Saturday, 3 January 2015


'Me and the Shark', watercolour and pencil on paper

As I counted heads at my overcrowded local surf break - bemoaning the holiday season - I said to myself: 'all it would take is one shark'. Of course I only meant a sighting at my own beach, not the fatal attack 100+ kms east. Nevertheless it seems to have done the trick - the day after there were many less holiday-makers in the water. Only the statisticians, deluded or fatalistic persisted (including myself). Even the day after numbers were well down and I enjoyed the best offshore surf for weeks. However, my joy was a little dampened by my own mean-spiritedness and I felt a bit guilty - but I am not God and I didn't create that tragic event.

The drop in numbers again yesterday might have had something to do with a reported sighting of a big Great White 80 kms west (at another coastal holiday spot). Apparently there were 3 sighted - but I suspect a bit of narrative hyperbole is creeping in here. When I was living on a yacht in Cockburn Sound on the west coast, sightings of tiger sharks were regular - so regular that I became suspicious and went back to diving for crabs on the weed beds. I'm pretty sure someone was putting out false reports to maximise their crab catch.

So what is it with sharks and their relationship with humans? What is really going on? In the 'real world' theories abound: we have overfished the oceans and they are just plain hungry; there are many more people in the water; as top predators in the food chain sharks have a gutful of plastic, are weak and hungry so target humans more; sharks are not being fished as much any more - the Great White is even protected......and on it goes. If you talk to the fishermen they have their own theories, for example, it's the 3 metre sharks that are the most dangerous because they are going from being 'juvenile' to adult, from fish eaters to blubber eaters. Kind of makes sense - they are inexperienced and probably target humans by mistake. The amount who get attacked and summarily spat out seems to support this theory - the shark has simply made a mistake, 'I wasn't really trying to eat you, but I seemed to have ripped your leg off. Sorry'. 

The rule is, you don't talk about sharks when you are out the back (surfing), unless you see one of course, and then it is your duty to let everyone know as calmly and quickly as possible. You aren't really supposed to talk about them at the beach at all, but we are breaking the rules and talking about them more. The talk is mixed, some want them culled, some accept they might end up as big fish fodder, some just take up golf.

As I watched the popularity of surfing rise exponentially during the past 15 years - when epidemic numbers of people flocked to the ocean to take up the new trendy past-time and boards appeared on every roofrack - I made a prediction. Of course it was informed by my understanding of psychology and archetypes. In a historical context I figured it was absolutely right for humanity to return to the sea - at the end of a cycle in earth's history we are just following an archetypal instinct because it was here that human life originated. 

In psychological terms though, humanity, and Western culture in particular, has not dealt with its collective unconscious. I have blogged about this before - our tendency to bury or deny the distasteful, to project evil onto others, is catching up with us. We try and distance ourselves from our shit - we chuck it 'away'. Just lately a slogan has been doing the rounds: there is no 'away'. Running out of clean resources and land, we are being called to account for centuries of destructive behaviour. There is no 'other' - only a projection of ourselves. But what has this got to do with the sea? Because it is a symbol for the unconscious - not just for Westerners, but for all humans. Many cultures fear the sea - until relatively recently the Balinese did not swim in the ocean because evil spirits reside there. The collective returning and immersing one's-self in the ocean is a compulsory symbolic act - right and proper at this time in human evolution. 

It is my belief that the return to the sea has reached fever pitch and this is where my prediction comes in: as I struggled to deal with the increasing hordes now occupying the surf, I anticipated there would be a turning point - the rush would ease and result in people hesitating and some even withdrawing. What would bring about this change? 

The humble, yet much feared shark. 

The shark symbolises a fundamental primal hidden fear - not just death, but a particular kind of death: being devoured. We enjoy the concept when we are in love, obessesed - and it gets expressed perfectly during sex in both physical and psychological ways. But the shark that dominates the realm of the unconscious sea is the negative expression of this 'devouring' because we lose identity, consciousness and/or life.

I know this because I have had a long relationship with the shark. As a kid, and even in my adult years, I used to dream about them all the time. The dreams stopped many years ago when I let one eat me - when I met my fear head on and surrendered to it. My relationship with the shark is expressed in the drawing above.

It is no accident the shark has made its way into the media and regularly occupies our thoughts. Things must be dealt with, not buried or thrown into the sea where we can't see them and pretend they don't exist. It is time for a reckoning, time to dive into the unconscious and face the negative aspects of human consciousness. If we don't take on this task willingly, it will be thrust upon us. Nobody gets away with anything. There is no 'away'.


  1. Joan Campbell's comment is really interesting - it indicates sharks may have been more prevalent than we thought decades ago. (I know I grew up with the shark siren sounding often while I swam at Middleton Beach):

    Like you I grew up with sharks. but unlike you I never entered their true domain: the deep. Surfing proper was only invented as we grew out of the beach culture. I had a small tongue and groove half door I used for body surfing. We had to stay in the clear shallows for swimming and diving. When they ventured into "our" space we moved out of their way and pelted them with shells from the beach. We were always on the alert for them. At night we could go and see what the fishermen caught. Long lines were put out with bells and in the morning the catch was displayed in front of their shacks. They were many varieties and usually huge. They were awesome. We had massive respect for them.

    It is appalling how the rubbish is thrown out of sight into this vast waste bin. A true reckoning is well overdue. Just as the reckoning with the unconscious waste-bin.

  2. Joan again:

    Yes, Michelle: Whenever we swam at City Beach or Scarborough, the alarm often went off. I can remember breaking all my own swimming records getting in from the sandbar quite some distance off Scarborough where we picked up the surf - as teenagers.

  3. Great post Michelle.
    The old journals back to Flinders also mention really, really big fuck-off aggressive sharks on the south coast.
    I love your painting. Very beautiful.
    And finally, I know I bang on about it but Val Plumwood's Essay 'Being Prey' is one of the best pieces I've read on the subject. She was an environmental philosopher who examined her experience of being attacked by a crocodile in the NT. Powerful stuff.

  4. Thanks Sarah. It's an old painting but I still like it.

    I remember you mentioning 'Being Prey' before - I should have a look at it.

    Yes, from stories I have heard we don't actually have any more sharks than we ever did. Perhaps there are just more people in the water or the media is largely responsible for the panic. We have sightings here infrequently but if the media don't find out, nobody seems to know about it.

  5. Hi Michelle.

    Interesting timing of my reading this post. About to post an image you drew of a fish. Not so much different than a shark....

    I was once (kayak) surfing when I saw a fin in the water right next to me --- scared the hell out of me -- then it turned into a dolphin. Oh.

    I also would tend to see a lot more fins and sharks at twilight... or when tired...


  6. We see dolphins all the time Steve. They swim under us in the surf and surf under us when we are on a wave sometimes. I'm pretty good at spotting the difference between a dolphin and a shark now, but there is always that moment of uncertainty, but it's most often a dolphin. And very occasionally it is a shark.