What Lies Beneath

Image: What Lies Beneath

Their reputation as 'man-eaters' is more suited to fiction than reality – sharks are one our most misunderstood creatures. Dr Rachel Robbins (PhD, 2007) is the Chief Scientist of the Fox Shark Research Foundation. Robbins spends entire days at sea, studying the habitat, migration and development of great whites.

Along with bull sharks and tiger sharks, great whites are one of the main species of shark involved in attacks on humans. Robbins explains that attacks are often due to a shark's innate curiosity, and are really only a test bite.

"Sharks don't have hands, they can't feel what things are. The only thing they have to test out whether something is edible or not is their mouths."

Looking at the statistics, more people are killed every year by dogs, bees, lightening or tigers, than by sharks. In Australian waters there are on average fewer than two fatalities a year from great whites.

There are millions of people in the water each year and yet the shark attack statistics are incredibly low. If sharks were 'man-eaters' then the attack numbers would be proportionately higher." It was a decade ago when Robbins experienced first-hand the excitement of diving with sharks as a customer with the Rodney Fox Shark Expeditions in South Australia – an experience that became a turning point in her life. In 2002, joining forces with Rodney and Andrew Fox, Robbins co-founded the Fox Shark Research Foundation.

The foundation's mission is to inspire appreciation and understanding of great white sharks through research and education. This means increasing public knowledge about the important ecological role that this species plays in our oceans and why their future needs to be ensured. Sharks are apex predators and help control populations of animals that sit further down the food chain. Declines in shark numbers have a knock-on effect that can completely disrupt the marine ecosystem.

It also means the foundation is tasked with dispelling some of the mythology around sharks. In one project, Robbins and her team have been using satellite tagging to look at migration patterns and population dynamics of great whites in South Australian waters.

By tracking the paths of sharks, the team is identifying key habitat areas, which will help ensure effective protection of the species.

Passionate about her research subjects, Robbins says her underwater experiences have refined her appreciation for what she describes as graceful creatures.

"They all seem to have their own little personality. They're not just this mindless eating machine that people think they are. We have ones that are more curious or more nervous around us than others, while some are really cheeky and others really aloof. It's just interesting the personalities they have."

“Compared to how many people die a year from shark attacks, we certainly kill a much higher proportion, even though great white sharks are a protected species in Australian waters.”

Humans are the great white shark's only real enemy. Robbins says most people don't realise the increasing impact people are having on sharks – either directly or unintentionally. Recently, Robbins' team encountered a young great white, who was fondly given the nickname 'Strappy'. The name referred to the circular gash that encircled the shark's midsection, making it look like it had a large white strap around its body. On closer inspection, the researchers discovered the shark suffering immensely from a plastic packaging strap that had become embedded in his flesh.

Robbins says this is just one example of human-related injuries on sharks. With such an intensely negative attitude toward sharks from the general public, Robbins says that between 70 to 100 million sharks are killed each year for the shark meat industry and as a result of human-inflicted injuries – whether accidental or deliberate.

"Compared to how many people die a year from shark attacks, we certainly kill a much higher proportion, even though great white sharks are a protected species in Australian waters." Robbins completed her doctoral thesis on the sexual and size segregation of white sharks in the Neptune Islands, off the South Australian coast, looking at the relationship between great whites and their environment. This included studying the sex and size ratio of great whites compared to variables such as temperature, tidal ranges, moon phases and swell heights to determine how the distribution changed in different conditions.

Dedicating more than ten years of her life to uncovering their secrets, Robbins' enthusiasm for sharks is unfaltering as she gears up for her next expedition to sea. In getting to know the unique personalities of so many great whites, has Robbins chosen a favourite?

"I do, a shark called Jonny, who has probably been around for about 10 years now." Measuring 4.6 metres in length, Jonny is known for lifting his head above water as if to examine the crew onboard.

"He is so reliable as he comes back year after year after year, without fail."

Words: Alison Brown
Image: Andrew Fox
Statistics: FSRF (adapted from the World Health Organisation, The National Health Statistics & US Census Bureau)