It Was Just a Shark, An Interview with Rodney Fox, on Being Attacked, Surviving, and Returning to the Water, Part One.
Q: I have to ask this question — where did the shark bite you?
Fox: It bit me round the chest, here [Draws semi-circle on torso]. Broke every rib in my left-hand chest. It broke the main artery from the heart. The stomach was left exposed. The spleen was left exposed. The lung had twenty-nine stitches in it. I had all my tendons in my right hand cut. But, luckily enough, nothing was taken, so when they stitched it all back together…. I was very young. I worked on it very hard and became fit as I could be and I haven’t suffered in any way from the attack.
Fox: In my wrist, there’s a piece of tooth that was stitched over. It must’ve broken off. I’ve got X-rays to show that there’s a piece about three-eighths of an inch long. You can still feel it. The school kids love it. They say, “Can I feel your piece of tooth in your wrist?” But it doesn’t hurt me so I leave it there.
Q: You must get asked a lot about being attacked by a great white.
Fox: I met a girl up in Brisbane once. Actually it was up in Cairns, and she come up and she says, “I’m the girl that was bitten by the shark.” I said, “Welcome to the club. You show me your scars, I’ll show you mine.” Now, she actually had to lift her dress up to show me her hip and her bottom there, and I thought, “Thank goodness I wasn’t bitten there.” Because she’s going to be walking around lifting her dress for the rest of her life.
Q: Like a lot of Americans, perhaps, I have the impression that Australia, the coastline, is loaded with great white sharks. Is that true?
Fox: We had over 250 people that drowned last year. We had three deaths by sharks only. People don’t say, “Oh, don’t go to Australia and get drowned.” They say, “Go to Australia and watch out for the sharks.” Sharks don’t like us. They don’t want our bones in their bellies for days and days, ten days at a time, because they don’t get any energy trying to get rid of that. They want protein or fat.
Q: But there are great white sharks swimming around, right?
Fox: We recently had a great white shark swim up the port river here, about ten miles inland. Port Adelaide is our big shipping channel. It was following a school of Mulloway, which is a big, good eating fish. I had an Italian guy ring me up and he said, “How do I get rid of it, it’s eating my fish!” My fish, mind you, I mean they were swimming around there. And he said, “Can I net it?”
I said, “I don’t think it’s legal to net in the area.”
And he said, “What about shooting it?”
I said, “They’re protected. You’re really not allowed to shoot it.”
“Well, what if I just poison it?” [Laughs]. He really was a bit pissed off. A week later we never heard any more. It must’ve swum off.
Q: Every time I go into the water here in Australia I think, “I’m going to be attacked by sharks right now.” Is this a reasonable feeling?
Fox: We keep telling the sharks not to bite us, but they don’t take any notice. And it’s because they eat — the biggest sharks — eat things as big as us everyday. The more people you put in the water, the chances are higher. And, normally, they don’t target us because we’re too bony. They don’t even like us, the big sharks, at all. A lot of smaller sharks do bite us because they do mistake us for food. When you’re walking along in the shallows or surfing and your hand is over the side of the board, they think your hand is a fish, not the whole body. They come up and grab a hand and, of course, they have such sharp teeth that they do a huge amount of damage in a short time, and if they cut an artery, you’re dead in eight minutes.
Q: That’s comforting.
Fox: It’s the emotion that makes people fear sharks. I believe it’s the fact of being eaten alive that is one of our worst fears. I once did some research with students. I gave them ten ways if they had to die, they could choose one through ten. Being eaten by a shark was ninth or tenth, last on the list. They’d rather be hit by lightning, run over by a steamroller, attacked by a madman, all sorts of things.
Q: I wish you came into my class when I was a kid.
Fox: Over the years, it’s been very difficult for me to try and help the sharks. I saw that emotions about sharks were far greater than they should be. People hated sharks. Like the bumper sticker says, “The best shark’s a dead shark.” Kill em’ all, get rid of em’. With a fair bit of pressure from a few people who started to think and learn about sharks, the younger ones, the children at schools, were questioning dead sharks. I thought it was great to read in the paper, when a game fisherman would be standing there with a big shark and they’d write in and say, “Why did he kill the shark? What good was it?”
Q: What’s this? [Points to a piece of Styrofoam-type material with enormous bite marks all over it, propped against the wall of Rodney’s museum.]
Fox: This was used in False Bay, where they [great white sharks] jump. This is a fake seal, with a camera in it that we used for a National Geographic project. We dragged that behind the boat about fifty meters around the sea lion colony, and this shark jumped clean out of the water and grabbed it.
Q: Is this guy insane? [Points to a photograph of a man kneeling at the back of a boat with his bare hand on the nose of great white shark that has come partially out of the water.]
Fox: This chap here is touching the Ampullae of Lorenzini. We only found this out only two years ago that sharks really aren’t thinkers like we are. And one of the funny things is this shark came into bite on his Yamaha, brand new — he hadn’t even paid for it I don’t think. He bent over and heaved the shark away, keeping his fingers well back from its teeth. But its mouth jawed open and went [demonstrates a slack jaw]. And it did a circle and came back again, and every time he touched it on its nose, under there, its jaw automatically fell open. Didn’t think about it, it just happened. When I did it for National Geographic, very carefully the first time, I missed totally. I was way over the top. Then I reached down as the shark came past and touched it. It did the same thing for me.
