“Are you sure it wasn’t a dolphin?” one of the lifeguards asked. I looked at her with what I imagined to be a withering stare. Marine biologist, I was not, however, I had a reasonable degree of confidence that I am optically enabled enough to tell the difference between a shark (which I had just seen), and a dolphin (which I had not). I’ve seen Jaws. I wanted action! I wanted beaches shut down, fists shaken in fury at the ocean, and demands for firepower and bigger boats. Instead, all I got was a grizzled elderly lifeguard assuring me they’d “take out the ducky and have a squiz”.
I had been doing a solo open water swim out the back of Coolangatta, and being young and immortal, the thought of malevolent marine life had never crossed my mind. After swimming for the best part of an hour, I’d started to head back to shore, and was about 100m from land in around head height water, when a shark casually swam directly beneath me, heading back out to sea. I don’t know how close he had gotten to shore, where swimmers bounced like dumplings in soup. It was about as big as I was, swimming as lazily as one could imagine, yet oozed menace like a doughnut oozes jam. The session, up until that point, had been largely aerobic. That changed in an instant. Although, the only (possibly incorrect and irrational) thought I had, was that sharks were attracted to splashing, so for the first time in my life, I shut down the kick completely, and muscled back to dry land as quickly as possible.
I’ve had previous encounters with both whales and dolphins, and pride myself on being able to make the distinction between these and sharks, as much as one might pride themselves on being able to make the distinction between a mermaid, and say a Mack truck. My dolphin encounter came not too far from Coolangatta, where I was in the middle of another open water session, this time in Cudgen Creek near the mouth of the river. I’d been perplexed for five minutes while I tried to find the part of my goggles that had started to emit a high-pitched squeak every time I put my head underwater. I clued on enough to check my surroundings and discovered it was a pair of dolphins responsible for the squeaking. They had gone for a cruise upstream and were checking me out from a respectable distance, no doubt marvelling at the inefficiencies of my freestyle. My whale encounter came many years ago when as a young, esky-lidder I was body-boarding off Moreton Island when the frantic waving of those onshore had me convinced of a great white lurking. Once I had soiled myself and hustled back safely on dry land did I find out that I’d had a humpback whale only meters from where I was waiting in the line-up.
Sometimes, the scariest creatures at the beach don’t necessarily have sharp teeth and fins… — Dan Wilson
However, probably the most remarkable story of marine life during my triathlon career was highlighted by its distinct absence. We were down in coastal Northern NSW, for a training camp one year, and our house comprised of a) those who liked to fish (everyone bar me), and b) those who liked to play the guitar and heckle those who fish (me). We’d had a hot tip that one of the best fishing spots on the coast was at a beach a short drive from where we were staying. We ducked down there on our first recovery day, the lads set up their rods, and I set about heckling them and butchering Metallica riffs. After 15 minutes, we suspected something was up. There was not a bite to be had, despite there being tackle everywhere. Sadly, the tackle was not exclusively of the fishing variety. Within five minutes, we’d seen three people walk past, and two bike riders – all stark naked. Five minutes later, a pair of naked swimmers jumped into the surf, while the lads determinedly fished on. More time passed, and at this point, a friendly (yet to our minds, underdressed) local came up and enquired as to where we were from, if we were enjoying the area, and how the fishing had been progressing. The boys responded admirably, albeit becoming suddenly fixated with something in the sky, while I held an intense focus on my chords.
Upon his eventual departure, a quick house meeting was held, with the conclusion that we were going to get the hell out of there, ASAP. It was a quiet trip home. Upon debriefing, it became clear we’d been the victims of a good old-fashioned stich-up. The ‘hot tip’ about the fishing spot, had come from our massage therapist, who knew little about fishing, but enough about the location of one of the country’s most notorious nudist beaches.
Sometimes, the scariest creatures at the beach don’t necessarily have sharp teeth and fins…