Wylie Bay, a stunning whitesand beach with a famous surf break, lies hauntingly empty. Only the sounds of the sea and the gentle breeze puncture the silence.
It is a week since Andrew Sharpe, a 53-year-old surfer and local businessperson, was attacked by a shark believed to be at least four metres in length at Kelp Beds.
His friends tried desperately to save him, but he was pulled under the waves and not seen again.
“I’ve never seen a dorsal fin that big before, not even in media footage,” a witness to the attack, Ross Tamlin, said.
Sharpe is just the latest victim. His death marks the seventh fatal shark attack in Australian waters in 2020, the worst toll since 1929. The numbers are raising questions from locals and scientists alike, who are pointing to warming waters due to climate change, depleted fishing stocks and a domestic tourism boom triggered by Covid-19.
A friend of Sharpe who did not want their name used told The Telegraph they had known him since primary school.
“He accepted everyone for who they were. No judgements. Was a grass roots friend. Beautiful, grounded family. Absolutely beautiful wife and children,” they said. “He is bringing a lot of mates together by default next week. He would love that.”
Veteran abalone diver Ean Clare said the seaside town of about 13,000 people had been “rocked” by the latest death.
“I knew Andrew, he was a year younger than me… I would see him around and say ‘how are you goin’ Sharpey?’ … The town was rocked by it,” he said.
Sharpe’s death was the second fatal shark attack off the Western Australian town of Esperance this year, and the third since 17-year-old Laeticia Brouwer was killed at Kelp Beds in April, 2017, while surfing.
In January, Gary Johnson was diving at Cull Island, about 6km off Esperance, when he was fatally mauled by a shark.
David Swan, veterinarian, spokesperson for Ocean Safety & Support group, and commodore of the local yacht club, knows Sharpe’s family well.
“Melissa, Andrew’s wife, used to work here (at the vet clinic). We were gutted when we heard about it. We are a small community; most people know each other and everyone feels the impact,” he told The Telegraph.
“There are definitely going to be people who think twice about when or if they will go back in (to the ocean). There will be people who say ‘no, bugger that, I’m not going to die to go surfing or diving’.”
Dr Simon Allen, Adjunct Research Fellow at the University of Western Australia’s School of Biological Sciences, told The Telegraph there were many possible contributing factors leading to a rise in fatal attacks this year.
“There has been continued overfishing (the world over) [which can drive sharks closer to shore in search of food], an increase in human population, and also a far greater number of people using coastal waters for recreation. That is particularly the case in the time of Covid-19.
“People in Western Australia that would normally be holidaying in Bali or elsewhere are now holidaying around Western Australia… regional tourism has exploded this year and there has been a dramatic increase in the amount of recreational fishing and other uses of coastal waters,” he said.
He added that it is possible that the impending La Niña conditions will correlate with favourable conditions for large sharks following prey to come into contact with areas of higher human population.
The latest attack has triggered calls for measures including the use of drum lines, and residents met with the state fisheries minister, Peter Tinley, earlier this week to demand action.
Drum lines are unmanned aquatic traps used to lure and capture large sharks using baited hooks. Scientists say there is little evidence they are effective in reducing attacks and have been condemned by environmentalists and animal welfare advocates.
“What’s a human life worth? It’s one shark — It might be one that comes back,” resident Paul Wymer told 9News in Esperance.
inley told The Telegraph that his government had spent A$37million on measures to reduce the risk of shark attacks since taking office in March 2017.
He said these include warning towers, with sirens and lights, linked to VR4s (receivers that detect tagged sharks) – 34 across the state.
“There is also the SharkSmart app, which covers shark sights reported by the public and tagged sharks detected,” he said.
Veteran diver Clare told The Telegraph he has been diving for abalone for 20 years.
He lowers a shark cage into the water from his boat and works alongside it, attached with a five-metre cable. He can’t work in the cage, but hurries back into it if he spots a shark.
Clare was the last abalone diver in Esperance to start using a cage. Today, he says “there is no way in the world I would do the job without a cage”.
“I don’t care what the pollies (politicians) are trying to push – there are definitely more sharks in the water. The diving industry in Esperance is dead and surfing will be next.”
When the search for his body was called off, Sharpe’s family issued a statement.
“Andrew was a very loving father, life partner and brother. He would do anything for anyone and was a great and loyal mate to his friends and people he met. He was an experienced surfer of 40 years and he loved the ocean immensely. He knew the risks and we knew the risks as well,” it said.
“He will be greatly missed by us all. Our family would like to thank everyone who was with him on Friday and the Esperance community for their support. We live in an amazing town.”
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