Sub-Antarctic Shark Science.

The usual response to the word “shark” is fear. Especially if the word is screamed within a kilometre of any populated beach area. It saddens me that the view of sharks as man-eating killing machines that might as well have atomic bombs strapped to their backs is still rampant among the general population.

Sharks don’t get a lot of positive press. The media tends to over-exaggerate shark attack stories to the point where people think that a day in the life of a shark involves nothing but swimming around, humming the score from Jaws, and looking for un-suspecting humans to swallow whole. The reality is that you’re more likely to be killed in a car accident than be eaten by a shark. In 2010, there were just 79 recorded shark attacks and of those, only 6 people died as a result of their injuries.

Sharks play an important role in the Sub-Antarctic ecosystem. It doesn’t make them any friends, but some one has to be that guy that eats un-suspecting, cute little seals & penguins (we all have that friend that gets overly upset when they watch this sort of process on nature documentaries).

For all the sharks drawn to the islands by the buffet of seals on offer, the only recorded shark attack on a human was in April of 1992 when a group of researchers were snorkelling in Sandy Bay…

While enjoying a day off, researchers at the meteorological decided to go snorkeling and were enjoying a swim with sea-lions. They didn’t realize that a great white shark was drawn to the area for the same reason.

One of the researchers, Mike Fraser was mistaken for a seal and attacked. As with many victims of a shark-attack, he says that he didn’t see the shark coming – a credit to the Shark’s skill as an ambush predator. Mike’s right arm was torn off and his left badly lacerated and broken. He was pulled from the water by fellow researcher, Jacinda Amey who had no option but to radio New Zealand for help. Mike’s chances looked bleak however, as there was no emergency exit from the island or medical facilities other than a first-aid kit.

The research team carry Mike into the Helicopter (Photo: Te Ara).

After hearing the distress call, a helicopter pilot named John Funnel was in the mood for adventure and agreed to fly the 700 kilometres to Campbell Island from Invercargill. The flight over 1200 kilometres of open ocean had never been done before by a single-engine helicopter and was thought to be impossible at the time.

Luckily for Mike, the helicopter arrived after what must have been a long and painful wait with a paramedic on board to treat his injuries as best he could until they returned to Invercargill Hospital. He survived the journey, and while he lost his arm, he came away with his life.

All in all a very dramatic story, but what struck me was that Mike returned to the island three years later to continue his work as a researcher. To me it suggests that he understands that he was just in the wrong place at the wrong time, as many shark attack victims are, and that he may not blame the shark for his injuries.

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