Q: Can you give me some pointers about avoiding a shark attack?
Fox: First thing, always, if there’s lots of fish in an area, that’s the 7/11 store for the sharks. It’s their restaurant. And if you mix in there, and they come sweeping through, you’re going to be the most awkward and slowest thing in that bunch, and you’ll get bitten. That’s number one.
Q: That’s it?
Fox: You always have to be a little wary. If you do see a big shark in the water, don’t swim off like a sick sea lion or a dolphin, flapping along like you’re wounded — and we all swim a bit like that anyway. Steadily, quietly, move toward other people because that confuses them. Also gives you fifty-fifty chance…. [Laughs.] If there’s a big fat guy, go behind him —
Q: [Laughing] Don’t be food — check. Find fat guy, check —
Fox: Or swim to a boat, or to shore. The important point is you got to keep your eye continually on that shark. If the shark knows it’s been seen, you’ve almost stopped fifty-percent of its attack strategy. It likes to sneak up on things. They’re creatures that don’t want to use a lot of energy. When they were growing up, and they tried to chase the dolphin or the seal or the bigger fish and they zigzagged all over, they must’ve wasted huge amounts of energy chasing and not getting a damn thing. When it comes across you, it doesn’t know if you’re as fast or as healthy as that last dolphin it couldn’t catch, and it gives you the benefit of the doubt and comes to see if you are sick, nudges you to see if you’re edible. If you keep your eye on it, it thinks you might zigzag away any minute.
Q: Can sharks tell the difference between you and the fish swimming around?
Fox: Sharks have such incredible senses, and one in particular we’ve been looking to work with shark repellents is the Ampullae of Lorenzini in their nose. It’s the sense that they have that picks up electrical fields. When you put fish juice or blood in the water, it sends out an electrical current. They don’t necessarily “smell” it with their nose like we smell. It sends a message to them almost like a radio message. They know that there’s something edible around. Their stomach juices start to work, just like when you come home and you smell a beautiful roast or a barbecue, you know you’re hungry. And they’re test biting whatever they can.
Q: Test biting?
Fox: Sharks don’t have hands. They have a test bite. The test bite brings blood, which excites them, and they continue. Until there’s a perfect shark repellent, you’ll never stop shark attacks.
Q: How about when they attack inanimate things that aren’t food at all?
Fox: We’ve noticed that the great whites in particular do come up and bite on the sides of the boat where the zinc blocks are that are sending out a similar signal. It’s the decaying or the corrosion of the zinc. Outboard motors get bitten because they’re also sending out a signal.
Q: I’ve seen documentaries where sharks are biting on the shark cages — is that the same thing going on?
Fox: When we were in our cages in the early days, we used to think the sharks wanted to come and bite us. When we got out of the cages they still came up and bit on to them because putting aluminum or steel into salt water, with all of its elements in there, its minerals and chemicals, makes it a battery and sends off a little signal, and they get confused.
Q: Would that make a good shark repellent, something that sort of shocks the shark?
Fox: There are two companies here in Adelaide that are working on repellents like that. If it’s a weak signal, it will attract. And as it gets stronger and stronger it will hurt them and repel. So you’ve got a shark repellent when it’s close, but an attractor when the signal gets weak.
Q: What do you think of the popularity of shark diving and hand-feeding sharks by people who go on vacation and decide they’re going to dive with sharks and feed them like they’re at a zoo? Doesn’t this just get sharks accustomed to linking humans with food?
Fox: One of the reasons why people have been attacked is because when they feed fish or sharks underwater — and I have a friend who was doing this in northern Australia. The sharks came in, took the small pieces of fish and then spun around and saw that she had a white — she didn’t know this — she had white kneepads on her knees, and the shark must’ve thought that was a fish and just came in and bit. If sharks are feeding hard and fast they can make a mistake and bite things.
Q: Will sharks start attacking people more because they’re expecting food, whether or not they’re actually down there feeding sharks, like, if they’re just swimming?
Fox: South Africa had a lot of attacks four or five years ago, and they thought it was attributable to the sharks that were being seen underwater. And then when they put a professor onto the job, and he analyzed the whole thing, he couldn’t connect the two. Part of the reason is that the white sharks are the ones people love to see, and put bait into the water for. Most of the attacks were from other types of sharks. Also, the attacks didn’t happen where they were doing the feeding, they happened hundreds of miles away.
Q: So feeding them is okay?
Fox: Food is such an important thing for them. You must look at the fact that we’ve taken so much food out of the water. We know that sharks are very rare. In Australia, there’s only two people allowed to chum for sharks out here, and we’re given two islands about 120 miles from Adelaide. We run only eight to ten expeditions per year, and these expeditions have eight to ten people on them, and you see sharks for four or five days. We’re not trying to turn it into a circus act. We could probably fill the boats up and take people out regularly. We’re trying to first run it as a business, because it has to pay. We’ve found if you don’t feed the sharks very much, they go away and they don’t come back again. So, we’re training them not to go toward boats and people.
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