing (spot the former pool swimmer).  I remember seeing someone treading water taking photos at the south turning can treading water taking photos and thinking what a great idea.

Andrew Scott


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