DeFINitely Hot: Dangerous waters? On the fatal shark incident off Waihi, New Zealand

It’s been seven days into the new year, and here in New Zealand, it started with a tragedy. A young woman lost her life when she encountered a shark during an afternoon swim at a North Island beach. It is unknown which species was involved at this stage, but experts suggest it’s likely been a great white or a mako shark.

New Zealand is frequented by several different shark species throughout the year, including school sharks, eagle rays, hammerheads, and bronze whaler. Occasionally, even whale sharks and manta rays can be spotted in the waters around Northland. New Zealand also has a developing shark cage diving industry, using the abundance of great white sharks at the southern tip of the South Island. So it is fair to say that sharks belong to New Zealand like Kiwi fruits or the All Blacks.

According to the International Shark Attack File, there were 52 shark attacks recorded to date, most of those in Otago, Auckland and Southland. Forty of them were unprovoked, and 12 are considered to have occurred out of provocation.

The database distinguishes between provoked and unprovoked incidents with sharks and defines those as followed:

“Unprovoked attacks” are defined as incidents where an attack on a live human occurs in the shark’s natural habitat with no human provocation of the shark.

“Provoked attacks” occur when a human initiates interaction with a shark in some way. These include instances when divers are bitten after harassing or trying to touch sharks, attacks on spearfishers, attacks on people attempting to feed sharks, bites occurring while unhooking or removing a shark from a fishing net, and so forth. (ISAF, 2021).

Fifty-two incidents (since 1580) isn’t too bad, given that Kiwis are ocean lovers and spend lots of time in the marine environment for leisure and recreation.

The last fatal incident we’ve seen in New Zealand falls back to 2013 occurring at the popular Muriwai beach. Whodunit? A great white.

Great whites are part of the ‘Big Three’, next to tiger and bull sharks, as they can cause the most severe injuries to shark attack victims. However, any shark that is 1.8m and above may be harmful to marine recreationists.

Juvenile great white sharks were sighted in the Bay of Plenty, where the latest incident occurred. Last year, before the nation-wide lockdown, water users had near-miss experiences with sharks. Experts say that we might see a higher abundance of sharks in our waters due to climate change and warmer water temperatures. In summer, they also move inshore for giving birth to their pups.

Does that mean you should stay out of the water entirely? No. Only if you want to reduce your risk of drowning ;) What are the odds? One in 3.5 million dies from drowning while as little as 0 in 264 million die from a shark attack. You’re also more likely to die from a falling coconut.

However, there are things you can keep in mind if you want to take precautions:

    - Swim with a buddy

    - Stay close to shore

    - Don’t swim at dawn or dusk

    - Don’t swim around schools of fish or where people are fishing

    - Avoid wearing jewellery

    - Avoid excess splashing

After rainfall, the waters can get extra murky. Then incidents become more likely because the shark cannot identify you correctly as for this, sharks rely on their vision. You may be potential food (a seal or a sea turtle), and then you get explored – with their jaws.

It is essential to note that lots of opportunistic human/shark encounters are entirely unspectacular where nothing happens at all. Sharks are smart and display curiosity towards humans, so they’re attracted to us most of the time because we’re a novel object. Sometimes we don’t even notice them. What makes them potentially dangerous, just as any other wild animal, is their unpredictability. When around sharks, you should be extra aware and maintain eye contact. Talking presence – they hate that shit :P Because it makes them question their position in the food chain as you might be the dangerous one. And to be fair, the shark does have a point here as in the human/shark relationship, we’re definitely the baddies by killing millions of sharks for commercial gain— every year.

All of this should not take away from the tragedy that has happened at our shores. Especially since it is such an unlikely event, it is often more painful for the families and communities involved. It is a reminder to look after ourselves and each other when we enter foreign environments this summer.

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