Spate of Shark Attacks in Australia Rattles Nerves

In this photo released by Tasmania Police and distributed via AAP Image, a surfboard which had a chunk taken out of it by a great white shark in Binalong Bay, Tasmania, Australia, Jan. 11, 2009 is shown. Across Australia, edgy beachgoers are questioning their safety following a string of attacks and shark sightings close to shore. (AP Photo/Tasmania Police via AAP Image) **NO SALES, NEW ZEALAND OUT. AUSTRALIA OUT, NO ARCHIVE, EDITORIAL USE ONLY**
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SYDNEY, Australia (AP) -- A recent string of shark attacks across Australia has rattled swimmers' nerves, but experts say fear not - it's (relatively) safe to go in the water.

"This is a mild hysteria," said Rachel Robbins, chief scientist at Australia's Rodney Fox Shark Research Foundation, named for and founded by the famed shark expert. "I think it's just a freak coincidence that we've happened to have three shark attacks" in two days.

Despite the assurances, a debate is raging over whether there are indeed more sharks in Australia's waters - or whether simply more swimmers are aware of the creatures' presence.

The trouble began on Dec. 27, when 51-year-old Brian Guest vanished while snorkeling with his son off a beach in Western Australia. A piece of his wet suit was later found, and officials said he was almost certainly eaten by a shark.

On Sunday, a 13-year-old surfer in the island state of Tasmania was dragged under water by a 16-foot (5-meter) great white shark, and a 31-year-old surfer was bitten while surfing at a remote beach in New South Wales state. Both survived.

On Monday, Steven Fogarty was snorkeling in southern New South Wales when a shark latched onto his leg. He survived after letting fly a flurry of punches that caused the shark to let go.

Several beaches have been closed after sharks were spotted close to shore, while officials have warned people to swim in groups, avoid swimming at dawn and dusk when sharks feed, and to stick to patrolled beaches.

Despite Australia's reputation as a haven for the man-eaters, only one fatal shark attack occurs on average each year, according to the Australian Shark Attack File database.

Database curator John West said there was no evidence that the number of sharks along Australia's coastline has grown in recent years and that the latest flurry of sightings probably came about because swimmers - frightened by the cluster of attacks - were on the lookout.

But Michael Brown, managing director of Surfwatch Australia, which conducts observational flights along beaches in the Sydney area several times a week, said there has been an "unbelievable increase" in the number of sharks spotted in the past few years.

Currents pulled nutrient-rich waters closer to the coast following storms off New South Wales about four years ago and left a perfect environment for smaller fish, which fed larger fish and, in turn, more sharks, he said.

Some Australian beaches are protected from sharks by submerged nets that run parallel to the shore. This week there have been heightened calls for nets to be installed at more beaches.

But the effectiveness of the nets is questionable: They do not create full enclosures, and sharks sometimes become caught on the inside as they swim away from the beach.

"Shark nets actually provide a perception of protection that's not there," said Trevor Long, a marine scientist at Sea World on Australia's Gold Coast.

Others have argued for targeted killings of large sharks.

But shark species including the great white - considered the most dangerous to man - are protected in Australian waters, and many dismiss the idea of killing them as misplaced.

They include Daniel Guest, whose father disappeared in the suspected attack just days after Christmas.

"Anybody who knows anything about the ocean knows that this is their (the sharks) territory and they're going to do what they're going to do," the 24-year-old said. "I don't want anybody to be scared to go into the water."

But if you're standing on the beach pondering a dip, it's hard not to ask the question: Is it safe?

"The rational (response) is you've got a much higher chance of dying (while) driving to the beach," said Adam Smith, director of the Great Australian Shark Count Project, which compiles statistics on shark sightings.

"The emotional one is: No one wants to be eaten alive."

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