Surfing businesses in Western Australia are suffering because the increase in shark sightings and attacks is scaring their customers out of the water.
Surf stores and schools in the “shark attack capital of the world” have sustained a drop in sales of surfboards, surfing lessons and water-based leisure equipment, with one Dunsborough store reporting last winter was the quietest they’d seen in 20 years.
Certainly the winter was the quietest we’ve seen in 20 years
Coastal businesses suffer every time a siren sounds, said Ross Rutherford, owner of Soul Boardstore in Scarborough.
“Certainly over part of last year in the heat of the shark sightings in December when there were sirens every day, we lost about 20 per cent” Mr Rutherford said.
The issue was even more pronounced in the South West, where there were fewer people in the water, said Mr Rutherford.
WA earned its deadly moniker after five fatal attacks in twelve months (three of which were at South West beaches) and aerial patrols were increased as a result.
Sales of surf boards dropped significantly after the patrols’ increase in sightings, as did the number of people in the water, said Mark Hills, founder of Hillzeez surf store in Busselton and manager of Yahoo Surfboards in Dunsborough.
“Certainly the winter was the quietest we’ve seen in 20 years,” Mr Hills said.
“It affects the entry-level surfer which is the cream of our business because entry-evel surfing was at an all-time high until the shark attacks.”
Mr Hills said while most experienced surfers said they weren’t put off by the sightings, even he couldn’t help be affected by attacks, after 30 years in the industry.
“I was in the water on Father’s Day when the body-boarder was taken, I had both my sons in the water,” he said.
“Now a year and a half later, whether consciously or subconsciously, we haven’t been surfing there.
“Anecdotally people are wary of certain spots, where there are more sightings or there has been an attack.”
Other businesses were affected too, Mr Hills said.
“We’re right next to a dive shop and they’ve been affected in there; again it’s the entry-level diver, rather than the mature diver, that might have booked a dive and changed their mind,” he said.
Brighton surf school owner Paul Lofthouse said 2013 began with the “worst January we’ve ever had” in Go Surf’s eight-year history.
“It was definitely the shark thing, it doesn’t matter how much you explain to people that it’s a safe beach, it’s such a big fear factor,” he said.
When a large group of at least 100 sharks was spotted off Trigg Beach on March 19, the words “shark” and “Trigg” were trending on Twitter within the hour.
Mr Lofthouse said since shark sightings had become such a hot issue, news spread more quickly than ever before and the perception of attack was worse than the reality.
“People think it’s gotten worse but it hasn’t,” he said.
“The great white shark attacks that have occurred are way off the coast, not at Scarborough Beach.
“I had tourists telling us, they came from Germany, it was on the news saying it’s too dangerous to go to Australia.
“I’ve had people say they’re too scared to go in the water.
“You’ve got more chance of being in a car accident than being eaten by a shark.”
RETURNING TO THE WATER
All three business owners said that business began to pick up once more when there had been a reprieve from sightings.
“Humans memories are pretty short if something hasn’t happened in a month then it starts to go back to normal,” Mr Hills said.
While many surfers returned to the ocean because of the low odds of an attack, 22-year-old Ben Towers said he and his brother stayed out of the water since their encounters with sharks.
“I had an encounter when scuba diving up north when a wobbegong shark bumped me while diving and even though they are essentially harmless I cut short my diving experience,” Towers said.
“My brother actually refuses to go in the water anymore because of an incident where he saw a fin and a large shadow only meters away.
“He’s only been back in the water a handful of times since the incident over 10 years ago.”
A lot of surfers were also pressured by their families to give up their water sports and parents were looking for alternative sports for their children, said Mr Rutherford.
“I think a lot of my customers are mature family sort of people, they were getting pressure from other family members about surfing and the guilt they’d feel if they had their kids in surfing lessons,” Mr Rutherford said.
Mr Hills agreed: “A big part of that is more so surfers’ partners, it’s their wives, girlfriends and mothers. A lot of shark defence systems are bought by them.”
While sales of boards suffered, store owners noted a sharp increase in sales of shark repellent devices following attacks.
“They’ve been very busy over the last year,” Mr Rutherford said.
“We’ve been selling them for quite a few years and there’s always a spike in sales when there is an incident.”
Mr Hills said he’d originally hidden the product in the Dunsborough store because they “didn’t want to talk about sharks”, but the shields had become a popular product.
“Before the shark attacks I sold one in four years,” he said.
“Last September when there was a shark sighting in Yallingup and we sold 60 in a month.
“It may not stop a large shark but certainly when we started selling the shark defence systems, I went and surfed to knock my own fear on the head.”