Feature

The Archivist: George Greenough’s Shark Files

A clinical account of six shark scares personally experienced over a six-month span in Byron Bay Shire.

Have you ever fielded a phone call from Greenough? They’re really quite something. The cadence is hot and heavy. The density of information is alarming. He’ll typically discuss board design, hand-lining for jewfish, his antipathy for SUP, and his continual battles with antipodean garden vermin. But always, always he’ll end up talking about sharks. And his firsthand accounts are as shocking as they are true. I could break it down for you, but why pursue that fool’s errand when he did such a fine job for our subscribers in 2009? Enjoy this edition of The Archivist. —Scott Hulet


When I first went to Australia in 1964, there were lots of stories about people getting taken or attacked by sharks. Everybody else was surfing on big longboards that you could pull your feet onto. I was riding a spoon that would barely float. I wasn’t in Australia long before a guy behind me said, “God, it must be 15-feet long.” I’ll never forget those words.

I usually average about one shark encounter per year. During the spring and summer of 2007 alone, I had six encounters with sharks. The reason was a small dead whale that drifted into Byron Bay. It had been dead for a few days and was being hammered by sharks. You can imagine the chum trail from it. Byron Bay is a marine preserve but the Marine Park authority did nothing, the surf club did nothing, and the Cape Byron Trust did nothing. If they had called me or Sea Rescue One (located at Brunswick Heads) or the dive shop boats, we could have easily towed it a couple of miles out to sea, and the sharks would have followed it. The north wind and currents would have carried it south—end of problem. Instead, they did not deal with it until the chewed-up carcass washed up on the beach.

Next day the Byron Council came to the beach with a truck, loaded it, and took it to the dump. Although the whale was gone, the sharks were not—there was now a chum trail that ended at Byron Bay. I wasn’t the only one who got hassled by sharks—two people were attacked, and there were many sightings. Earlier in the year, three people disappeared in the ocean. One person went missing at Lennox Head. The only thing recovered was his surfboard and broken leg rope. A tourist at Belongil Beach vanished without a trace, as did a swimmer at Brunswick Heads. All that was recovered were some body parts.

Sharks are interesting fish. When you are in the sea, you must be very aware. Your head should be moving about constantly, watching birds, fish, dolphins—generally alert for any type of swirls, boils, or moving shadows. Usually it is nothing more than turtles, rays, or dolphins. If you can see a shark coming, you have a chance. If you don’t, good luck.

*

SHARK ENCOUNTER 1

Place: Wategoes (Cape Byron)

Time: 11:00 a.m.

Conditions: Bright sun

Surf: Waist to shoulder high with occasional larger peaks

Water Visibility: Poor. Cold, greenish, impossible to see the bottom with any detail—what I call “Death Water”

Season: Spring

I was the farthest person out. The edge of the sandbar dropped off into deeper water about 30 feet away. My eyes had moved across the edge of the drop-off many times. This was the most likely area that something could come from. This time, as my eyes moved along the edge of the drop-off, I noticed a dark area. Approximately 6 feet across, it was moving slowly toward me along the bottom. I wasn’t worried, probably just a big ray. At a distance of 15 feet or so, it turned slightly, and I could see that it had length. Now I was very focused on the shape. Its new course would take it between the sun and me. Just before I lost visibility, I could see what was giving it the width: side fins. Sticking my head underwater, looking down at a 45-degree angle, I could just make out a back and large dorsal fin.

Your head should be moving about constantly, watching birds, fish, dolphins—generally alert for any type of swirls, boils, or moving shadows. Usually it is nothing more than turtles, rays, or dolphins. If you can see a shark coming, you have a chance. If you don’t, good luck.

As it came out of my blind spot, it began to head away. I waited about ten seconds to be sure that it wasn’t coming back before slowly heading toward the beach using only 35 percent power. (In the shark encounters, I’ll refer to 75 or 50 percent. This is power output from my fins. If I have ridden a wave and am paddling back at normal speed, this is 100 percent. Fifty percent will move you forward about half as fast, but makes a much smaller acoustic profile.)

