Stab Magazine | The Journalist And The Great White Shark
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The Journalist And The Great White Shark

Veteran journalist Fred Pawle gives us the lowdown on his recent North Coast shark investigation for The Australian national newspaper.

Words by stab

Yesterday (Monday), veteran journalist from The Australian national newspaper, Fred Pawle, started publishing his six-part series about the shark problem on the NSW North Coast surf region (an area that encompasses Ballina, Lennox Head and Byron Bay). As you’re probably aware, that 70km stretch of coast has become one of the world capitals for shark attacks. In the past three years, there have been at least 11 attacks, including two fatalities. Fred was also the former feature writer for Stab (during which period his profile of West Australian gay surfer, Matt Branson was nominated for a Walkley journalism award). He has also been a surfer for 40 years. Here, in an exclusive for Stab readers, he outlines some of the key takeaways from his investigation.

Stab: What were the big takeaways from your investigation into the shark situation on the NSW North Coast?
Fred Pawle: The locals are sick to death of being ignored. They have been putting up with frequent attacks and almost daily sightings for three years, and all they want is to go surfing. The ones who still surf have developed their own ways of dealing with the fear. Some of them are fatalistic, some are superstitious, some are just plain determined not to let a bunch of politicians and scientists stop them from surfing. Anybody who hasn’t developed resilience to the fear has simply given up surfing, which is tragic. Also, the region has a geopolitical divide. Byron is full of trippy conservationists who oppose nets and resent any attempt by mankind to influence or control the natural environment; Ballina has more families who just want their kids to be safe while playing in the ocean. Also, neither side is ever going to persuade the other. This debate will never be resolved.

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What was your experience with that area prior to doing this? Totally chilled. I’ve always absolutely loved that stretch of coast. One of my favourite beaches in Australia is Whites, behind Broken Head. It’s totally idyllic. However, I’d never surf it now because the only way out is a long walk through the bush. Even a minor attack there could easily be fatal, given that you’d lose so much blood before you got to hospital.

What did you find most surprising in the process? How spooky the beaches at Ballina are. I was expecting them to be deserted, but I didn’t realise how much that would creep me out. You walk along the sand, and all you can think about is what might be swimming past just 100m away. You see fun, empty waves, and it gives you chills.

How are local people and business owners getting on through all this? The towns still look prosperous enough, but some businesses are suffering a lot. Ask me the same question in 10 years, after a generation of kids have grown up without surfing as their main distraction.

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Who seemed least concerned out of the people you spoke to – surfers, families, business owners, fishermen, authorities? Conservationists. They will never concede that human life is more important than a turtle’s.

Who seemed most concerned? Le-Ba president Don Munro. That guy has fought the good fight for years. He has the determination of a bulldog and the patience of a saint.

Having finished the investigation, do you have an opinion on what is the most rational solution? I’m still researching some of the finer details, but with a bit of luck I’ll have some major conclusions soon. Stay tuned!

Follow Fred’s North Coast Shark series here.

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