Galeophobia: Excessive and persistent fear of sharks

It seems that every year we experience a wave of summertime media hype about the terrors from the deep, the men in grey suits, Noah’s ark, Johnny dark, the apex predator in our watery playground: Mr Shark.

Close calls with sharks

My first shark experience was in South Africa, on Christmas day back in 1996. It was an uncrowded dawn and I was sitting smugly out the back, watching the rising sun pour honey upon the slick swell lines, marching my way.

Then something caught my eye: a sleek, dark shape cruised beneath me so fast that I didn’t have time to pull my feet away from its menacing form. In my frozen horror, I may as well have given him a back rub. Oh well, that’s South Africa for you. It’ll never happen again, until…

The next significant experience was at a place called Seal Rocks, up the coast in NSW, Australia. Alone at dusk, I marvelled at the sunset surface tones, only to behold a large, jagged fin emerge from a rippled wake, heading directly for me. A spectacle of frenzied paddling left me dangling off the lip of a four foot set before being thrust into the timeless darkness below. When mother ocean finally relinquished me I kissed a handful of sand.

My third experience was up in Byron Bay where on a typically beautiful day dolphins appeared in the pristine line-up, as if on cue to complete a surfing Disneyland. Minutes later the water was empty and a young man was shakily holding his board up: fin gone, legrope severed and an arcing imprint of teeth across the tail. The mood was lifted when a Japanese girl-surfer pulled out a camera from who knows where and asked for a picture, please.

Sharks are always there

No matter whether you ignore them or not sharks are always there. It’s a case of analysing your fear and weighing up the risks in two ways. Firstly you need to analyse your own attitude toward sharks and find a way to accept them as part of our surfing lifestyle. How cool that surfing is one of the last activities where you might actually be eaten by a wild animal – tell that to hot Scandinavian girls to get some loving! It works! But more importantly, it’s time to acknowledge these animals as a beautiful, intrinsic part of what we do and embrace rather than fear them.

Secondly you need to weigh up conditions every time you surf. There are several distinct warning signs that should tune you into the possibility of becoming lunch: baitfish jumping from the water (look for a darkish patch of turbulence moving in one direction), birds diving and feeding, murky conditions especially near river mouths and that big bloody cut on your foot. You also need to know what to do if the unthinkable really happens. Run the scenario through your mind a few times so you have visualised what you will do (sans brown shorts preferably). The most effective way of repelling a shark during attack is to smack that fishy on the nose. A shark’s nose is packed with sensitive nerve endings called the Ampullae of Lorenzi and a punch there is kind of like a kick in the balls. The more you hit this area, however, the less effective it will be, so stick your finger in its eyes and tug at those sensitive gills. This is one scenario where cruelty to animals is A-ok so use your monkey instincts and fight before flight.

Galeophobia – should you be afraid?

In 2008 there were 118 recorded shark ‘interactions’ with humans according to the ISAF Shark Attack Summary. Of these 59 were considered to be unprovoked attacks and four people died. This is pretty low when you think about the ever-increasing masses embracing the ocean purely for recreational purposes. But you’re not off the hook just yet. As we deplete maritime resources and the sea around places like Australia becomes cleaner our habitats will continue to merge and overlap, which will undoubtedly create more opportunities for direct interaction with sharks.

Personally I think of sharks as being somewhat like wild dogs. They’re curious, they scavenge, they’re timid yet territorial, they’re often hungry and they’re not stupid. We can primarily reduce our chances of being nibbled through common sense and avoiding risky situations.

How to deter a shark

But if you want to go a step further there are tools that will help ward off an attack. With wild dogs you’d shake a burning branch, with sharks you can try Shark Shield (an electronic device that is affixed to the deck of your board). Shark Shield emits electronic pulses that deter sharks and certain types of rays but doesn’t affect other marine life, so don’t be surprised if you spot Nemo sheltering beneath you. It weighs less than a kilogram and has a battery life of 7 hours. The drawback is the price which is $680, but with up to 3000 battery uses it will be around for a while. That works out to around 22 cents per surf. Man, Shark Shield, you should employ me.

A low tech repellent is Shark Camo which is a sticker containing a unique pattern that has been shown to repel sharks. The sticker is affixed to the bottom deck of your board and costs $49 a pop.

The new Modom Shark Leash is making shark protection easier than ever, by integrating a magnetic repellent into your legrope. For $250 that will give a lot of surfers immense peace of mind.

I think the key to conquering galeophobia, even if you only have a mild case of it, is acceptance. Instead of looking into the depths with fear, look with wonder. We’re exposing ourselves to nature and how we should exist: no laws, no pretense, no bullshit. Just survival and elation – being in the moment and being alive.