Living with sharks

(This essay was published in White Horses, Issue 34. The issue, ‘She Has Stories‘ was dedicated to women’s surfing and was so popular it had a second print run. I was stoked to be part of it.)

This year, like so many people, I‘ve had sharks on my mind.

Amongst the bushfires, floods and pandemic lockdowns, fatal shark attacks have loomed with seeming regularity in the news. By early August, five people have died as a result of unprovoked shark bites, with six others surviving their encounters. Three of the five fatalities were in the southeast Queensland and northeast New South Wales regions where I live and surf and swim. My home stretch had suddenly become one of the most high profile areas for shark encounters and fatalities in the world. Again.

So, sharks have been on my mind.

The public fear and flurry of media attention that accompanied each encounter and attack led to the installation of nets and smart drumlines in Ballina and Lennox Head. Shark net and drum line programmes were first installed in Sydney from 1937, and on the Gold Coast and Cairns from 1962. The lack of attacks in those areas has led to people correlating the nets and drumlines with human safety. But not everyone agrees.

Recent research[1] by marine ecologists uses historical data from Queensland Fisheries to examine the effect of nets on shark populations: it’s devastating. They argue that we have no real knowledge of shark populations prior to the data provided by net catches, that shark net data shows significant declines in hammerhead, whaler, tiger and white shark numbers, and that there is no way for us to know the bigger ecological impacts on the reduced shark numbers in deeper water ecologies. So far as people are concerned, the scientists write that: “the extent to which targeting shark populations reduces interactions with humans in coastal ecosystems is contentious”.

Their study of the Queensland Fisheries data implies that increases in human-shark interactions are occurring at a time when shark populations are severely depleted compared to historical baselines. This echoes a NSW Department of Primary Industries report, which showed that in reports of 38 shark bite incidents recorded in NSW from 1937-2008, 24 of them (63%) took place at netted beaches.[2]

Despite this, nets, drumlines and culls continue to be associated with a sense of safety from shark interactions and attacks.

Alongside the series of human fatalities from shark encounters since 2008, there have been ongoing community debates about the various roles of shark nets, culls, whale migration, over-fishing and the growing numbers of ocean users, set against the seeming increase in attacks and encounters. Given the often-heated nature of these debates, journalists regularly stoke the political flames of regions they are irregular visitors to, with statements like this one on Stab’s website from Fred Pawle:[3]

Byron is full of trippy conservationists who oppose nets and resent any attempt by mankind to influence or control the natural environment; Ballina has more families who just want their kids to be safe while playing in the ocean. 

Pawle’s stereotypes are deliberately inflammatory, but he does highlight a key point, which is the role of ethics and ideologies in how we come to imagine living with sharks. In particular, it’s how we value human life in relation to non-human life that is at the heart of it. I’m not here to say there is a right and wrong way to think, I’m just saying that understanding the beliefs that shape our politics are fundamental to how we make sense of this issue.

As it happens, I’m working on a research project that looks at the ethics of how surfers and swimmers live with sharks. The ideas I present in this essay are an explanation of the scholarship that is shaping my own position on sharks and shark management.

As I navigate my own fears and relationships, I’ve been reading ecofeminist theories.

Ecofeminism questions the assumed authority of humans over the animals, plants, oceans, rivers, soil, air, and all the non-human elements that make up the worlds we live in. The crux of ecofeminism is a critique of Western philosophy going back to Plato and Aristotle, that separates being human from being part of nature. Ecofeminism draws on diverse feminist and indigenous knowledges to challenge Western philosophical notions of a human/nature divide. I’ve found the work of Val Plumwood particularly useful to do this.

Plumwood encourages us to resituate humans in ecological terms at the same time as we resituate non-humans in ethical and cultural terms. This way of thinking rejects the idea that humans are outside of nature and recognises that non-human worlds also have meaning, values, and ethics.

This thinking shifts human authority to be part of ecologies, rather than above them.

Ecofeminist theories are not marginal in the humanities and social sciences – they are not whimsy. This is the work of internationally established, respected and widely cited scholars and philosophers, who have developed their ideas through long processes of thought and reading and research. They also put the theories into practice in their everyday lives as ecologists, composters, foragers, land managers, and poets, which is why I think their work is so interesting to us as ocean users – we already put so many of their ideas into practice, even without knowing it.

In my experience, surfing and swimming literally force us to resituate our sense of ourselves in ocean ecologies. Surfer and researcher, Clifton Evers wrote that surfing doesn’t just involve other surfers and waves. Rather, he writes that “dolphins, storms, driftwood, jellyfish, birds, fish, turtles, surfboards, shells and seaweed are all part of how we experience surfing”.[4] Our encounters with this richness of life changes our relationships to oceans and beaches, and how we view our obligations towards them. Oceanographer, Sylvia Earle, echoed this sentiment in her tweet:

Why is it that surfers are some of the strongest advocates of ocean conservation? Because they’ve spent time in and around the ocean, and they’ve personally seen the beauty, the fragility, and even the degradation of our planet’s blue heart.

