When I discuss sharks with divers or snorkellers, they tend to agree that shark sightings of any species are a rarity in SA- at least off metropolitan beaches and at popular dive sites. In something of an anomaly, a single Great White Shark (whether it was the same individual on both occasions is unknown) was encountered by divers twice this year at The Dredge. The wreck is located approximately 6 kilometres offshore in about 20 metres of water. On both occasions the sightings created headlines and quite a bit of discussion- but I don’t recall hearing or seeing any reference to PIRSA’s shark sighting log, or any other citizen science reporting mechanisms in the media or online.
If you do see a shark you can contribute to both public safety and science by reporting it. PIRSA’s shark sighting log tends to focus on large pelagic sharks, the kind which could present a potential threat to humans. Reporting to PIRSA is a good first step- and reports can be made over the phone, or via an online form.
The PIRSA website also features historical sighting logs from 2006 to present, an interesting resource for any curious researcher. Based on my own recent experiences with locating and aggregating whale sighting records from around the state, any single list of shark sightings is likely to be far from complete though, for a variety of reasons. It is plausible that many sightings made in less densely populated or remote areas, or at times of the year when fewer people enter the water, likely go unreported. Sometimes reports are made to fishing columns, magazines or in country town newspapers, but don’t ever make it into any formal databases or sighting logs. There is much room for improvement in capturing this data.
Offshore sighting reports made by fishermen and mariners are always worthy of reporting, even when no-one is at any degree of personal risk. We know very little about shark behaviour, movements and populations in South Australia, and every sighting contributes to a growing body of knowledge.
South Australia is also lucky to have some very capable shark researchers who would also love to hear about your observations and see any photos you might be able to capture. A couple of key contacts are Charlie Huvaneers at Flinders University and the research team at the Fox Shark Research Foundation.
Once you have your species identified (PIRSA, Flinders and Fox expertise can assist you with this), you might also like to consider adding your sighting to the Atlas of Living Australia. Currently, marine species in this useful national database are very sparsely reported compared to any terrestrial or avian species. Again, your observations are invaluable. You can add a GPS mark or plot your sighting on a map along with any notes on behaviour observed to enrich your sighting record.
Seeing a shark in the wild is a rare and special event. I believe it is a shame that the media continues to squeeze drama out of shark sightings and amplify swimmer concern beyond reasonable or rational levels. For swimmers seeking reassurance, it’s worth noting that only 20 fatalities from shark attack have occurred in SA waters since European colonization in 1836, and they have been distributed widely across South Australia’s coast. See the map and graph below for details.
So next time you hear a story of a shark sighting, ask the person who saw it if they reported it, and if so, to whom. Feel free to share this article with them and encourage them to follow up with us, or any of the parties listed here. The more people engage with citizen science and marine biology, the more likely they will be to overcome any shark phobia they may be experiencing, and develop a thoughtful, respectful relationship with the sea.