Shark attacks and whale migration
in Western Australia
Shark attacks in Australia historically clustered around the summer months, probably because of human beach populations.
Shark Attacks - No Attacks in Winter
(Cairns Post 1933 - desktop site)
(Cairns Post 1933 - desktop site)
Surfer's Dread - Habits of the Shark
(Sydney Morning Herald 1954 - desktop site)
(Sydney Morning Herald 1954 - desktop site)
Man-Eating Sharks - Reassurance for Local Bathers
(The West Australian 1935 - desktop site)
(The West Australian 1935 - desktop site)
Since 1995, however, two of WA's 18 great white shark attack fatalities have been in July, one in August, two in September, three in October, two in November, two in December, two in January, two in March, one in April, one in May and one in June. There has also been a tiger shark fatality in January 1997.
A majority are in the humpback whale migration season, even though far fewer people swim during winter and spring - although surfers are more common during winter months.
Great whites are coming to where the food has become plentiful, particularly whale calves and adult carcasses, and the timing of fatalities since 1995 suggests a correlation with the humpback's WA migration, particularly the southern swim from the Kimberley to the Antarctic with newborn.
That is when the humpbacks hug the coastline to protect their calves, increasing their proximity to humans.
Latest attacks in Western Australia
Over recent years, Western Australia has gained an international reputation as the deadliest place in the world for fatal shark attacks.
One of the biggest great whites ever caught in the world was a six metre specimen in 1987 at Ledge Point.
This location is just 20 kilometres south of a great white shark attack on 14 July 2012 that took the life of surfer Ben Linden.
On 28 August 2012, 34 year old surfer Jon Hines was attacked at Red Bluff, north of the Gascoyne town of Carnarvon. He suffered serious injuries and the shark species is not confirmed.
If you look at Location and Estimate Period of Humpback Whale Activity in WA (PDF download), you'll see the first of the southbound humpbacks heading back to the Antarctic were north of Carnarvon at the time of the attack. This is a migration resting area for mothers with calves.
The man who saved Mr Hines was big-wave surfing "legend" Geoff Goulden, who told The Sunday Times:
"I don't know what type of shark it was that got Jon, it could have been a tiger or bull shark. But I saw a whale two minutes before it happened - white pointers hang around the migration paths of whales and we've had a plague of white-pointer attacks so it's a good chance it was a white pointer."
The day after the Red Bluff attack, the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper quoted a Fisheries Department spokesman:
"It is not known what type of shark was involved in yesterday's attack but the Department of Fisheries said waters that far north were mainly inhabited by tropical species - although great whites have also been known to migrate through the area."
Why do great whites migrate through the area?
It may have been a tiger shark but they also enjoy scavenging whale meat.
Tiger sharks are more a northern species, although they can range as far south as Cape Leeuwin, and it is doubtful that humpbacks influence their feeding habitats as they do great whites.
8 October 2013: abalone diver Greg Pickering was mauled by a great white shark at Poison Creek, about 160 kilometres east of Esperance, fortunately surviving but with massive injuries. The attack was off Western Australia's south coast where migrating whales are abundant in October as they migrate south to Antarctica, bearing in mind that sperm and southern right whales that mostly frequent southern latitudes are also recovering in number (more slowly than humpbacks) and are also luring great white sharks from as far afield as South Africa.
Two days later, the story below was published in WA's daily press:
Despite stories like this, the authorities and media remain unwilling to recognise the connection between whale numbers and great white sharks so the public can be informed that the most likely time for a shark attack in West Australian waters is during the whale migration season in autumn, winter and spring.
23 November 2013: surfer Chris Boyd was killed by a shark in the waters off Gracetown in WA's south. Although unconfirmed, the killer is thought to have been a great white shark and whales were reportedly seen in the area a few days before.
As usual, the Gracetown death sparked a frenzy of media coverage during the following week with no mention of whales and panic that WA beaches should be protected by summer, the season when shark attacks have not been happening. WA ministers are advocating that great white sharks no longer be a protected species, with no understanding that these sharks haven't had time since 1999 protection for a big increase in population, and are only appearing in numbers off WA's coast since 1995 because they are lured by the booming whale population.
29 December 2014: 17 year old spear fisherman Jay Muscat was killed by a shark at Cheynes Beach near Albany in WA's far south, with a great white having been seen in the area beforehand. This was only the second great white fatality in summer months since 1995 and about a month after the last of the humpback herds had swum south into Antarctic waters - bearing in mind that other species such as southern right and sperm whales have also been recovering for several decades and have a shorter southern migration.
31 May 2016: 29 year old surfer Ben Gerring died in hospital after his leg was torn off by a great white shark at Falcon Beach near Mandurah, south of Perth. Five days later, 60 year Edith Cowan University lecturer Doreen Collyer was killed by a great white while scuba diving off Mindarie in Perth's northern suburbs. The attacks happened early in the humpback migration north to Kimberley waters, with a majority of whales off the south-west and mid-west coast of WA. The great white shark threat will remain until November/December when the humpbacks have finished their migration back to Antarctic waters.
17 April 2017: 17 year old surfer Laeticia Brouwer died after a probable great white shark attack at Kelp Beds, east of Wylie Beach, near the south coastal town of Esperance.