*

SHARK ENCOUNTER 2

Place: Broken Head Point, on a sandbar that had formed off of the first island

Time: Late afternoon, less than an hour before sunset

Conditions: Overcast, light rain. Underwater visibility of 2 to 3 feet

Surf: A few feet overhead, nobody out with seven or eight dolphins hanging about doing what dolphins do

Season: Late winter

Several dolphins joined me on the first wave I caught and rode in a tight group just beneath me. They must have called a friend who launched through the wave face into the air. As soon as its head and front flippers were clear of the water, we were on a collision course. We had good eye contact as I rolled hard into a cutback to give it space. At this point, it was fully airborne and, although it landed close by, it was no problem. At the end of the wave, the group of dolphins came back to the takeoff with me. For the next half hour or so, we surfed together. While waiting for the next set, I felt pressure under me as something big passed under my legs. I thought, dolphin for sure. It wasn’t. Suddenly, four of the dolphins closest to me rushed over and surrounded me—two were underneath me and one was pressing against me on each side. The other dolphins took off and began to chase something. After a minute or so things returned to normal. The group around me broke up, and I had a big smile. The light was fading so I took the next wave and headed for the beach. After crossing a narrow channel, I was back on solid ground.

*

SHARK ENCOUNTER 3

Place: Seven Mile Beach, 1.5 miles north of Lennox Head Surf Club

Time: 11:00 a.m.

Conditions: Bright sun with scattered clouds. Water clarity was good: 18 to 20 feet of visibility

Surf: Head high

Season: Spring

Earlier I had picked up Martin Splichal who had arrived the night before from New York City. A friend of Peter Maguire’s, Martin was over to help me complete the surf rescue boat that I was building. Martin is 6’2″ and a former semi-pro fighter. He is very good with his hands and was a great help building my new rescue boat. I had picked up Martin in Byron Bay, and we drove up Seven Mile Beach. We rubbered up and went out on air mats. At about the same time, 1.5 miles south, someone spotted a white shark cruising near the Lennox Head Surf Club, so the lifeguards cleared the water as the shark headed north.

We had been out for an hour-and-a-half, and the incoming tide had just about stopped the surf. We were just floating around having a chat. I was farther out over the shallow sandbar. Martin was facing me, a little closer in, right on the edge of the drop-off into deep water. Although it was a beautiful day, my eyes still scanned the area. At this point, I saw a dark mass behind Martin and said, “Martin, there is something big behind you.” Martin moved over next to me, and both of us faced the shark as it passed in the channel between us and the beach, only about 15 feet away. I couldn’t make out any details because it stayed just beneath the surface and never showed its fins. The thickness and depth of the shape were impressive. “Big shark,” I said to Martin. I thought it would just keep going—it didn’t. It was like there was a piece of string attached to its nose as it turned to the right keeping the same distance and carving an arc of 80 degrees. It was on a new course: east-northeast.

Its new course headed across the sand bank toward deeper water, right on the edge of visibility. I could just make out a dark area that was moving away. Next, the shadow began to elongate as it started a slow turn toward the left and settled on another new course. It was now headed southwest, almost right at me, still moving at the same pace.

At this point, I was intensely focused. Its new course headed across the sandbank toward deeper water, right on the edge of visibility. I could just make out a dark area that was moving away. Next, the shadow began to elongate as it started a slow turn toward the left and settled on another new course. It was now headed southwest, almost right at me, still moving at the same pace.

Now, it was coming out of the sun, and I could just make it out due to the swirls left on the surface by its tail. The new course meant that it would pass two to three feet away. At a distance of 18 to 20 feet, I got underway at 30 percent power and began to move toward it. I wanted a little momentum on my side. I could now see the thickness of it—two feet across the back. A slight course change meant that it could only see me with one eye. At a distance of 8 to 10 feet, less than two seconds from contact, it turned away, swam northeast and kept going. Martin’s martial arts training did not fail him—like a wingman, he remained on my left, slightly behind me. He was backing me up, but also leaving me room to maneuver. When the shark was out of sight, we headed across the deep water for the beach. We were both going about 75 percent, watching our backs the entire time. I was glad to reach the beach. I bet Martin was too. We walked up to the car, and as we changed I told Martin, “Well, you haven’t even been here 24 hours and already had a full life-and-death experience.” On the way to lunch, we stopped at the Lennox Head Surf Club to warn them about the shark. They said they had cleared the water earlier. It was probably the same shark.

