For 8 days in January, Newcastle beaches were closed while sharks 'plagued the coastline'. Was the frenzy warranted? No, says our resident shark expert.
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:

    • A common mistake people make is calling these awesome creatures, ‘Great White Sharks’, it’s actually just ‘White shark’ (Carcharodon carcharias). But we still think they’re still pretty great.
    • Sharks play a vital ecosystem role as top predators. Declines in top predators can cascade through the food web, seeing some species groups increase while eliminating others.
    • We have one of the most comprehensive White shark research programs in the world, with over 250 tagged White sharks in Australian waters.
    • Our tagging program provides us with a good idea of migration patterns – we know for example that there is an East and a Southwest population.
    • Our research on White sharks is a collaborative project funded under the Australian Government’s National Environmental Research Program.
    • We tag these beauties in a very humane way – in a sling, in the water:

10 comments

  1. I’ll bet the Port Stephens tourism team don’t like that image very much.

  2. Lets put a bit of time perspective into this debate and in particular where young whites are reported from.
    For decades the CSIRO mantra was that white sharks only pupped off southern Australia.
    For those in the game longer it was well accepted to see small and really large whites off Long Reef (Manly Warringah area) in the late 1960’s and early 1970s. The Queensland Shark Control Programme at least by the early 1990s was recording white pups in the Mackay-Rockhampton area of Central Queensland and the fishery area off Brisbane a little less than 1.5m in length. They made excellent moccasins from what I saw. Their annual timing correlated with whale movements and that included into the northern Coral Sea tuna fishery when the whales actually ventured out into 2000m to give berth -watched by both Japanese and Australian commercial fishermen often close together in a comradeship special to that period.
    Funnily the Central Queensland latitude in the southern hemisphere of the Australian east coast was equivalent to the northern latitude of US-Mexico where white shark pupping had been reported since the mid 1970’s. All documented year after year at Australian Society for Biology meetings until it was ‘discovered’ there was an east coast stock in 1989. Basically commercial fishermen had it all figured out to a rough degree a long time before.
    In the mid 1990s those of us on the Australian White Shark Committee were basically predicting white shark attacks off Perth beaches simply as an end result of increasing white shark numbers, almost certainly related to various conservation measures. Look what happened.

    1. Thanks Geoff. So is this also where all the fish are at the moment ?

    2. So even though tracking proves you (and this article) wrong, you yave nothing more than a theory that protects yours, and your industries income. Typical attitude of those self absorbed without concern for preservation

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