Three fatal shark attacks in three years won't stop Esperance residents moving forward

© Provided by ABC NEWS Karen Milligan returns to the water one year after her husband’s death.  (ABC News: Emily Smith)

Karen Milligan could have easily turned her back on the ocean, but earlier this year she made the extraordinary decision to don her dive gear once again.

It marked a brave return to the place where Gary Johnson, her husband and dive buddy, was killed on January 5, 2020.

On the anniversary of his death, she was determined to celebrate their shared love of the ocean by placing a memorial — a dive tank filled with messages from family and friends — on the sea floor.

I thought it was a whale tail

Ms Milligan spent 15 years exploring the ocean around Esperance with Mr Johnson; the president of the Esperance Dive Club who she described as a “six-foot-four water baby” who was passionate about protecting the ocean.

“He was the kindest, gentlest, most caring person I have met,” she said.

Despite all that time underwater, they never saw a white shark until January 5, 2020.

Ms Milligan remembered spotting an enormous tail ahead of her and, for one cruel moment, thinking she was in for a wonderful experience.

“I thought it was a whale tail,” she said.

“I was looking at this like a David Attenborough moment — it took about two nanoseconds to realise that it wasn’t.”

It was a white shark — one which experts later estimated to be up to 6 metres long — and it was attacking her husband.

“I tried to hit the shark first of all on the tail. Then I decided to swim along to its nose and hit it on the nose,” Ms Milligan said.

“But in this surreal moment, as I was swimming halfway along the shark, it just disappeared.

“Never once when I was approaching the shark underwater, trying to hit it, did I have any personal fear.

“Mainly because I think we had this understanding of what sharks are doing in that instance and I held onto that belief — the shark was just doing what sharks do.”

Despite her grief, the belief that it was a “very natural” event helped Ms Milligan make sense of the tragedy.

But Mr Johnson’s death sent shockwaves throughout the town, particularly because, by the end of 2020, three people had been killed by sharks in three years off the Esperance coast.

The other attacks both happened at Kelp Beds, a surf break a short beach-drive away from town.

It’s our life

Mitch Capelli is an Esperance-born-and-raised surfer who lives and breathes the ocean, but in recent years has become increasingly rattled by the way sharks are changing his community.

“I’ve been in the water for close to 20 years and I personally haven’t seen anywhere near as many sharks as I have in the last five years in particular,” he said.

In the wake of teenage surfer Laeticia Brouwer’s death in 2017, he set up the Esperance Ocean Safety and Support Group.

It aimed to come up with practical solutions to protect people from sharks, such as distributing trauma kits to ensure people had tourniquets after an attack.

Mr Capelli believes this offers a better approach than “staying out of the water” or “getting another hobby”, advice that he did not believe offered a permanent solution.

“Not when it’s everything you know, everything that your life revolves around.

“The ocean is bigger than that to us. It’s our life.”

But following the tragedies some lifelong surfers avoided the water near Esperance.

Mr Capelli said this had left many frustrated, unsure of what to do with themselves and struggling with their mental health.

He feared there would also be negative repercussions for the tourism industry which in turn would hurt the local economy and its future prospects.

“I already avoid Esperance at certain times of the year just because of what we’re seeing,” he said.

“A lot of hard-core surfers that I thought would never get out of the water aren’t surfing [here] and it’s really sad to see.”

While some surfers have returned to the water in the year since the last attack, others have not.

Esperance resident Pete McMahon had been surfing for 50 years, 30 of them at Kelp Beds.

But he was on the beach on October 9, 2020 when local man Andrew Sharpe was attacked and killed by a white shark.

Mr McMahon has not paddled out from an Esperance beach since.

“I guess people used to say, ‘You got more chance of being run over by a car’, but I don’t know anyone who’s been run over by a car,” he said.

Towards the end of last year a rally was organised at Esperance’s West Beach calling for more government action in response to sharks.

But shark policy is a political powder keg in Western Australia.

Sharks policy highly divisive

Protests erupted from Perth to Sydney when the former Liberal government sanctioned the killing of large tiger, bull and white sharks in 2014.

When Mark McGowan became Premier in 2017, he championed non-lethal shark management options.

His government has provided rebates on shark deterrent devices, trialled the use of non-lethal drumlines and set up warning systems.

Following the Esperance shark attacks, one of the key measures the government highlighted was its shark tagging program.

In the past four years, Esperance has proven one of the best places in the state for tagging white sharks, with 41 tagged off its coast, more than half of the 75 statewide total.

Peter Godfrey, statewide operations manager for WA Fisheries, said this was because the region’s annual seal pupping season attracted sharks and made them easier to catch and tag.

But Mr Capelli said he believed in terms of shark attack prevention, many of these measures amounted to “more of a band-aid than an actual solution”.

He pointed to policies the Ocean Safety and Support Group wanted to see adopted; the first being the use of non-lethal drumlines to catch, tag and relocate sharks near popular beaches.

This had some precedent, he said, given WA Fisheries dropped a drumline and relocated a 5.3-metre shark sighted at Cottesloe Beach near Perth last December.

But Mr Godfrey said Fisheries did not have the resources to commit to this as an attack-prevention strategy.

The Ocean Safety and Support Group also believed that after a shark attack, a non-lethal drumline should be rolled out to try and catch the animal involved.

Mr Capelli said if a shark closely fitting the description was caught, then it should be “humanely euthanased, according to Fisheries protocol”.

Mr Capelli said his group believed euthanasing sharks that attack would help protect people, reduce the danger to first responders and recovery divers, help recover coronial evidence and provide an opportunity for scientific research.

But he stressed it should not be interpreted as a call for a shark cull.

“That’s all we’re about, that balanced approach, offering solution-based mitigation.”

Group launches own research effort

In the long term, many believe the best way to prevent shark attacks will be to learn more about them.

In 2019, the Ocean Safety and Support Group launched a research project to learn more about sharks in the area.

David Swan, a local veterinarian and the group’s spokesperson, acknowledged that social media now meant people were more aware of shark sightings, which could amplify their concerns.

But after speaking with abalone divers, commercial divers and those who had spent a lifetime in the ocean, he believed more sharks were being sighted in the region.

“Although, again, the researchers say, ‘We don’t have evidence of that’, but we know that they are,” he said.

Mr Godfrey also said it was hoped the government’s tagging data would be used to study shark movements and behaviour.

‘We can’t guarantee 100pc safety’

On the anniversary of Mr Johnson’s death, after completing her scuba dive and meeting with friends and family at a local brewery, Ms Milligan had one more piece of business to attend to: launching the Gary Johnson Foundation.

She hoped the local organisation would preserve his legacy in striving to protect the ocean and its biodiversity at a community level.

She said its first priority was to see a marine park established in the waters of the Recherche Archipelago off Esperance, a plan the WA government also has its sights on and which was Mr Johnson’s “great dream”.

But it also takes a view on sharks, with a discussion paper on the foundation’s website warning against short-term, unscientific strategies.

“Any lethal approach to shark mitigation would be completely unacceptable. It’s known not to work,” Ms Milligan said.

While she and her daughter, Hannah, acknowledged the fear and trauma felt across the community, they believed it was important to keep it in perspective.

“I think it is an inherently traumatic event for everyone in this community when someone dies in the ocean. Everyone in Esperance has a really profound relationship with the ocean,” Hannah Milligan said.

“I think for some people in the community it’s created a real fear and a real sadness as a consequence — I think because it’s fundamentally changed their relationship with the ocean.

“But the thing I hope to see at the forefront of any strategy that’s adopted is an evidence-based approach, and that means trialling some new strategies that we haven’t seen before but also avoiding revisiting strategies that are dated and we know don’t work; for example, shark culling.”

Even though opinions about how to manage sharks differed, Ms Milligan was hopeful the community would come together on the issue.

“When you’re talking to people, be they commercial fishers, rec fishers, surfers, divers, swimmers — they all want the same thing. They would like human interaction with the ocean to be safe,” she said.

“But we can’t guarantee 100 per cent safety and I think people have to understand that too.

“And we wouldn’t really want 100 per cent safety, I don’t think. Part of the glamour of the ocean is that it throws up something different every time you get in it.

“So I think there’s a lot of common territory. They want the same thing. It’s just how to achieve the same thing.”

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