Sydney shark attack leaves Navy in shock

RE-blogged: Simon Santow for The World Today Updated Wed Feb 11, 2009 6:59pm AEDT


The Royal Australian Navy is in shock after a shark bit one of its elite divers during a counter-terrorism exercise in Sydney Harbour.

The Army’s elite SAS soldiers might be known the world over for their advanced skills but in the Navy, they don’t come more highly trained than the specialist clearance divers.

Their brief is to protect against threats in the water and over the last 10 days, the divers have been testing out new counter-terrorism technologies off the Garden Island naval base in Sydney Harbour, not far from the city’s famous Opera House and Harbour Bridge.

The Commander of the Australian Fleet, Rear Admiral Nigel Coates, says they were reminded of the hazards of their workplace shortly before 7:00am (AEDT) today, when 31-year-old Able Seaman Paul Degelder was mauled.

“The attack occurred very quickly. The shark attacked the diver, our diver punched the shark a couple of times, the shark then disappeared very quickly,” he said.

“It was all over, I’m told, in a few seconds.”

Rear Admiral Coates has told reporters the diver was not submerged but on the surface of the water with a police colleague when he was attacked.

Within minutes, the 31-year-old had been treated on a nearby naval boat and then whisked to shore and by ambulance for the short trip to St Vincent’s Hospital.

A hospital spokesman says the diver is in a serious but stable condition after surgery to his thigh and hand.

The Navy has been shocked by the attack, the first shark bite in more than half a century of operations for the Navy Clearance Diving teams.

“Clearly when something like this happens, we’ve got to sit back when the facts become clearer and try to understand what happened and see whether there’s ways we can reduce the risk of that every happening again,” Rear Admiral Coates said.

“Obviously, in our preparation for these sorts of activities, we do think about the potential for shark attacks and take the sort of precautions that any sensible people would take to try and minimise the risk.

“Clearly, we’re now going to have to go back and check that all of that makes sense again.”

Peak season

The Navy can’t say what sort of shark attacked its diver. While bites of this kind remain relatively rare in Sydney Harbour, the curator of the Australian Shark Attack File at Taronga Park Zoo says there’s no shortage of marine life that’s potentially dangerous to humans.

“At this time of year, we have a number of sharks that are in the harbour,” the shark expert, John West, said.

“The most dangerous for swimmers would be the bull shark and also, there is a dusky shark, which is a similar type of shark, wobbegongs, Port Jacksons and several types of smaller cat sharks, but the ones that are known to bite people and injure them are the bull sharks.”

Mr West says the last attack of this kind was 12 years ago on the Parramatta River.

He warns that this is peak season for shark threats.

“All of the bites from bull sharks occur in February and March because that’s when usually there’s more swimmers in the water around that time,” he said.

Danger to divers

Mr West says divers are at greater risk than the rest of the community, simply because they are in the water for a longer period of time than most.

Nick Martin spent 11 years as a Navy clearance diver before quitting five years ago.

“Considering that the Clearance Diving branch in the Royal Australian Navy was formed in 1951 and to date there’s been no serious shark attack occur, I think over that period of time people would have started to become more confident that they could conclude their diving operations without fear of shark attack,” he said.

“This will actually bring it back into their minds now, give them one more thing to worry about.”

He says the Navy considered using shark repellents while he was a clearance diver but found they would endanger the divers even more.

“But the types of repellents that were available at that time, most of them were electromagnetic repellents,” he said.

“They actually were more of a hindrance during a diving operation than a help. A lot of the environments you operate in, you require a low magnetic and acoustic signature, and those repellents just weren’t suitable for those environments.”

The last fatal attack in Sydney Harbour was in 1963, when Martha Hathaway was killed by a bull shark at Middle Harbour in 1963.



About Roger Nield MBE

Safety Director for the SMPL Organisation and supporting our Vulnerable Veterans Programme.
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