Hospitality and a Media Beat Up
As I sit here looking at the glorious sea in front of me and the promise of Julian Rocks in the distance I feel like a poor dog being tormented by and out of reach bone – so close and yet so far. The cyclone in Fiji has caused massive swell and dangerous conditions here and so all snorkelling and diving is off the menu. Knowing the leopard sharks and manta rays and other marine life are there just out of view is heartbreaking but it is heartening to know they are there.
Amidst the brown bodies and patchouli, a wonderful thing exists here in Byron – hospitality. While being prevented from interacting with ocean others, I have engaged more with fellow land others and have been pleasantly surprised to discover that the people of Byron Bay (who do not seem to know what to call themselves, after the local waiter was flummoxed by the question went around the pub and came up with “maybe Byronians, sounds a bit snobbish but hey”) …as I was trying to say, Byronians are kind to those both in and out of the sea. I have interviewed: a bus driver, a surf lifesaver, a dive shop operator, waitresses in a café, WA tourists and various surf shop clerks and they all seem to have a hospitable view of sharks –‘hey, it’s their home.” How heartening indeed.
Being close to Ballina, which saw a fatal bite on a surfer last year and many other bite incidents, one would expect the negative media coverage and scare mongering to have spread anti shark vibes up here but that is not the case.
The Bus Driver
When asked about the effect on tourism, he was quite emphatic at first-Oh yes, it has affected tourism, but then after a pause in a softer voice he said-a bit.
It just is what it is, that’s the ocean.
Dive Shop Operator
It has polarised the community, there is every opinion under the spectrum. He explained that there are 3 yellow buoys along this coast which activate when a tagged shark swims past and if the signal lingers and they deem the shark to be hanging around, they will call people out of the water and/or send out the boats to chase the sharks off.
“the pink nightie theory”
He claimed that people are marketing all sorts of dubious products to protect people from sharks. For example, no one ever got bitten by shark while wearing a pink nightie so all of a sudden pink nighties are the new saviour. The media is feeding the hype – there were no helicopters or anything in the past and these people would have not known there were sharks in the water with them and they would have gotten on with it. We had a lot of fish around here this year and that could be part of it.
He didn’t believe in the magnetic shark shield products being marketed to surfers as he said it would work on Port Jackson sharks and the like but once a great white had zeroed in on a surfer thinking it’s a seal that shark will not be deterred – it’s already committed at that point. He believed it was marketing false promises and false hope.
Waitresses at a café
They said there was hardly any drop in tourism at all and that it hadn’t affected their use of the ocean at all; the sharks have always been there. They thought of it more as a media beat up than anything else. “We don’t sit around talking about it, people are more concerned about catching waves than catching sharks.” One of the waitresses had a cracked rib from trying to surf and it was quite painful – “the surfboard and other surfers are definitely more dangerous than the sharks.”
They said that they haven’t used the ocean any less and that even when there is a shark in the bay, most people will just wait an hour or so and then go in for surf. “It’s not really making a difference to us.”
This young couple with their baby said that they continued to swim during the WA shark fear beat up and that they were swimming here too. “It’s a media beat up.” They believed it wasn’t a waste of money to spend on research and technology to deter sharks from beaches but definitely not on culling. “I don’t know that it makes any difference.”
2 surf shop workers and surfer customer
These two workers believed that tourism had been affected and that less people were learning to surf – surfboard sales had dropped and they hadn’t sold a board for 2 months. They both say they only surf with crowds now and never alone because it makes it safer especially if there is ‘a big monster in the water’. This particular guy was European and had been in Byron for 2 years. He doesn’t use shark magnets because he’s heard they might actually attract them instead of deter them. He surfs less in the afternoons after work now because he is more wary. The surfer in the shop said he gave up surfing 20 odd years ago when the honeymooning man diver was bitten in half by a great white while on his decompression stop. He only started surfing again at the urging of his grommet son and he can’t believe it took him so long.
Other 2 surf shop workers
Said that it had definitely affected Ballina and Evans Head. Surfers were going out there with knives strapped to their legs, “it was full on there for awhile.”
“It was definitely a media beat up and poor Ballina has copped it really bad.” Apparently a famous board maker named Wayne Webster is on the verge of shutting up shop due to poor sales attributed to the out of proportion coverage of sharks in the area.
Female surf shop worker
Hasn’t really affected us, there are more inquisitive questions about sharks and safety from kids in surf schools but not enough to deter surfers. She thinks the helicopters are great because they now know where the sharks are and it has worked. She no longer surfs at sunset, when the water is murky or alone – these are now deterrents. She is a bit more cautious but “no way in hell” does she think nets or culls are useful. “We make that conscious decision when we enter the water (to be responsible for ourselves without government help). She would certainly consider painting the underside of her board in black and white stripes (a long held but as yet unproven shark deterrent). The shark magnet wrist / ankle band is still seen as a bit wimpy or daggy and many are not wearing it. In the often hyper masculine / male dominated world of surfing (even though the women’s titles far outnumber the men’s, go figure eh?) until someone cool / who matters starts wearing one, they won’t become a trend. She has sold one $150 model in the 2- 3 months since they came out.
Surf shop worker
This enlightened fellow made the most interesting revelations. He said that Ballina Council brought in helicopters because the junior surfing tournament was scheduled for 3-4 days and there was so much money involved that they felt that they needed to be seen as doing something for fear that parents would pull their kids from the comp if they didn’t have protection procedures in place. “The helicopters are a pain in the ass – I’d rather just get on with it and keep surfing instead of having helicopters hovering over me and pointing to where the shark is and telling me to get out. Those sharks were always there and I could enjoy my surf without having it pointed out to me. What’s the worst? It gets a feed and I die doing what I love.”
This was the most revealing hospitality yet – Val Plumwood would have loved this man. He was willing to consider himself as food, as meat for a fellow predator and that his life was not superior to the sharks – his love of surfing was paramount.
There seems to be an attitude of sharing here that is understood. How long will it continue? Can the sharing attitude bear up against the media onslaught that is constant, biased and ill informed?