Earle points out how the relationships we build in the water change our thinking and actions. We wish to take care of what we love. Donna Haraway’s book, Staying with the Trouble, describes these relationships as a way of ‘making kin’ with the ‘critters’ we share the world with. She says we should make kin with the fish and birds, dolphins and sharks, driftwood and rocks. Thinking in terms of kin relationships with the ocean critters we encounter makes it harder to sacrifice their well-being for our leisure. For example, if sharks are our kin, then why have nets and drumlines that cause them harm, so we can surf with a greater sense of safety? Why is our access to waves worth more than their health and wellbeing? Than their life?

As with our human families, kin relationships aren’t always joyful. I love swimming with turtles, fish and dolphins, but feel terror at the idea of coming across a huge great white shark, and yet, all of these critters are my community. As are the economies, technologies and governments that shape my life. These are all part of the complex ecologies and relationships we are tangled in. Our lives, our health, our deaths, our futures, are shared.

And so, the sharks. The sharks, the sharks, the sharks, and the threat that swims with them.

My fear of sharks comes from the vulnerability I feel every time I swim or surf. Truly, I am nowhere more vulnerable than when I’m in the ocean, in the surf, offshore, immersed, floating, held under, out of my depth, out of my element. Where else do I go that I’m not top of the food chain? I’m nowhere more aware of my lack of control and authority than when I encounter animals so much bigger than me, or which could end my life in violence.

But theorist, Anna Tsing, argues that vulnerability is essential to make sense of the world we live in. Tsing says that vulnerability is productive. It helps us recognise the lack of power and control we have over so much of what comes next, or what comes now. For humans used to seeing ourselves as the planet’s dominant species, this is confronting.

For surfers and swimmers, this sense of vulnerability is with us every time we paddle out. We feel immersed in the richness of life; it makes us feel enlivened, it reminds us that we’re part of multi-species ecologies. We revel in it. The lessons we learn from this sense of vulnerability are what activate us to care for the world around us. It’s why Sylvia Earle recognises surfers as some of the strongest advocates of ocean conservation. We are immersed in the issues and we understand them through our bodies and go on to read and learn more about the worlds we surf in.

The ecofeminist ideas I’m writing about here can be challenging, but that is the point of philosophy. Philosophy questions the fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence, and wonders about what other forms of knowledge, reality, and existence there might be? It asks us to think about what ideas are at the root of any issue, and in this case, it is two-fold: a question of the rights of humans over other species, and fear of our own fragility.

To surf is to challenge how we know the world and our place in it. It is to seek vulnerability, to encounter new kin, and to ask ourselves ‘who am I willing to sacrifice to feel safe’? We each have to come to our own answer to that question, but as we do, it is worth understanding what shapes the answer we arrive at.

As a surfer, I’m scared of encountering big sharks and sometimes that fear has kept me out of the ocean. But this fear and these choices are what remind me of my humanity and my vulnerability, which makes surfing and swimming more meaningful. It makes me feel like a very small part of something bigger. Finding a way to live and surf and swim with sharks is a challenge bigger than conquering fear – it’s accepting my place living in an ecology.


[1] This open access research is available here: Roff, G., Brown, C. J., Priest, M. A., & Mumby, P. J. (2018). Decline of coastal apex shark populations over the past half century. Communications Biology, https://www.nature.com/articles/s42003-018-0233-1

[2] I found the report and some analysis via: Pepin-Neff, C. (2011). The untold story of shark nets in Australia, The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/the-untold-story-of-shark-nets-in-australia-3748

[3] Pawle, F. ‘The Journalist and The Great White Shark’ https://stabmag.com/news/the-journalist-and-the-great-white-shark/

[4] Clifton has lots of great work on this topic, but this quote is taken from his 2009 article, ‘The Point’: surfing, geography and a sensual life of men and masculinity on the Gold Coast, Australia, in Social & Cultural Geography, 10(8), 893-908.

For a little more reading, you might also like to check out:

Chapman, B. (2017). Shark Attacks: Myths, Misunderstandings and Human Fear. CSIRO PUBLISHING.

Gibbs, L., & Warren, A. (2014). Killing Sharks: cultures and politics of encounter and the sea. Australian Geographer45(2), 101-107.

Hammerton, Z., & Ford Dr, A. (2018). Decolonising the waters: Interspecies encounters between sharks and humans. Animal Studies Journal7(1), 270-303.

2 thoughts on “Living with sharks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: