Ash’s heart was pounding, loudly, as he found himself scanning underneath his surfboard every few seconds. The water was so grey it was almost black, leaving it up to Ash’s imagination as to what horrors lie beneath the grim ocean surface. Adrenaline was warping shapes and sounds. He furiously paddled to the broken surfboard floating further and further out to sea. He knew he had to be quick, because not far behind him, his mate was treading water with the eyes of many sharks watching his every move.
Long-time mates and avid surfers, Ash Livingston and Jamie Powell, had travelled up to Elliston in South Australia to brave the notorious wave called Blacks. Blacks is known by many, including locals, as the world’s most haunted surf spot.
The water is edged by foreboding cliff faces and rocky terrain, trapping within it an eerie, unsettling energy. The unforgiving surf break consists of a jagged reef, before abruptly plummeting into a black, cavernous channel. It is this chilling channel that surfers must paddle across to surf the breaking waves. It’s deep enough to hide any creature from sight. The great white sharks that lurk in these waters have claimed the lives of three men.
As Ash and Jamie pulled up to the beach, they felt a sense of trepidation wash over them. The surf was pumping, and not one surfer was out there. They weren’t sure whether this was pure luck, or quite the opposite. Nevertheless, they pulled their wetsuits on, grabbed their boards, and made their way down the cliff into the water.
“The whole time you’re paddling across this channel, and even while you’re sitting out in the water, you can never fully relax,” Ash said.
“The water beneath you is black, and you’re constantly looking around you knowing there could very well be a shark sitting right under you.”
It was the very first wave of the set – a perfect 8-10ft monster, rumbling from the horizon towards the shore.
“I’m taking it!” shouted Jamie, as he spun on his board and began to frantically paddle for the beast. With adrenaline pumping through him like electricity, he attempted to pop up and slide down the face, but he lost control and missed the take off. He was sucked up the wave and spat out the bottom in a matter of seconds, held underneath the surface of the water while being thrown around in every direction, feeling his body use every last bit of oxygen left in him.
Ash watched in horror. Moments later something in the water caught his attention, and he observed half of Jamie’s snapped board pop to the surface and float further and further out to sea.
“His board and leg rope had snapped, and he was waving for help. It was his first wave and I hadn’t even gotten one yet, and I watched as the next wave of the set got him, too,” Ash said.
In Ash’s mind, he knew this meant two things: one, he had to salvage the board with Jamie’s fins still attached, and two, he had to go save his mate. And, he had to do both of these while in what is known as the world’s most haunted surf spot, along one of the deadliest coastlines in Australia.
“I was freaking out the entire time. For me, and for Jamie who was stranded without a board,” Ash said.
“Jamie wanted to save the fins on his board, so even though it had snapped, I had to paddle out and get it for him.”
He paddled out more than 100 metres to retrieve his friend’s board, before turning around to retrieve Jamie, stranded and terrified. Not only were they both fearful of being taken by a shark, they were also copping the 8-10ft sets that were relentlessly tearing through.
“So many things could have gone wrong,” Ash said.
Sharks are silent assassins, and it’s not clear why shark attacks on surfers continue to occur. Deakin University Lecturer in Fisheries Science, Dr Justin Rizzari, has explored the mind of the shark before and when it attacks.
“A shark would not be consciously thinking that it is deliberately attacking a human,” Rizzari told D*scribe.
“Most of the time they would initially be curious about what humans are and often times the first ‘bite’ is more of an investigative bite rather than a deliberate attack. With that said, at the most basic level, a shark would be thinking that this is a potential food source.”
Rizzari also believes that, depending on the species of shark, they will chomp their jagged teeth on to just about anything.
“Generally most sharks are either nocturnal or crepuscular (dawn or dusk) in their feeding tactics. They are usually generalists when it comes to their feeding behaviour, and will eat most anything if it is an easy meal, such as an injured fish or dead whale,” he said.
Rizzari suggested avoiding surfing during peak feeding times, and using “various shark deterrents (electrical or visual)”, such as a shark deterrent surfboard leash. However, he said the risk of a shark attack is lower than most people think.
“I would say though that sharks are always there and the risk of an attack is smaller than getting in a car accident on the way to the beach or even hit by another surfer. Thus, I think surfers really do not need to worry about being more ‘cautious’ in the water when it comes to sharks at least,” Rizzari said.
“I would like to emphasise that sharks are not deliberately targeting humans.
“There are many more sharks in the ocean than humans so if sharks were deliberately targeting humans the attack rate would be so high that there would be no surfers left.”
According to the Victorian Fisheries Authority, shark attacks in Victoria are uncommon and there has been no fatality in this state for 30 years.
Research from the Shark Research Institute’s Global Shark Attack File, however, proves South Australia has the second deadliest coastline in the world, with 11 recorded fatalities since 1988.
As for Ash and Jamie’s dance with death, the horror scene eventually ended, and Ash had successfully dragged Jamie to the shore.
“Afterwards, we sat on the cliff and talked for hours, in disbelief of what had happened,” Ash said.
Ash and Jamie’s love for surfing was proven later that day. Whether they had swallowed too much salt water, or Ash was simply devastated he didn’t get a wave, Jamie got himself another board and they braved the world’s most haunted surf spot yet again.