Researchers at the University of Wollongong are asking Illawarra and South Coast residents to share details of encounters they have had with sharks, in an effort to better understand the full gamut of human-shark relations.
While sharks attract a great deal of interest from the public and the media, media coverage and public perception is dominated by encounters that involve shark bites, even though these are comparatively rare.
The researchers, however, are investigating the full spectrum of human interactions with sharks – positive, negative or mixed – and calling on members of the public to contribute their own stories to a crowdsourced map of shark encounters on the New South Wales South Coast.
Teaniel Mifsud, a Masters student from UOW’s School of Geography and Sustainable Communities, said people were intensely fascinated with sharks.
“Sharks attract a great deal of interest from the public and the media,” Ms Mifsud said.
“We saw this recently when a whale carcass washed up on Bulli Beach in September 2020. Several sharks were drawn to the carcass over a number of days, seeking food.
“Their presence, along with the whale carcass, brought hundreds of people to the beach and into boats to watch, photograph and video the scene, demonstrating our intense fascination with sharks.
“Despite this clear interest, very little is known about encounters between people and sharks outside interactions considered negative; that is, shark bites that lead to injury or death.”
The research team from the Australian Centre for Culture, Environment, Society and Space (ACCESS), including Ms Mifsud’s Masters supervisors Dr Leah Gibbs and Dr Chris Brennan-Horley, are inviting people to contribute to the interactive map, pinpointing the site of their encounter and answering a few questions about it. Their data will then be added to the map.
Dr Gibbs said the purpose of the research was to explore human-shark encounters and their effects on ocean-users.
“While there is an existing body of research concerning perceptions of sharks in general, little is known about the perspectives of people who have had actual encounters with sharks,” Dr Gibbs said.
“Understanding the perspectives of this group will add to our understanding of human-shark relations and help inform shark-related policies in NSW.”
Ms Mifsud said she had long had an interest in the ocean and marine life, but it was her time as a surf lifesaver that sparked an interest in shark encounters.
“The idea of encountering sharks was always there, either in the training or from talking to older members,” she said. “I became interested in how these encounters effected how people continued to go back into the ocean.”
The map has already generated responses from people who have encountered sharks while swimming, surfing, diving or fishing.
“The majority of respondents have had positive reactions to encountering sharks. Many have described the encounters as exciting and how they felt lucky to have the opportunity to witness sharks in their natural environment,” Ms Mifsud said.
“The most surprising part for me is that the majority of people haven’t gotten out of the water after encountering a shark. The reaction of many surfers and swimmers is to stay in the water. This is very different from what we are usually told to do and something I look forward to exploring more in later interviews.
“I’ve had a couple of shark encounters myself, but nothing as exciting as those we’ve already collected on the map. Those experiences were both exciting and a little alarming, and good reminders that sharks are always in the ocean, even when we don’t see them, and we are just visitors in that environment.
“I hope that this project is able to show the community how regularly shark encounters occur and they are not those Jaws-like encounters highlighted by media and pop culture.
“Hopefully it will assist with changing perceptions and attitudes towards sharks.”
ABOUT THE RESEARCH
This study is funded through the School of Geography and Sustainable Communities at the University of Wollongong.