16 Jan We’re going to need a bigger boat
Seven days and seven nights.
That’s how long Newcastle and the Hunter’s beaches have looked more like a scene from Amity Island instead of the flurry of Aquatic Activity that is the norm this time of year.
The weather is warm, the sand is hot and the water looks oh so inviting but Novocastrians remain in dry-dock as a Great White shark and it’s mates continue to crash our summer party.
Local surfers have been starved of any wave-action for almost a month with the normal summer slop being even more average than expected, so it doesn’t help that the shark lobbed at the same time that Huey has decided to throw up some much-wanted swell.
This shark appears to be one out of the box.
It’s a big one – experts say five metres and around 1700 kegs.
That’s about the size of a Holden Commodore, or a Falcon for all those Ford lovers playing along.
It was first spotted off the back of the Merewether Baths last Saturday afternoon, no doubt just checking out the councils handiwork on the redeveloped ocean baths.
But since then it has been popping up all over the place, up and down the coastline like an unwanted gate-crasher at an 18th birthday party.
The Hunter’s lifeguards have had the work cut out for them in the past seven days with patrols starting at the crack of dawn and going well past the normal 5pm knock-off.
It must be a tough gig lifeguarding.
They are the only thing standing between life and death when folks get stuck in over their head or trapped in a rip, but despite this, they are often ignored.
None more so than this week while trying to keep bathers out of the crystal blue water with temperatures soaring into the mid-30s or trying to temper the eagerness of wave-starved surfers who just want to get their feet in the wax now that the swell has finally increased.
Locals are clearly frustrated but no one really knows what to do about the situation.
Surfest boss Warren Smith, recently retired, spent over 40 years with the Newcastle Lifeguards and can’t recall a situation like this one before.
‘Yes, it’s definitely the longest beach closures I can remember in my time,’ Smith said.
It’s uncharted territory for everyone but Smith believes that the men charged with keeping our beaches safe are doing all the right things.
‘The Council lifeguards have done everything right and following the protocol that is set for situations like this.
‘These few sharks are being seen regularly so we have to be cautious about opening beaches.
‘It’s the size of the big shark that’s a concern and it has to be treated seriously.
‘It is always the saying though the more you look the more you find.
‘The lifeguards will know when to open the beaches and we have to trust their judgement on this. Their only concern is the public’s safety
With less than a month to go until the region’s biggest surfing carnival kicks-ff off Smith is not too concerned about the shark situation having an impact on Surfest.
‘ I haven’t put any thought into it affecting Surfest.
‘The events are mobile so we will move to the best and safest beaches if needed.
So what do we do about getting rid of this big shark?
Clearly killing the shark is out of the question – Great Whites are a protected species.
But, a sit-in of this nature hasn’t been seen before, certainly not in Australia and definitely not in these waters.
Merewether’s Jesse Adam sums it up pretty well.
‘It’s like a gang has moved into town and everyone’s freaked’, he told Stab Magazine.
‘People are wigging, the whole shark debate is raging and suddenly everyone’s an expert.’
Obviously there are people who rely on the ocean to make a living.
Miles Niddrie from Learn To Surf Newcastle runs one of many local surf schools which have been affected by the closure of city beaches.
‘I had to close the school Sunday, Wednesday and Thursday,’ he said.
‘The other sessions I had to shift around,
‘Blacksmiths is still open and I spoke with Surfing Australia to clarify and we are fine to have our schools operating on beaches where there are lifeguards that have deemed it safe.
‘Parents are cool as long as the beaches are patrolled and we are keeping a sharper eye out, that’s for sure.’
‘It’s been a hell of a wild week.
Other surfers, like David Rowling, have travelled up north to find safer waters.
‘The sharks can stay in Newy until I come home from Boomerang,’ he said.
‘Then they can just piss off as far as I’m concerned or I’ll have to get my jet ski and tow the bastard out to sea.’
Others, like Newcastle’s Lewie Dunn, are a little more reflective.
‘I think it’s fascinating, as long as they don’t hurt anyone,’ he said.
‘Although I’m getting sick and tired of the ‘experts’ all over the media claiming to know everything about these sharks.’
‘For me, nothing has really changed except I’m not getting called out of the flags by the lifeguards,’ he laughed.
‘Long live Newy Jaws!’
Clearly it’s a view echoed by many of the Hunter’s surfers who continue to hit the water despite the warnings from authorities.
Speaking of authorities, is it also plausible that the shark sightings are a by-product of all the searches and extra patrols that have been going on in the past week?
Obviously sharks are always out there, any surfer will tell you that, so isn’t it also a possibility that the harder we search for them, the more we will find?
Many surfers, like Marc Adam, agree.
‘The media is causing such a stir about this at the moment,’ he says.
‘Natural or unnatural, the cycle is at a high for shark activity.
‘But sending boats, jet skis and helicopters to look for sharks means you’ll find them.
‘I mean, they are out there all the time. It’s there house.’
Bar Beach’s Jake Sylvester, who made it to the top 16 in the Burton Toyota Pro last year, believes the animal will move on soon enough.
‘Too be honest, when it first happened I thought it was a bit of a gee-up, but then they started eating dolphins,’ Sylvester said.
‘But at the same time, when you’ve got guys in helicopters, on jet-skis etc out looking for sharks, there’s a good chance they are going to find them.
‘They’ve always been there and I reckon it will all settle down soon enough and go back to normal.’
Australia’s top shark expert, Dr Barry Bruce knows more than most about these feared but fascinating creatures.
He has been tracking and gathering information about sharks for nearly 20 years.
‘The more we look the more we see,’ he told the Daily Telegraph.
‘For example we know of some areas in eastern Australia where white sharks and people commonly swim at the same beach at the same time – and yet there has never been an attack at these beaches,’
‘In fact, in most cases you wouldn’t know they were there at all.’
Some people have suggested tagging the sharks that have made the town beaches home, but GPS tags are expensive and have a short battery life.
Dr Bruce estimates a shark can travel between three to five kilometres per hour and is capable of journeying around 70 to 125km per day, 500 to 875km per week and 2200 to 3150km per month.
Just how this is all going to affect the local economy is another factor to consider too.
Newcastle always has a huge influx of backpackers and tourists this time of year but the impact, if any, the beach closures has had won’t be known for a while.
South American Luz Nurit has been in Australia for nearly three years now and is a regular surfer at Newcastle Beach.
‘When I told my friends back home I was going to Australia the first thing they said to me was “Watch out for Sharks”, she laughs.
‘It was always in the back of my mind and I remember the first time I went for a surf in Australia.
‘I was at Merewether and I just paddled out for 10 minutes to surf the shorey and I was freaking out and looking around like I was paranoid or something.
‘After I asked the local surfers about the sharks and they all laughed saying they don’t have sharks here, “No sharks in Newy”.
‘So that made me more relaxed and I was able to put it out of my mind.
‘But on Wednesday I was out in the water at Newy when the shark alarm went off.
‘It was the first time I have ever heard one while I’ve been in the water.
‘I don’t think I’ve paddled faster in my life.
‘So now, in my mind, I’m back to that first day at Merewether, but I love the water so much I can’t stay away.
‘I just hope the big shark doesn’t like South American food.’
It’s a frustrating time for everyone here in the Hunter.
With the sun beaming down, temperatures on the rise, and the waves looking as good as they have all summer it’s going to be a tough time waiting out the sharks.
But the most important thing is the safety of all those who use the water.
We are yet to have anyone attacked by one of these sharks, and let’s just hope it stays that way.