A shark’s tale: is there something fishy in the waters off Newcastle?

By Nicholas Kachel

16 January 2015

Shark silhouette

A shark off Burwood beach, Newcastle, on Thursday. Pic: Peter Stoop, courtesy Heliservices Newcastle

The coastal city of Newcastle is in the midst of a media frenzy, thanks to a string of shark sightings close to popular swimming beaches.

A 15 kilometre stretch of beaches has now been shut for a record six consecutive days, with lifeguards and police craft reporting shark sightings seemingly by the hour. Of most concern have been a purportedly 5 metre, 1,700kg White shark that has been lingering along the coastline; and what is suspected to be a 3 metre tiger shark that was photographed attacking and killing a small dolphin only 50 metres from the shore yesterday (warning: graphic images).

While no attacks on humans in the area have yet been recorded, the sharks have become national celebrities in their own right, with widespread media coverage and commentary. There has even been a Twitter account set up for the @Newy_Shark (which is one account you probably don’t want to be “followed” by).

So what’s the deal here? Are we seeing the real-life return of Jaws? Has a curse been struck down upon the town of Newcastle by Poseidon himself? Is a Sharknado next?

Satellite positions for 19 tracked juvenile White sharks in the Port Stephens region 2007 – 2010. Registered positions are colour-coded for each shark. Dotted pink line denotes approximate boundary of the White shark nursery area.

Satellite positions for 19 tracked juvenile White sharks in the Port Stephens region 2007 – 2010. Registered positions are colour-coded for each shark. Dotted pink line denotes approximate boundary of the White shark nursery area.

Our resident White shark expert, Barry Bruce, knows a thing or two about these ancient predators. He is one of Australia’s pre-eminent authorities on the species and is the head of our White Shark Research Program. But he is perhaps most famously known for having one of Finding Nemo’s most famous characters named after him.

According to Barry, the story behind Newcastle’s shark saga is far less salacious. Thankfully, we’re not gonna need a bigger blog.

The coastline just north of Newcastle (stretching from the appropriately named Stockton Bight to the even tastier-sounding Seal Rocks) is famously known as being a nursery ground for White sharks. These juveniles are usually about 2-3 metres in length, and a tagging program undertaken by Barry and his team has shown that they are more than prevalent in the area.

Seeing a larger sized White in this area, like the infamous #NewyShark, is slightly less common, but still not at all unusual.

Large White sharks are well known to move up and down the New South Wales coastline, stopping in certain areas when food is prevalent. White sharks have been exhibiting this exact behaviour for countless millennia – it is only when they stop near a heavily populated area like Newcastle that we would notice.

But these are nomadic creatures, and they won’t stay in one spot for too long. We know through collaboration with our colleagues in New Zealand that white Sharks will travel as far north as the Great Barrier Reef – and even across the Tasman to NZ – in a span of just months.

Bruce and his team tagging a white shark with an acoustic tagging device.

Barry and his team tagging a white shark with an acoustic tagging device.

Barry puts the current concentration of sharks in Newcastle purely down to natural variability. Sharks go where the food goes – if there are more sharks in one area at one point in time, it means there will be less in others.

And while we’re in the mood for debunking myths, here’s another one: dolphins are just as much a food source for sharks as are any other species of their size. While it is uncommon for us to observe – and the images were undeniably distressing – sharks are well-known to attack dolphins. Unfortunately, what Flipper taught us was wrong.

More than anything, Barry says that this is a positive advertisement for the health of marine ecosystems in Australia. That there is a large enough food source to sustain shark populations is a good thing, and should be celebrated.

But of course, it is important for beachgoers to take advice from authorities when entering the water. While this is a natural spectacle that should be enjoyed, it is advisable to do so from a distance – and on land. In time it will run its course, and we can all return to the water.

White shark fast facts: