Sharks ‘should be shown compassion’

Conservationists are calling for compassion to be shown towards great white sharks after an Australian diver was attacked in waters south of Sydney and survived.

The attack on 41-year-old Eric Nerhus came as a senior wildlife official called for water police to carry rifles to protect swimmers after a 6m shark was seen off Phillip Island in Victoria.

“I suggested a .22 (rifle) with blunt-head ammunition because to kill a shark that big you would need the explosive to go off in its head,” senior park ranger Graeme Burgan told The Age newspaper in Melbourne.

He said shooting the giant predator would be “a last resort.”

The comments have alarmed environmentalists.

“To have a police officer on a boat willing to shoot a shark that comes near for no good reason really is in effect breaking the law,” said Michael Kennedy, director of the Humane Society International’s (HSI) Australian branch.

“The great white shark is a threatened species, and there’s a need to be compassionate about how you treat them,” he urged.

The apex predator is protected under Australian law.

It has quite an image problem, and this week’s extraordinary attack on an abalone diver on the New South Wales coast will add to its fearsome reputation.

“Generally, after these kinds of things there’s a percentage of the population that’s wanting to hunt it down and kill it because it’s a man-eater,” explained Rob Townsend, from Oceanworld in Sydney.

“[Great whites] are not mindless killers,” he told the BBC. “I think they’re beautiful animals. Understandably, I’m in the minority.

“There are not too many people that see 4-, 5-, 6m sharks with massive serrated teeth as a thing of beauty,” Townsend added.

Open seas

No one’s quite sure how many great whites – or white pointers, as they’re also known – live in Australian waters.

But, satellite tracking and electronic tagging has shed new light on these mysterious creatures.

The great white (Carcharodon carcharias) spends most of its time roaming the open seas.

Dr John Stevens, a shark biologist and government scientist based in Hobart, Tasmania, said: “Sharks, as one of the top predators in the marine ecosystem, play a very important role in structuring fish communities.

“And if we perturb natural ecosystems, then there are likely to be very dire consequences even though, at this stage, we don’t fully understand what those consequences may be.”

Legal protection in Australia has given the great whites a good chance of long-term survival, although some are accidentally caught by commercial fishermen.

Researchers say the threat of a great white shark attack is rare. Sharks of all species kill an average of one person in Australian waters every year.

“The risks are minimal,” said the HSI’s Michael Kennedy. “You have more chance of being killed by a falling vending machine than you do by a great white shark. The odds are infinitesimal.”

Lucky escapes

Eric Nerhus said being half-swallowed by a great white shark earlier this week was like being trapped in a “dark cave”.

Veteran Australian wildlife film-maker Valerie Taylor knows what it’s like to be at the mercy of a giant shark after surviving an attack off the coast of California.

“I just felt a gentle bump and I looked down and my leg was in quite a large shark’s mouth – that was a startling sight,” she told BBC News.

“It moved its head once and its teeth went into my leg. I knew that if it did it again I would lose my leg and I just punched it in the gills as hard as I could and it let go.”

Despite this lucky escape, Ms Taylor has devoted her life to conservation.

To her – and many others – the great white shark “is the greatest predator on the planet next to man”.