It’s dawn, and the sun’s rays have just started to peak up through the horizon. While the rest of Australia sleeps, the surfers have already taken to the ocean. Though the water is cold, it does not deter anyone from catching the perfect wave. Their eyes scan the surface, looking for the next one to attempt to ride. But they aren’t alone… below the bubbles, they share this watery oasis with an animal that has the potential to take their life.
Although rare, shark bites do happen. According to the University of Florida’s International Shark Attack File, there were a total of 57 unprovoked bites in 2022, most of which occurred in the United States and Australia. About 32% of the bites happened to people who were doing some sort of board sport, like surfing. So, you would think they would steer clear and be wary… and yet, a study from the University of South Australia found the majority were not afraid of sharks.
Behavioural scientist and conservation psychology researcher Dr. Brianna Le Busque says this is a step in the right direction for the shark’s overall image. “Surfers are frequent ocean users, so they’re in a unique position to change [the negative perception sharks have]. Anecdotally, we know that surfers understand the role sharks play in ocean health and, for the most part, believe that shark conservation is good,” says Le Busque. “But the relationship between surfers and sharks is complex and has not been widely researched, so understanding their interactions is an important step in shark conservation and management policies.”
Le Busque surveyed 391 surfers across 24 different countries (mainly the USA) and found that although 17% had been bitten or known someone who was bitten by a shark, and over half (52%) has seen a shark while surfing, 60% said they were not afraid of the predators. Good news, since sharks and humans shark the surf zone. One for pleasure, the other because their natural prey (like fish and marine mammals) occurs here and is the perfect hunting ground. It’s an unfortunate cross-over, but one humans and sharks need to learn how to navigate if they want to co-exist in the marine world.
Which is why Le Busque believes surfers may be the key in helping shark conservation be successful. “Surfers encounter sharks more than any other people in the community; they should be part of the consultation process when it comes to management or mitigation strategies,” Le Busque says. According to the IUCN, one-third of the world’s shark and ray species are now facing the threat of extinction with almost two-thirds of sharks and rays that live around the world’s coral reefs are threatened with extinction. Negative public perception towards sharks has previously been identified as a barrier to global conservation efforts and has pitted entire communities against sharks, and Le Busque hopes surfers can help quell some of that negativity and replace it with facts. “When we step into the ocean, we step into their environment. We all need to be appropriately informed to ensure a logical balance between safety and conservation.”