A surfer's defence of the great white shark
Surfers should be at the frontline of protests planned for this weekend against the policy to kill large sharks in Western Australia, writes Samuel Carmody.
My father introduced me to surfing when I was seven or eight years old, carrying me into the beach breaks off my childhood town of Geraldton whilst I lay on my foam board, terrified of a small sea that had then seemed huge, crying like a newborn being introduced to another bewildering world.
"You're trying to kill me," were the words I'd bleated, over and over. I remember that moment clearer than any other memory I have. The whiteout of the afternoon summer sky, the water torn by the sea-breeze. I remember the scream of that wind in my ears. And I remember most vividly the pure, potent anxiety I felt, the recognition that I was entering a space so much bigger than myself, bigger and more powerful even than my father had seemed to me all those years ago.
I guess I instinctively felt then, as young as I was, what I know now; that the ocean is an environment you can never truly control. It is the reason I grew to love it, why surfing became the closest thing to an addiction I have ever known. I came in from that first fear-stricken encounter with the sea utterly hooked.
In my memory of growing up along the rural coast of Western Australia, surfing was a tough, almost mystical activity performed by a strange species of person. I can recall my father being verballed by a local surfer in the mid-west lobster fishing town of Kalbarri for taking to the bush to relieve himself before an early morning surf; accosted as his bare bum hung over the coastal scrub and red dirt in the pre-dawn darkness. It was a surreal thing to witness, and it left a lasting impression on the way I viewed that coastline; these toothless, leathered-skin men enforcing complex eco-sensitive standards. A turd in the dunes was just not cricket. A coke bottle found left on a beach could send them into a rage. Who were these people? To them the sanctity of the ocean was absolute. Their submission to its power was all encompassing. They hooted after a death-defying wipeout, and spoke with a sailor's romanticism about death at sea.
And they had a deep respect for sharks. They feared them, sure, but in the same way a mountaineer might fear avalanches or altitude sickness. The risks, the danger, were all a part of it. The Great White Death. The Noah. The Man in the Grey Suit. It enlivened the whole experience. A surfer escaped land for a reason beyond the transient thrill of a wave. When you stepped into the sea you stepped into a wilderness. It wasn't golf. That was the whole point.
But in recent times the roughened wisdom of surfing appears to have lost its compass. Perhaps some of that spirit went down the same drain as Billabong, the iconic surfing brand turned doomed behemoth; overcome by its own acceptance into the mainstream, swallowed and then condemned by its own commercial successes. Australian surfing media has morphed from the counter-cultural lifestyle magazines of yester-year to advertising-laden publications, obsessed with the celebrity-based economy of surfing as professional sport.
This evolution in itself is not so unusual, or necessarily malevolent. It is the at times almost anti-environmental tone of popular surfing media that has marked the greatest diversion from surfing's Morning-of-the-Earth roots, and which is cause for alarm. A spate of fatal shark attacks in WA waters since 2010 has encouraged a coarsening of the rhetoric towards sharks, both in surfing media and from some peripheral figures in the Australian surfing world, that is unprecedented in its hatefulness towards the animal. For the first time, some in surfing's broad church now sing in chorus with the shark fisherman, and the 'suits'. To quote Surfing Life magazine, the "beasts need to be taken out".
And the Western Australian Government has obliged. Sometime in the next few weeks, or even days, baited hooks will be set off WA's most popular beaches. Sharks longer than three metres that are caught, if not already dead when the lines are retrieved, will be shot and their carcasses discarded. In light of the falling popularity of the incumbent Premier Colin Barnett, one could conclude that the new policy is wholly politically motivated: an ailing government convinced that the public, including surfers, might be impressed by the kind of throwback symbolism of power and strength that a politician holding a large, shining hook might once have inspired. And for some it might. But surfers should be at the centre of a defence of the oceans, not hand in hand with those that seek to destroy its creatures without any attempt at a scientific reasoning for it.
Remarkably, even Premier Barnett has conceded that experts in marine science would not approve of his government's measures. And how dare we, then, take to the sea now like spooked Neanderthals and seek revenge for something we don't fathom, for a fear we don't attempt to truly reason with or understand? It seems it is becoming the black mark of our times: the ignorance of science in favour of self-interest or primitive emotion. Take away humanity's nobility, our intellect, our capacity for reason and judgement, what is left beneath? Who are the real monsters?
Now 28 years old, I've often wondered if my memory of that childhood on WA's rural coast is quite as accurate as I'd like to remember it. What if the men in the gravel car-parks of those remote surf breaks that I remember were not as 'noble' as the seven- or eight-year-old thought them to be? What if surfing culture was never as wise or transcendent as that earlier counter culture seems in hindsight? I imagine that those men I saw were indeed imperfect, that they would likely disappoint me if I was to meet them now. I suspect that none of it was ever as good as the mind can memorialise it. But we don't need our imagination, or the past. We can see real nobility in our own time, in the majority of public opinion that is opposed to shark culling, transcending the natural, animal fear we have of such a formidable apex predator. And we have seen it in the memory of the surfers who have tragically lost their lives to shark attacks; almost to a person remembered publicly by their families for their abiding respect for the ocean and their wishes that no shark would ever be killed in their name.
Like many other Western Australians with a close relationship to the sea, I'm off-put by our ocean at the moment, and I'm disturbed by each tragic loss of life. Something does seem amiss. But also like most Western Australians, if something is wrong, I want to know why. We know so little of our ocean. Its greatest predator, the great white shark, remains in many ways a mystery. And of course we have the capacity to learn more, that rare intellect and reason to understand a problem before we act, if only we display the necessary patience that is, again, a unique facet of our humanity.
I will stand alongside thousands of other WA ocean-lovers on Cottesloe Beach at 10am this Saturdaybecause I think we are better than fear, and that we are nobler than vengeance. In this moment in history where we are beginning to learn the critical nature of humankind's impact on the planet, and the destructive folly of past generations, surely the ocean finally deserves the best of us as a species.
Samuel Carmody is a writer and musician based in Perth. He is a doctoral student in Western Australian literature at Curtin University and is the chief songwriter of alternative Perth rock band, Warning Birds. View his full profile here.