August 2007

It Could Be Worse: You Could've Had This Job!

Author: Craig Hysell

A Case of Mistaken Identity

In a 1998 economic report, the country of Australia was netting $425 million from its abalone and scallop industry. Considered a delicacy throughout much of Asia, abalone—a member of the mollusk family in the vein of scallops—is prized for its taste, rarity and alleged aphrodisiac qualities. In 2005 Australia and New Zealand were supplying 70 percent of the world’s abalone at $240 per kilogram.

At prices like that, being a commercial diver in Oz could certainly have its merits. Imagine days spent frolicking in the ocean pulling up little nuggets of shell-fish gold. You could have no worries, fat tabs at the pub and box seats at the next rugby game. Of course, abalone are fond of cold water. So are seals. So are sharks. Really, really big sharks. And when a great white shark mistakes a commercial abalone diver for a seal, well… that’s when your job couldn’t get any worse.

Paul Buckland
Port Lincoln is a remote fishing port on a windswept stretch of coast in Southern Australia. In this rough and rugged portion of the world, icy seas teem with seal colonies, tuna fishermen and the occasional mollusk miner. In April of 2002, 23 year-old commercial diver, Paul Buckland, and his employee/mate, Shannon Jenzen, took a small aluminum fishing boat into the sea.

Jenzen, 24, was the first to dive. After an hour underwater he returned to the boat with his abalone acquisition. It was Buckland’s turn. Ten minutes into his dive Buckland surfaced 50 to 100 meters from the boat. “I heard him call out,” said Jenzen. “I knew exactly what he had seen. It was huge, about the size of the boat.”

The boat was 18 feet long.

Great white sharks do not hunt people, no matter what the movies would have you believe. Attacks usually stem from curiosity, territorial behavior or mistaken identity. The problem with a curious taste test on a human being from a shark that can range anywhere from 14 to 23 feet long is that what is essentially nothing more than a nibble can usually result in loss of limb or life. Aggressive bumping or a soft chomp can also be a result of territorial behavior as much as curiosity, and either one would have most people out of the water at warp speed.

But, by far the worst case scenario of a great white shark attack, and one that most certainly leads to death, is the case of mistaken identity. Great whites like to lurk along the ocean floor or sit in chasms and canyons that break up the seabed. They wait for seals or large fish to drift by on the surface and then ambush their prey from underneath. Attack victims at the surface are almost always mistaken for slow-moving or injured seals. And when a fish nearing two tons who is the apex predator at the top of the food chain wants to eat you, slow and sorry human beings who weren’t really made for the water don’t stand a chance.

Jenzen steered his boat toward the shark. “I came up against the shark, but it took no notice. It didn’t move at all. It just ignored me.” And then it launched itself at Buckland. Great whites hit with so much power, that 7,000 pound sharks are known to come completely out of the water when ambushing seals from below. They bite in order to cripple their prey and then let them bleed to death before feeding on them. By the time Jenzen was able to pull his friend out of the water Buckland had lost much of his left leg and torso from the attack. He died on his way back to land.

That said, more people choke and die on peanuts each year than are attacked by sharks. However, it should be noted that all abalone divers out there might wish to proceed with caution and realize the risks of swimming with seals. Contributing to the physical arousal of fellow humans off a mollusk just might not be worth it some days.

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