WA's fatal shark attack: a response to a tragedy

Last Sunday, news from Esperance, WA confirmed that a man had been killed by a shark — the first shark bite fatality in Australia since November 2018.
Contributor

Dr Blake Chapman

Contributor

Dr Blake Chapman

Dr Blake Chapman is Australian Geographic’s shark Editor-at-large.

ByDr Blake Chapman January 16, 2020 Reading Time: 5 Minutes

On January 5, a diver was fatally bitten by a shark off the coast of Esperance, Western Australia.

It’s been an absolutely horrific couple of months for Australia. Bush fires are roaring across parts of the country at an unprecedented rate, and animals are dying in the billions. While the country, and indeed the world is mourning these facts, other tragedies continue to occur in parallel.

Sadly, but as per normal with negative human-shark interaction, the news, which mostly took the form of personal details, was splashed over myriad newspaper and social media sites.

Indeed, only a few specific details of the actual shark interaction reached the public domain; however, it seems this was only because much of the detail was, and may continue to remain unknown.

I don’t wish to recount the already overly-publicised details, so instead I share my thoughts and perhaps insight into how the presentation of news and information may change our social values and community response to these tragic events. I am not a medical practitioner or clinician of any sort, so my thoughts and advice stem solely from talking to people that have been affected by these situations previously and through my reading of research on mental trauma.

Over the past few years, I’ve spoken in depth to people who have been bitten by sharks as well as those who have lost loved ones, and first responders, paramedics, surgeons and nurses who have contributed to the treatment of people affected.  

The untimely loss of human life is heartbreaking in any situation, and this case was certainly no different. Losses like this are tragic and palpable regardless of whether they were a result of disease, a road accident, or the more ferocious side of nature, which could be perceived through bush fires, negative interactions with wildlife or a wide variety of other causes. Yet, the idea of being killed by a shark seems particularly chilling for many. Perhaps the pure unexpectedness and lack of control in these situations adds to the fear and trauma of these events.

I personally struggled more than expected with the news of this latest interaction, I think because I could have easily placed myself in the man’s position.

From what I’ve read, he was an experienced diver, with exceptional local knowledge. Still, he was taken by the shark within the first few minutes of entering the water. Being able to relate so clearly to his situation is scary. I had to remind myself that I could say the same thing for many other activities that I do far more frequently in my everyday life, without fear.

Even just getting in the car and pulling out of the driveway positions me in an elevated risk situation, but I still drive. I don’t know if that is helpful for others, but it allowed me to rationalise my feelings a bit.

Supporting those involved

In times like this, I believe that first and foremost, focus should be on ensuring that those affected by the interaction are wholly supported. Importantly, the family and friends of the victim should be left to grieve.

First responders and anyone else who may also be suffering from the mental trauma of the gruesome and unexpected loss of human life may also need time and space to recover. The mental trauma that results from negative human-shark interactions is often described as just as scarring, if not worse, than physical traumas for both survivors and loved ones.

In my mind, the events and the feelings of those affected by such traumatic situations should never be headlines or story features, and the people deeply involved with these situations should never be seen as ‘sources’.

I’ve been told that for people trying to recover from mental trauma, continuously being reminded or asked to recount details of the situation by those who do not have their best interests at heart can be hugely detrimental to recovery.

Even for those not directly affected, repeated exposure to news of traumatic events can cause anxiety, which could have resounding affects on the broader community.

It is difficult to predict how tragedies of any sort will affect individuals, and the degree of mental trauma experienced may not match the severity of the event. Therefore, the mental state of anyone affected should be very carefully considered and managed for the best chances of healing.

What can we do?

I’ve been asked a number of times in the last week what should be done. Following a tragedy such as this, it seems to be human nature to want to ‘fix’ the problem. In a way this is very understandable. However, the reality is that this is not fixable. There is simply nothing that we can do to prevent all shark bites as long as people continue to use aquatic environments where potentially dangerous species of sharks may exist.

Twilight beach has been closed in response to the tragedy. Image: Shutterstock

Shark bites are rare incidents, but I can’t imagine that we will ever get the number to zero. There is nothing that politicians or government departments can do to assuredly prevent this sort of tragedy from occurring again – today, tomorrow, or in the long term. More so, pushes for emotion-fuelled retaliatory action certainly won’t materialise into sustainable solutions.

I believe that we should continue to take measures to minimise our chances of having a negative interaction with a shark, and also continue to research and develop advanced ways of mitigating the risk of shark bites because there is absolutely room for improvement in this space. However, it must be acknowledged that even if a person does everything right and takes every known precaution, there is still a chance that things could go wrong.

With consideration and respect given to the feelings and wellbeing of those involved, timely notification of negative interactions should be provided to the community. It is really important that the public be informed of any factors that may make an area or activity unsafe; this includes the known presence of a potentially dangerous animal.

Sharks are wild and unpredictable and some species are capable of seriously or fatally injuring humans. Therefore, the presence or potential presence of these animals in an area should be respected and considered by ocean users.

I disagree with the establishment of long-term bans on ocean use because of the threat of sharks, but short-term closure of an area following a shark sighting or interaction, and with certain other conditions (such as when there is a significant food source in the area, like a whale carcass), is a smart management option.

Beach closures due to these conditions should be highly publicised through a variety of channels and adhered to by all ocean users, regardless of water conditions or a person’s skill or experience.

In closing, I’d like to offer my deepest condolences to anyone who has been affected by this tragedy. For anyone who may have been affected by this, or any unrelated trauma, help is not out of reach, please reach out.