5 January 2020: 57 year old diver Gary Johnson died after a great white shark attack near Cull Island, about seven kilometres from the south coastal town of Esperance. There have been four great white attacks near Esperance since 2006, two fatal, reflecting the year-round presence of these sharks in the cool waters of the Southern Ocean where whale species such as the Southern Right can always be found.
9 October 2020: 52 year old Esperance surfer Andrew Sharpe was killed in a great white shark attack at Kelp Beds, about 15 kilometres east of Esperance and the same beach where 17 year old Laeticia Brouwer was taken by a great white in 2017. Great whites are particularly attracted to these cools waters of the Southern Ocean where whale species other than humpbacks have surged in numbers since the 1960s.
22 November 2020: 59 year old local bodyboarder Charles Cernobori was killed in a bull shark attack at Cable Beach in the northern Kimberley town of Broome.
A search of archived newspapers suggests the following chronology of known fatal shark attacks in WA waters, with blue nurse and even hammerheads being mentioned more often in earlier 1800s reports and a likelihood that many attacks were unreported when there was hardly any communication or transport. All links below are to desktop websites.
Fatal November 1896 - species unknown
Fatal December 1910 at Fremantle - species unknown
Fatal January 1923 at Claremont - species unknown
Fatal November 1923 at Port Hedland - species unknown
Fatal November 1925 at Cottesloe Beach - tiger shark
Fatal December 1948 at Lancelin Beach - tiger shark
Fatal August 1967 at Jurien Bay - great white
Fatal September 1995 at Hopetoun - great white
Fatal January 1997 at Geraldton - tiger shark
Fatal November 2000 at North Cottesloe Beach - great white
Fatal July 2004 at Margaret River - two sharks seen, likely great whites
Fatal March 2005 at Abrolhos Island - great white
Fatal December 2008 at Port Kennedy - great white
Fatal August 2010 at Cowaramup Bay - great white
Fatal September 2011 at Bunker Bay - great white
Fatal October 2011 at Rottnest Island - great white
Fatal October 2011 at Cottesloe Beach - species unknown
Fatal March 2012 at Stratham Beach - great white
Fatal July 2012 at Wedge Point - great white
Fatal November 2013 off Gracetown - species unknown
Fatal December 2014 at Cheynes Beach - great white
Fatal May 2016 at Falcon Beach, Mandurah - great white
Fatal June 2016 at Mindarie - great white
Fatal April 2017 at Kelps Beds, Esperance - great white
Fatal January 2020 off Cull Island, Esperance - great white
Fatal October 2020 at Kelps Beds, Esperance - great white
Fatal November 2020 at Cable Beach, Broome - bull shark
Unlike early years when the most dangerous swimming season was summer and the most likely killer was a tiger shark, there has been a clear shift toward winter and spring attacks with great whites the usual predators.
A significant majority of non-fatal WA shark attacks in recent years have also occurred during the whale migration and, based on shark attack months over the past 40 years, it seems the safest time to swim is from late December to April when the weather is hot to mild and the beaches are often crowded.
There was a flurry of attacks in Australia and WA between 1959 and 1966, their cause unknown but unlikely to be a single man-eater because the figures suggest an increase around Australia (although great whites often roam for thousands of kilometres). Except for this period, there was a general decline from the 1930s until the year 2000, since when there has been a consistent increase around Australia.
There were 21 shark attacks in WA from 1959 to 1966, including a fatality, and this is the only period since the 1920s when there was some frequency. This seven year anomaly is unexplained and does not correlate with low whale numbers.
Humpback whaling has been banned in the southern hemisphere since 1963 but it wasn't until the 1990s that whale watchers reported increasing pod numbers.
Changing patterns of shark attacks in Australian waters, published by the CSIRO in 2011, charts the months of shark attacks, fatal and non-fatal, from 1990 to 2009:
These are national figures and heavily biased by Australia's heavily populated southern states of South Australia, Victoria and much of NSW where great whites inhabit the waters year round. Eastern seaboard great whites migrate north to the Great Barrier Reef each year, coinciding with the migration of humpback whales.
Using Shark Attack File.Info data from the first attack in 1803 till 2012, WA's fatal and non-fatal shark attack chart is similar to the national record above since 1990, with the exceptions of April, November and December:
However, WA's record since 1990 shows a change in the monthly pattern:
The seasonal distribution of attacks has changed in WA and the data shows that attacks in the west occur more frequently in winter and spring than in the rest of Australia:
These figures are for all shark attacks and it is worthwhile considering charts of great white attacks only, starting with the first confirmed great white attack in 1946:
The monthly great white attack trend is also clear from 1990 to 2012 with a breakdown of fatal and non-fatal attacks:
The winter/spring bias may be due to these being favoured seasons for surfers, who represent a high proportion of attacks and fatalities, but the comparatively low attack rate in the popular beach season from February to June suggests the cause is increased numbers of great white sharks in WA waters from July to January.
It is apparent from the charts above that although national shark attack fatalities have not matched the 20 years in Western Australia, there has been an overall increase in attacks commensurate with recovering whale numbers.
Then again, could the shark attack increase be due to a growing Australian population, recovering seal numbers or other causes?Back To Top