*

SHARK ENCOUNTER 4

Place: Wategoes

Time: 10:30 a.m.

Conditions: Water visibility poor, only 4 to5 feet, and light overcast

Surf: Head high with a few larger peaks

Season: Spring. Eight days after the shark encounter with Martin

I was with Wardie Ward who was riding a boogie board. He was about 25 feet away when he said, “There is something big and black here.”

“Waaawaaawhat is it?” I stuttered.

“Shark!” Wardie replied.

I could now see the swirls from its tail. The shark cut a tight circle around Wardie who was now using his boogie as a shield, turning with the shark as it circled. I headed toward him at about 50 percent power. At this point he lost sight of it, but I could see the swirls left by its tail. It was now headed out to sea on a northwest course, taking it clear of me. Suddenly, the swirls started to turn toward me. I was desperately trying to get eye contact with it, but could see nothing. The last swirl was 18 to 20 feet away moving toward me faster than the shark I encountered with Martin. I had stopped moving and was facing the incoming threat. At this time, two waves combined to form a peak. It was right on top of us, a one-kick takeoff.

“Go,” I yelled to Wardie who was ten feet away from me. I spun and snapped my fins together. With one hard kick we were on the way to the beach. I never saw the shark. From Wardie’s description, it was a white shark about 10 feet in length, similar in size to the one Martin and I had encountered. Four to five days later, the same shark or a similar-sized one attacked Linda Whitehurst while she was on a surf ski off Wategoes.

*

SHARK ENCOUNTER 5

Place: Wategoes

Time: 11 a.m.

Conditions: Bright sun, water visibility poor, only 12 to18 inches

Surf: 3- to 4-feet, overhead on the sets, only two others out: one guy on a shortboard, 75 feet inside, and Boyd Kellner on his mat 250 feet farther outside

Season: Spring

This one was short but scary. About four weeks after the previous shark encounter. I was going at about 75 percent to keep the underwater noise factor down. Reaching the landmarks near where I wanted to be, I stopped kicking, gliding forward five to six feet. About three seconds later, right where I had stopped kicking, the water lifted up in a big boil about four to six feet in diameter with a “whoosh” you could hear. This shark was 12 feet-plus and was moving at a running pace. I was cloaked by the dirty water and could see the tail swirls as it headed away toward the beach.

I had eye contact with it. At this point it stopped, hovering there: a 10-foot white. I lost sight of it as a bit of chop broke between us leaving a white slick on the surface. Every second I sat there the current was taking me farther out, giving the shark a better advantage.

I was approximately 120 yards from the beach. I saw a second large swirl as it changed course, no further sightings. I yelled at the surfer farther in, “Big shark!” He was gone on the next wave. Boyd was farther out but heard me yell and caught the next wave he could get. When I saw him, I pointed at the beach and gestured with my arms—BIG! He was gone. My wave luck was bad. At a very slow pace, 20 to 25 percent, I headed for the nearest land. Finally, a wave came, and I was in. It was a long, scary, slow paddle.

*

SHARK ENCOUNTER 6

Place: Wategoes

Time: 10:30 a.m.

Conditions: Sunny

Surf: Shoulder high

Water Visibility: Fair, 10 to 15 feet

Season: Spring

I was out on the outside corner of the sand bank inside Cape Byron. Same place as “Shark Encounter 1.” Two-and-a-half weeks earlier, I had sighted a 10 foot white shark. At first I wasn’t sure what it was as it was coming right at me around 300 feet out, the dorsal fin moving back and forth a bit. Could be a stick bobbing around. Then it disappeared. I didn’t have a good feeling about what it was and kept a close watch on that area. Fifteen to 20 seconds later it appeared again. This time the shark changed course and was closer. A good foot of fin appeared along with the tip of the tail a couple of feet behind. I knew what it was. Told two longboarders. Took the next catchable wave in. In the next couple of weeks there were a couple other sightings, two attacks, one resulting in damage to a surfer’s surfboard, the other fouling a person’s leg rope. I knew there was a good chance our paths would cross at some time.

