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The Shark Files: Diving to a new perspective

After the twelfth attack on the NSW coast, Stephanie Atkins explores hunting tactics of Australia’s most notorious sharks.

38-year-old body boarder, Dale Carr, is the latest to survive a shark attack in Australian waters.

He was bitten last Saturday evening off Lighthouse Beach, Port Macquarie.

Entering the water at dawn, dusk and nighttime is considered most dangerous as many sharks are known to feed during these hours.

After two life-saving surgeries, Carr is now in a stable condition.

What was initially thought to have been the handiwork of a bull shark was later confirmed to be the bite marks of a great white.

These apex predators of evolutionary excellence have highly specialised means of hunting their prey.

Marine ecologist, diving naturalist, shark conservationist and operator of DiveCareDare, Tony Isaacson, tells upstart that different species of sharks have very distinct predatory styles.

“The great white has an ambush style of hunting, often attacking from below and from behind. It knows that it has a very precious commodity in the steak knife serrated teeth that it has. The last thing that it wants is to lose those teeth before their time is up,” he says.

Isaacson says a great white shark’s main prey are blubbery seals and sea lions which surfers are often mistaken for.

“The main purpose of those steak knife teeth is to take very large chunks out of the prey. They will take bites with the intention of letting go to allow their victims to bleed out and for fatigue to set in,” he says.

It is during this pause in the attack that provides an opportunity for the victim to be rescued.

“It’s just very unfortunate for those victims of a great white shark bite, if they get lucky on the first bite and have had their femoral artery or major blood vessel severed,” he says.

Unlike a great white, bull sharks have evolved to hunt in murky waters and will rip and tear their food violently.

Bull sharks are known to frequent freshwater estuaries and rivers.

They have the ability to adapt to habitats with low salinity levels through complex osmoregulatory processes.

According to the Discovery Channel, bull sharks are often found 2,000 miles from the ocean in Lake Nicaragua.

There have even been reported sightings of bull sharks in the Mississippi River.

Any victim of a bull shark would be very fortunate to have a window of opportunity to escape.

Of course, there are always exceptions.

Navy Clearance Diver, Paul de Gelder, lost his right forearm and leg to a bull shark bite in Sydney Harbour in 2009.

Two years later, Isaacson convinced de Gelder to dive with bull sharks in the wild.



“I said [to de Gelder]: it may be too soon but when you’re ready, I know the right place to go if you would like to have closure with bull sharks,” Isaacson says.

With an intimate knowledge of the species’ behaviour, Isaacson took de Gelder, along with a 60 Minutes crew, to Beqa Lagoon in Fiji.

During the five days of diving and filming, they encountered a plethora of shark species.

Tawny nurse sharks, which Isaacson calls the “Huggy Bears of the shark world”, would arrive opportunistically for a free feed of spoils from the bait bin.

In what Isaacson describes as “an intensely satisfying moment” in his career, he says that de Gelder was a changed person by the end of the week.

“Without a chainmail glove, or any kind of safety device, he was hand-feeding lemon sharks and bull sharks,” he says.

Paul de Gelder is now a motivational speaker and shark advocate.

“Credit to him, he pulled it off. I’m thankful to Tony for getting this together, for getting me back out there to have the experience of a life time,” de Gelder told 60 Minutes.

“Sharks fascinate me. They always have. It’s that awe-inspiring fear, and I like to conquer my fears.”

Isaacson’s extensive knowledge of sharks also developed from a fear of them. He has dived in over 20 countries, including South Africa, Komodo, Tahiti and Galapagos Islands.

He is not a tourist charter operator, but a guide for likeminded people who want to dive with a myriad of shark species.

From his experience, Isaacson says tiger sharks have the nicest behaviour out of any predatory shark.

He says that they’re the only species who have the teeth capable of consuming a full-grown turtle, shell and all.

Earlier this year, Isaacson dived with tiger sharks in Jupiter, Florida.

Underwater dancer, Hannah Fraser, also shows how most encounters with sharks do not end in an attack.


Isaacson says that you’d have to be doing something stupid to be bitten by a tiger shark.

“Humans, through ignorance more than anything else, put themselves in harm’s way,” he says.

“If they do come in for a bite, just bump them on the nose.”

In order to differentiate themselves from prey, Isaacson’s crew remain vertical in the water and stay close together to appear larger.

He says that the most important rule is to never surf or swim alone.

A self-proclaimed “show pony” for shark-repelling wetsuits, Isaacson uses both designs for specific water-based activities.

The black and white striped wetsuits are designed to act as a last moment warning to an attack predator like a great white.

“Research suggests black and white stripes are a theme in nature above and below the water as a warning sign,” Isaacson says.

The pattern is disruptive, meaning a shark can be easily confused by it.

These animals are believed to only see in black and white, and use shades to help identify their prey. However, according to National Geographic, sharks can see contrast extremely well and are attracted to vibrant bathers. Sharks are also attracted to jewellery.

The blue-on-blue wetsuit is designed to camouflage in deeper water as predatory sharks rely heavily upon visual stimuli whilst hunting.

He says that for an investment of $500 or less, this ocean wear could be the difference between life and death.

“I’m absolutely adamant that mainstream Australians become far more shark-savvy and I will do whatever it takes to get that message out there,” he says.

He is a regular volunteer for Reef Check and Grey Nurse Shark Watch, in which he encourages people to assist in surveys of the animals.

“This is what I live for,” he says.


upstart will continue to follow NSW and its tagging program of great whites.

This is the second instalment of a multi-part series

Feature image courtesy of John Nussbaum. Body image courtesy of Facebook. 


Stephanie Atkins

Stephanie Atkins is in her final year of a Bachelor of Journalism degree at La Trobe University. You can follow her on Twitter: @_steph_atkins_.




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