The Bahamas: Swimming With Sharks & Stingrays
Bahamian Underwater Adventures with Stingrays - Photo by Elena Kalis
So many people ask me about the dangerous animals in Australia – like the snakes and spiders and sharks. More recently, with my pictures of my Bahamian underwater adventures swimming with marine life, I get asked what happened to Steve Irwin Crocodile Hunter with the sting rays?
I will leave the spiders and snakes for another blog, but today I will try to explain the whole situation with the dangers in the sea. I have grown up next to the ocean, swimming in it and playing in rock pools and lakes since I was a little girl. The one thing I got warned about the most was the blue-ringed octopus and then the next thing I was warned about was diving into shallow water, and being aware of rips and dangerous surf conditions.
Mum drilled into us what a blue-ringed octopus looked like – a harmless cute little octopus that mostly lived in shallows on lake edges and in rock pools at the beach. The blue rings only ever appeared when the octopus was angry, after you picked it up or poked it. So the general rule designed to keep us safe was simply “Don’t step on or pick up ANY octopus”. We also had to watch out for the dead spiky fish on the shore, bluebottles and any really big jellyfish – not that they could kill you, just sting like hell.
To reduce the risk to us from those other dangers we all learned to swim from a young age, joined Nippers (junior surf lifesaving) at age five, and had to prove we could swim two kilometres non-stop in a pool before we were allowed to go out surfing by ourselves. Mum’s theory was that if we got caught in a rip, we would have to know to swim across it and then eventually make our way back to shore and walk another kilometre back along the beach, to get home safely. It might sound a bit harsh, but we could all do it by age seven and we basically all grew up with a strong sense of independence and adventure on the beach and in the surf.
Until the traumatic and previously unheard of incident with Steve Irwin and a stingray, we never used to get concerned about them at all. They have usually been just off the shorelines every now and then. On some occasions masses of stingrays would cheekily locate themselves in the shallows for a snooze in the afternoon when we would be starting board training with a run into the water – never really bothered us much – it was always more fascinating that fearful. Stingrays are docile and will only ever attack if provoked or threatened. There are, I acknowledge, injuries from stepping on stingrays – these are treatable and more painful than in any way dangerous. Fatality from a stingray is super rare.
The scariness and fear of sharks came up (and still comes up) occasionally, but it was never enough to keep my brothers and I (and our parents for that matter) out of the surf in daylight hours. Mum would admittedly freak a little at the boys when as 12-year-olds they would be still out in the surf after dusk and dark. She would remind them that was “Noah feeding time” and they could get mistaken for a yummy morsel of seal if they stayed out after dusk. (“Noah’s Ark” is rhyming slang for “shark”). However each of us has more than one experience of our hearts in our throats out in the surf in bright daylight when the fin of a dolphin suddenly pops up next to your board. Or that paranoia when you thought you saw something move out under a wave and you head back to shore, content knowing that you will survive to surf another day. Because we all know they are out there. It's their home after all.
None of my family have ever had an encounter with a shark, but there are sightings occasionally at local beaches and the shark siren goes off to get everyone out of the water. Australians generally have a healthy respect for sharks and that the sea is their environment and home, and we are just guests. As lifesavers, we have all had to look out for sharks. My brothers, as paid lifeguards, have had to go out on jetskis to check suspected sightings, warn surfers down the beach in unpatrolled areas and sometimes to chase sharks away from the swimming beaches.
Yes, we all have a very healthy fear and respect for sharks, but that fear won’t keep us out of the water. We are so much more likely to get injured in a car accident on the roads than to ever get nibbled on by a shark, simply because we don’t swim and surf in areas where the sharks are known to feed. My dad knows where these places are along the coast near our place, as he flies helicopters out there on a regular basis and will always keep an eye open so he can let us know (he always calls my brother to let him know when he is working on the beach). There are just a couple of fairly isolated beaches where my dad has never let us swim, because he sees sharks there frequently from his helicopter. Here’s some footage Dad took from the helicopter on his iPhone a couple of years ago:
A Great White Shark (14') cruising in the shallows
Of the approximate 182 shark species found in Australian waters, only a few have been implicated in unprovoked attacks: the White Shark, Tiger Shark and Bull Shark.
They potentially could do a lot more damage on humans but they seem mostly to have a nibble (or a bite, if they do try anything) and then leave. Seems like humans just aren’t very tasty and we really aren’t a part of the shark’s natural diet. Therefore shark attacks are really a very unfortunate and pretty rare occurrence. We just need to give them respect and their space when we know they are there. The ocean is to share.
One of my favourite and most inspirational movies is “Soul Surfer” – the true story of pro teen surfer Bethany Hamilton who lost her arm to a shark attack but went back out to surf again. Watch the trailer and see Bethany tell her own story on the clip at end of the blog (if you want).
So in summary, a few facts and figures, directly from Taronga Zoo’s Australian Shark Attack File website to reflect upon, which put the dangers from our oceans into real perspective:
“The Royal Life Saving Society, National Drowning Report 2013 notes an average of 297 deaths per year for people drowning over the last 10 years in Australia. During the period 2000- 2007 the Royal Life Saving (NSW) Receational Fishing Report 2011 states that 74 rock fishermen were swept off the rocks and drowned (an average of 9 per year). There were 176 diving related deaths in Australia bewteen 2002-2009, an average of 22 per year (Provisional Report on Diving Related Fatalities in Australian Waters 2002-2009). The average fatalities for shark attack over the last 50 years is just under one per year (0.9).”
So really the only danger in our seas are those we place ourselves in when we don’t respect the sea and its creatures. Keep in mind you are so much more at risk if you can’t swim, or if you swim in unpatrolled areas, or if you fish off rocks without protection or respect for the power of the ocean’s tides and waves.
The Australian sea and all its glorious creatures are beautiful and worthy of our respect.
* Results from BAM may vary. Strict adherence to the program is required for best results.