Two-and-a-half weeks later, I had been out a little over an hour. There was current running toward deeper water. Being on the outer edge of a triangle-shaped sand bank, there was deeper water on both sides, producing a nice A-framed peak. I was under way at 30 percent power to hold position waiting for the next wave. As my back was toward the deeper water, I was keeping a sharp eye out behind me, as this was the most likely place something would come from with the water visibility and coming out of the sun. I would have little warning of its approach. As my head turned toward the left, looking back, I saw it coming from below and behind.

Ten to 12 feet away, coming off the bottom, angling up toward my legs, I spun and faced it. At six feet, I had eye contact with it. At this point it stopped, hovering there: a 10-foot white. In the meantime, the current I was paddling against to hold station was carrying me farther out into deeper water. The shark turned toward the left, arcing its body, rolling slightly on its side before slowly moving back toward the bottom. At this point, I could not see the bottom anymore and could just make out a dark area 15 feet away farther out. I lost sight of it as a bit of chop broke between us leaving a white slick on the surface.

Every second I sat there the current was taking me farther out, giving the shark a better advantage. Turning away from the last point, I saw it. I got under way toward the beach. Moving across the current at 50 percent power, my head turning from side to side watching my back. Dick Ash was on his belly board 30 meters farther in. I headed toward him. At 20 meters from him, I could see the bottom again. After telling him about the shark, I headed in.

The shark always maintained the same speed. It was in no rush. It knew that there was deeper water between us and the beach. It moved with confidence through the water headed across the sand bank.

There was a guy on a shortboard headed out toward the area of the encounter. I moved to intercept him, yelled, but he was wearing earplugs. Being on a mat, they do not paddle well. Swim fins make a lot of underwater noise if you go hard. At 50 percent power, however, they’re fairly quiet. He stopped 30 meters short of the peak where the encounter had happened. I caught up to him, told him, picked up a nice peak, and headed in. Warned two other people on the way. On the beach later on I saw the guy I had warned on the outside. He thanked me for coming back out and telling him about the shark.

*

THE FEAR FACTOR

If you think Jaws was scary, wait until you experience the real thing. All six encounters were scary. All six were life and death. “Shark Encounter 3” in The Fear Factor rates as the all-time best I’ve had. “Shark Encounter 3” had three different levels of fear. “The sighting” of the slow approach below and behind Martin. I didn’t wait for a positive ID.

I said, “Martin, there’s something big behind you.” He moved quickly out of its way. The rush of fear, now that we knew what it was. A bit of hope that it would keep going.

“The turn” shattered that hope. Now I knew it was interested in us. The shark always maintained the same speed. It was in no rush. It knew that there was deeper water between us and the beach. It moved with confidence through the water headed across the sand bank toward deeper water. I could just see it headed away.

Confidence was high it would keep going. I was just about to say to Martin, “Let’s get the fuck out of here!” when the shadow began to elongate.

“The final approach:” As the shark turned onto its final approach, the shadow turned into a smaller blob. I knew it was headed almost right at us. No waves in sight. No escape, no time. The shadow is getting bigger. The situation is getting worse. I am on an intercepting course, looking into the sun as we close on each other. Slight course change on my part meant it could see me with one eye.

The shark maintained its course and speed. Moving up on the mat to lengthen my reach over the front. If it touched or scraped the mat it would probably pop. I’ll be swimming with it. Beginning to see details on the shark: outline of the nose, bits of white around the jaw, very close to eye contact, the grayish-black shape gliding like a submarine. Still closing on each other. Then the nose started to swing away. The wait to see if it was going to come back. Then the paddle across the deep water of the gutter to the beach kept the fear factor up there.