John Clare Writings

Of Sharks & Men

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Yes, I saw it. Mick Fanning slapped off his board by the magnificent tail fluke of a largish shark. From then on it was hard to make out what was happening . Vision was blocked by a wave. The shark apparently tangled in the leg rope (before or after the swipe?). Fanning in the water. A couple of things are clear. If it had wanted to eat him it would have done so. It seemed that it took a sample from the wrong place, decided it did not like the taste of fibreglass and swam off. Was there a great deal of hysteria? No.Has this happened to me? Not exactly. My first sight of a shark at close quarters was at age 12 (1952) when I had got my first pair of flippers for Christmas. I was a fair way out off the north rocks of Maroubra and a large one (compared to my size at that time) swam past me. Was I frightened ? Absolutely paralysed, but emptied of all emotion.

A very eerie feeling then filled the vacuum. I suppose I felt all alone a good way from the rocks and even further from the beach. The bottom was barely visible. No one else was in the water as far as I could see. Nor on the distant beach that I noticed (it was a cold bleak day). It went on by. I was nothing of any consequence floating on the vasty deep: a leaf, a piece of meat.

Much more recently I was body surfing with flippers a good way out from the centre of Bronte beach when Simon Letch, an excellent illustrator from the Herald swept around me on his board. We called and waved to each other several times as our paths crossed, happy to see someone from the place of work out in another world, pursuing a shared joy. This went on even as the moon rode high in the darkening sky and gulls, barely visible, faintly cried.

Next day I learned that the day before that – quite near where we had surfed together – a shark had swam at him front on and bitten off some of his board as Simon slid backward and fed it to him. This shark too was unimpressed by fibre glass as an entree and swam away. Simon is from England and by some means The News Of The World had got word of an Englishman’s encounter with a shark down under. His mother was interviewed in that august journal of record. If I had known this I am not so sure that I would have stayed out there under the rising moon.

I have seen many sharks since then. In the forties and early fifties in Sydney we heard quite a few shark alarms. despite panic campaigns in the tabloids there was very little hysteria. Our gang, and many others, took our time leaving the water, as a matter of form. A large sea snake swam at me once on the Barrier Reef. That is described under the heading One Thing We Did on this Blerg as I believe they are called. But let us cut to the main event.

When I was sixteen I rose proudly from the sand bottom of Port Phillip Bay (near Mount Martha) with a long slim Bay Pike on the end of my home made rubber-propelled handspear. They were hard to hit. Those pike that is. I had come close but this was it at last. In peripheral vision, while I rose to the surface admiring the unfortunate fish, something very large slid off the reef and began gliding toward me. I looked at it directly and it was almost certainly a bronze whaler shark. Not as big as Mick Fanning’s possible great white, but substantially bigger than I was at that time.

Once again: was I frightened? Not really, and I do not wish to make little of Fanning’s encounter. I was concerned. I think that is the word. Concerned, as I watched the torpedo-like head advance swiftly across the clean white sand. It is amazing how fearless we can be when we think we are invulnerable, that we have the answer, the secret formula.

And what was that?

Why, to bellow into the water. I learned this when I read one of the books of Hans Hass – Diving To Adventure, or Under The Red Sea… One of about three I had read in my early teens. This yelling, bellowing – screaming as well if so inclined – jangles the sensory pits and hair-like fibres of the shark, creating dissonant waves rather than smooth moire patterns, and it swims away in confusion. Well it worked for the Austrian Hass, until he came out to the great Barrier Reef and a hammerhead shark advanced implacably and he had to make an undignified exit back onto the boat. I did not know this and in any case did not get to test the Hass method. Instead, on impulse I shook the fish loose. It swam away to the left and in a flash the shark followed. It moved so quickly Ihad little doubt of the outcome, thoughdid not see it.

There is a little more.

A little later that day I was down on the sand, holding myself there with an upward flicker of my left hand and likewise the flipper on my right leg. In my right hand I held my handspear trained on a Ling fish on a low rock reef. The fish is so called because of a tendril above its mouth that droops down like a Mandarin’s moustache. Just as I was about to open my hand and release the stretched rubber of my spear became aware of something hovering above me. How I detected it I am unsure. Perhaps there was a pale shadow on the sand. I whirled around and so did the bronze whaler and its great tail fluke made a kind of sonic boom – boomp – in my face. It did not hit me or make any contact, but its whip-like stroke created a compression and release of the water between the tail and my face, much as a whip cracking compresses and releases the air. Obviously the shark had been waiting for another free meal from yours truly. Now it hurtled off, and strangely, at that point I did shout and, imagination or no, its departure seemed suddenly more frantic. Brilliantly clear bubbles swirled around my face. The water was clear and every detail registered so that I can still see it all: shark, sand, the suddenly disturbed surface above. I was not frightened, but felt strange.

Hans Hass? His fascination with the sea began on holidays to the Mediterranean. He made a rebreathing apparatus similar to that used by frog men in the Second World War. There followed an underwater camera case and some beautiful black and white pictures of sharks. During the war Captain Cousteau and the engineer Garrilard invented the aqualung under the noses of the Nazi occupation. Thus was Hass’s device rendered obsolete. Some more snobbish tank divers tended to despise Hass in more affluent times. Cousteau was the hero. But Hass experimented on his own – until his wife Lotte joined him – while Cousteau was a navy diver. He certainly inspired me. Both did.

As it happened Hass’s books went up in the fire-bombing of my flat, while I still have Captain Cousteau’s Underwater Treasury. In another coincidence (some will know what I am talking about) Cousteau’s son was killed in the water I believe.

Incidentally, those sensory pits receive and analyse the vibrations of a swimming creature. The shark can tell whether it is moving confidently or with difficulty. The great tail has a certain torque. If it simply swept from side to side the shark would develop what is called a turning moment and it would rise until it broke the surface, whether it intended to do so or not. Many sharks have excellent hearing, sense of smell and eyesight. They also have groups of cells that can detect the electrical field of marine animals even if they bury themselves in the sand.

Before World War 2, when there were fatalities on Sydney beaches, my mother caught the same wave as a shark. She did not know this until close to the beach, when she saw much movement and heard shouts. People were pointing to her left. In those days you did not tumble turn out of a wave and catch another. You rode all the way to the beach. Indeed the shark did the same and beached itself. In those days she and my Aunt J achieved some fame as the surfing sisters, my mother sometimes swam from headland to headland well out to sea. Yet when I started spear fishing she became angry and afraid for me. The underwater world was alien.


  1. Walter Lampe – 14 August 2015


    1. Editor – 14 August 2015

      Yes it is, Walter.

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