The recent Sydney Harbour shark attack and research showing Australia had the most deadly encounters in the world last year have thrust the predator back into the spotlight, but data indicates people have very few negative interactions with sharks compared to the number in Illawarra-Shoalhaven waters.
The Australian Shark Incident Database, which is maintained by Taronga Conservation Society Australia in partnership with Flinders University and the NSW Department of Primary Industries, shows there have been 41 bites or attempted bites recorded in the Illawarra and Shoalhaven since 1985.
Of these, four have been fatal. The last death happened in 1966 when a great white killed a 40-year-old crewman of a boat that sank off Jervis Bay.
The most recent bite involved a whaler shark at Hyams Beach in 2022, which left a woman with lacerations to her leg.
Meanwhile, since just the start of this year, shark monitoring tool Dorsal has recorded at least 42 reports of sharks in the Illawarra and Shoalhaven, mostly tagged sharks pinging listening stations used by the NSW government's shark management program.
Teaniel Mifsud, a PhD candidate at the University of Wollongong, is researching human interactions with sharks.
Through a map on which people described over 100 encounters with sharks along the South Coast and subsequent interviews with some of the respondents, Miss Mifsud discovered people came across sharks "quite often".
"And they're not those big kind of scary encounters like the one that we saw in Sydney Harbour a couple of weeks ago with a shark bite there," she said.
People described a variety of interactions, from seeing a fin in the water to being bumped while surfing.
"It's a real kind of range, but I would say the majority... saw them as these really amazing experiences or almost benign in a way," Miss Mifsud said.
The University of Florida, which compiles the International Shark Attack File, says there are fewer than 100 unprovoked shark attack bites each year worldwide (an unprovoked bite being one where the human did not initiate interaction) and the chances of being bitten by a shark are "incredibly low".
A person is more likely to get struck by lightning than bitten by a shark.
Miss Mifsud acknowledged the chance of shark bite existed but said there were bigger risks in the ocean that the public should be more concerned about, like drownings.
There have been 13 drowning deaths in NSW coastal waters this summer alone.
"If we are going to focus on sharks, I think we should be focusing more on conservation and protecting them as a species, because they are a really vital animal for coastal and ocean ecosystems," Miss Mifsud said.
Reducing the risk of shark bite
Taronga Conservation Society Australia says there are numerous precautions that people can take to minimise their risk of encountering and being bitten by a shark.
- Swim, surf and dive with other people
- Avoid swimming at dusk, dawn and at night
- Do not swim in dirty or murky water
- Avoid swimming well offshore, near offshore channels, or along drop-offs
- Do not swim near people fishing or spearfishing
- Avoid entering the ocean near a river mouth, especially after a storm
- Leave the water if schooling fish gather in large numbers
If a person sees a shark, they should remain calm and leave as quickly and quietly as possible.