Matt Williams: Just when you thought it was safe to get back in the water!

Two close encounters with Great Whites had me spooked - but you can’t let the fear win

“They are like puppies, they like to chew on things. Keep an eye out.”

“They are like puppies, they like to chew on things. Keep an eye out.”

 

It is a five hour drive to my favourite surfing point break on the north coast of New South Wales. After 18 months in Europe, I was hungry to get into the surf and taste some saltwater wine. I threw my bags in the room and raced down to the beach.

It’s a classic Australian long peninsula headland, jutting out into the clear South Pacific Ocean. With long golden sandy beaches and a rock bottom, when the swell is right the waves peel off to the right with unblemished perfection. Six hundred metre rides along the vertical face of perfect waves are not uncommon. I could forget rugby for a few days and hang out the sign saying ‘Gone Surfing’.

My daughter warned me to be careful at the beach because there were sharks about. I assured her that I have been surfing for more than half a century and had never seen a shark while on my board.

Imagining what it would feel like to have the predator close its jaws into your thigh and have the razor sharp triangular teeth, severe your femoral artery so that you bleed out in the water has a tendency to focus the mind

You know where this is going, don’t you? Like Voldemort in Harry Potter, you should never utter the name of the enemy.

When I hit the water the surf wasn’t perfect. The wind and the swell were both out of the north as the tail of a cyclone off the Queensland coast was hitting us, but as the saying goes, a bad day surfing beats a good day working.

I had caught my first wave and was paddling back out when I encountered the monster.

No more than 10 metres in front of me, breaching the surface of the ocean, was the hulking back of a very large shark. For the briefest of seconds the deadly triangle of a tall dorsal fin and the arching scythe shape of a giant tail fin seemed to fill the sky in front of my eyes as I lay on my board.

Then with a powerful swish of that enormous tail, the leviathan disappeared below the surface. No face masks, hand sanitiser or social distancing would solve this potential disaster.

The next few seconds seemed to last for an hour as several questions flashed through my mind. Firstly, as the saying goes, I could not believe my eyes. Had I really just seen the enormous back of a man eating Great White shark? Unlike in the movies, sharks almost never show their dorsal fins, let alone both tail and dorsal fins. Secondly, what should I do? Stay dead still or hit the turbocharger and head for the hills?

If you are not a little bit scared, you’re not having fun. Photograph: Brook Mitchell/Getty
If you are not a little bit scared, you’re not having fun. Photograph: Brook Mitchell/Getty

All the answers came crashing together as the ocean swirled and the beast accelerated just under the surface of the water. Surfing has a similarity to Squid Game because you can get eaten by an apex predator while playing a kids activity, so I quickly decided that getting the hell out of Surf City was my best option.

To turn a surfboard 180 degrees requires the rider to firstly sit up on the board like a jockey, and place your legs deep into the water, spin the board around with your balance and then paddle using your arms like a freestyle swimmer. That takes only a few seconds. Those were the longest few seconds I have spent in many years.

Imagining what it would feel like to have the predator close its jaws into your thigh and have the razor sharp triangular teeth, severe your femoral artery so that you bleed out in the water - with the added possibility of the shark also tearing away chunks of your flesh - has a tendency to focus the mind.

The seconds were both a blur and a marathon. If there was an Olympic event held for paddling a surfboard at speed, I would have taken the gold medal. Luckily for me, it was low tide and there were lots of sandy patches on the rocky peninsular. A small wave drove my board onto the sand. I felt like the Pope and gave terra firma Australis a big salty kiss.

I picked up my board and was collecting my thoughts when a young and very tall blonde surfer’s voice brought me back to the moment. “You just see a shark?” he asked. I nodded. “It just swam under my board,” he added. He was a big man riding a giant 11 foot longboard. “It was bigger than my board” he added.

We had never met before, but we looked at each other for a brief moment, with the unstated understanding that we had just dodged a bullet. That was at least a three metre Great White out there.

“We better tell the others out there and get them in,” he said. We then ran along the beach whistling and making the universal warning sign surfers use for a shark which is to place your outstretched hand in the shape of fin on top of your head.

When the surfers in the water saw that sign, it was if they had outboard motors attached.

As we walked to the car park and were about to head home my new tall blonde mate said: “Make sure you go back in the water tomorrow. You can’t let fear win.”

I had seen my first shark in more than 50 years so the odds of another encounter the next day would be thousands to one. The tall blonde was right. You have get back onto the horse that throws you off. So the next day I took the precaution of driving serval kilometre to another beach.

I paddled out at a beautiful secluded break inside a National Park. It was as close to pristine as it gets. There were three other people from the same family out on their boards. They were a friendly bunch and we chatted as we shared some clean small waves.

As they were about to leave the father said: “Just to let you know. There is a juvenile great white that has been hanging about here for a few weeks. It’s about six foot long. They are like puppies, they like to chew on things. Keep an eye out.”

An encounter with a man eater two days in a row? Impossible.

Minutes later, sitting alone in a beautiful ocean wilderness, a tall, clean ocean swell came rolling in. Inside the swell’s walls, silhouetted against the golden sandy bottom, was the outline of a great white shark. I needed a second look to make sure I was not hallucinating. It was gliding along like an F-18 fighter jet except it had more fins than a ‘57 Chevy.

Once again the seconds seemed glued in honey as I turned my board towards the beach. Unlike the day before it was a good 150 metres to the sand. I managed to catch a small swell and did my best impression of parachute jumper with my arms and legs lifted above my head. All the while waiting for the playful great white pup to have quick dental examination of my hips.

And people tell me rugby is dangerous! On consecutive days I had encountered two apex carnivores that can literally eat you alive. I felt like I needed to hire The Witcher to rid me of these monsters.

These very selfish sharks were beginning to ruin my holiday.

On the third day, the sun was shining and small but fun waves were rolling in from the sparkling Pacific. There were lots of surfers about, so I thought now what are the odds of seeing a shark three days in row?

As the Americans say, I did the math - which by the way was the same math I had done the previous two days - and I concluded there was almost no chance of encountering another potential man-eating monster today.

As I paddled out my tall blonde friend was gliding past me on a nice wave, riding his big gun of a surfboard. He looked across and pointed his index finger at me as he sliced by. The smallest of recognitions to remind me that you can’t let your fears destroy the enjoyment of life’s pleasures.

As the old surfing saying goes, ‘If you are not a little bit scared, you are not having real fun.’

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.