Chloe-Louise Saunders wins this week’s Just Back travel writing competition, and £250, for her account of a close encounter in the waters off the coast of Australia.
“Did you know that most shark attacks happen in shallow water?” Our captain’s eyes shine as he watches our faces in reaction to this, a small smile at the edge of his mouth.
“Are you serious?” I say, wishing the wobble out of my voice.
Early morning sun glints off the rolling surface of the New South Wales sea. Looming above us to the left is a group of jagged brown rocks. The water reveals and then obscures the slimy, mollusc-infested lower regions of the rocks as the swell rises and falls. We are about a mile from the shore; I can just about see the tiny outlines of surfers closer to Byron Bay’s beach, if I squint that way.
We are on a snorkelling trip “to see green turtles”, as the excited receptionist at our hostel put it. But as our little boat heads out to our rocky snorkelling spot, the conversation, inevitably, turns to sharks. Nurse and leopard sharks are common here, we are told, but bigger species have been seen in these parts before. Our captain, like a lot of Aussies, clearly finds a special glee in teasing out a few nerves from his customers when it comes to the local fauna.
It is time to jump in. Visibility is between 16 and 33 feet. The sunshine seeps through the surface, so we can just make out the bottom. The water feels good, and the prospect of searching for marine animals as exciting as turtles washes away my somewhat irrational “Jaws” fears.
Just as this thought manifests, a movement catches my eye about 30ft away, below me to the right. My heart leaps into my mouth. The movement is slow and graceful, and is getting nearer. Gliding into view is the unmistakable outline of a shark, and I can barely move. It is one of the most recognisable shapes in the animal kingdom; the sleek sides, the pointed fins, the forked tail. Suddenly I am unfrozen and I splash backwards, breaking the surface. “It’s a shark!” I shout. “It looks big!”
“It will just be a leopard shark,” the captain replies. “Beautiful, huh?”
For a moment I don’t believe this type of shark is virtually harmless. The association we are taught to make with that shape is danger, apex predator, a universal symbol of “get out of the water”.
“Don’t worry, they’re less interested in you than you are in them!” he laughs.
I look again and the shark is closer, maybe 20ft away, just below me. Now I can see its distinctive leopard print, dappled by the blue-green of the water. It is not as large as I thought – maybe 6ft – and its shape is softer, too, the fins and nose rounded. Its lack of concern for my presence in its world, the way it continues to glide along and mind its business, is a certain kind of charming. It is, indeed, beautiful.
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