A swimmer has been attacked and killed by a great white shark at Little Bay, less than five kilometres from my house.
I was walking my dog when I heard the shark alarm at Maroubra, an eerie sound which never fails to make my skin prickle. Simon Nellist, a British emigre in his thirties, had been swimming to the north of Little Bay, around a rocky point, when fishermen witnessed him being attacked by a great white shark up to five metres in length. A fisherman told Nine News that when he turned after hearing yelling, the splash looked like a car had just landed in the water.
I can’t help but think of Simon’s final terrifying moments, his family’s grief and the trauma for those who witnessed the attack. He swam regularly at the spot and was training for the Murray Rose Malabar Classic, which was my first organised ocean swim last year. I began ocean swimming in Little Bay, Malabar, Maroubra and Coogee two years ago and go out with a group of friends most weeks. It took a while to get over the initial panic of not being able to see what was beneath me in the deep water. Any movement in my periphery still brings my heart rate up. But being among others gives me a false sense of security, somehow I can do with them what I would never do on my own.
Shark attacks in Sydney are so rare that the last fatality was in 1963. The beach at Little Bay is one of the most idyllic and beautiful beaches around, it is a protected and shallow cove. Last time I swam there a few weeks ago I followed a blue groper around rocks and coral. I’ve swum through schools of tiny fish, watched stingrays ripple their wings along the ocean floor.
Little Bay beach on a calm day.
Every time I go in the ocean I am a visitor to another world. It might begin to feel familiar, but it isn’t my home. For sharks it is. Seals are the preferred meal of the great white and attacks around the world are fewer than ten a year. Logic tells me to return to the water, the risk is so low, but my lizard brain is scared. My next ocean swim (I haven’t yet) will feel as frightening as my first.
For the past few years I’ve been researching and writing a novel – titled The Coast – based on The Coast hospital at Little Bay (which was called Prince Henry before it closed), and those who suffered from leprosy in the lazarets there. It is a novel about isolation, stigma, love and survival against the odds. Leprosy is now called Hansen’s Disease and since the 1940s has been curable. Until the 1960s in Australia we locked sufferers away for life, but we have evolved as a society and we recognise that an unsightly disease should not be a death sentence.
I wonder if we will evolve to a place where people stop calling for culls on sharks when they rarely, randomly kill people. They are sharks being sharks in the ocean.
I’ve made myself a promise to get back in the ocean, cautiously and respectfully. And I hope there are always great white sharks.
They remind us that though it is beautiful, the ocean is still a wild place.