December 28, 2005
An Aussie Summer: Fierce Creatures, Scorching Sun
By Michael Perry
SYDNEY -- Australia's summer -- if you can survive it, you'll love it.
Australia has plenty of blue sky, a scorching sun and golden beaches washed by cooling waves. It also has a multitude of creatures that can kill you, and they all come out to play in the summer.
Only one week into summer and hundreds of swimmers were chased from the surf at Bondi Beach by an unusually large shark, possibly an aggressive tiger shark or bronze whaler.
Bondi Beach lifeguard Rod Kerr,who has patrolled the famous strip of sand for 10 years, said it was the biggest shark he'd seen in a decade, estimating its length at 3.7 meters (12 feet).
"We were in awe," said Anthony Carroll, another lifeguard who chased away the shark, which cruised around Bondi for two days.
Before protective shark nets were dropped off Sydney beaches in the 1930s, fishermen often dragged bloodied sharks, their jaws gaping with razor-sharp teeth, onto Bondi's northern headland.
Carroll has some advice for swimmers who do find themselves sharing the waves with a shark: don't panic.
"If you ever hear the shark alarm go off, don't panic, return to shore," he said.
By September 2005, there had been a total of 654 shark attacks, 192 of them fatal, in Australian waters in the past 200 years, according to the Australian Shark Attack File at Sydney's Taronga Zoo.
In two attacks this year, a surfer and marine biologist both survived because they fought off the shark with their bare hands.
DEADLY JELLYFISH AND CROCS
If you feel safer further north, where the water is warmer and the sharks are smaller, think again.
Marine experts are predicting a particularly dangerous jellyfish season in waters off the tropical state of Queensland following a rash of early irukandji jellyfish stings.
Twenty two people have already been stung by the potentially deadly jellyfish since October.
The irukandji is only the size of a thumbnail but its sting can cause excruciating muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting, headaches and palpitations, and cardiac failure. In 2002 two tourists died after being stung.
"I think we are going to see more stingers around and about this year," predicted Surf Life Saving national marine stinger adviser Lisa-Ann Gershwin.
There are at least 10 jellyfish species that cause irukandji syndrome Australia-wide. There is also the much larger box jellyfish whose three-meter-long (nine-feet-long) tentacles kill.
Until this year it was thought the box jellyfish lurked only between mangrove swamps and beaches, but a new species has been found on outer reefs favored by snorkellers and divers.
And don't forget the blue-ringed octopus and the stonefish, the most lethal of their type in the world. Then there are the sea snakes.
The last creature to be wary of in water is crocodiles. There are plenty of warning signs on rivers and waterholes, just don't get too close to the water's edge. Crocs can run very fast.
Crocodiles have killed about a dozen people in Australia over the past 20 years. This year one of the reptiles dragged a sleeping man from his tent and killed him.
Be wary too of the waves. In 2004-05 lifeguards performed 14,601 rescues and 57 people drowned in the surf, so swim between the red and yellow flags, which are patrolled by lifeguards.
This summer more than 34,000 volunteer lifeguards will patrol Australian beaches, the highest number in nearly 100 years.
"However, if beachgoers continue to ignore basic safety messages by not swimming between the flags, people will still drown on our beaches," said Greg Nance, chief executive of the Surf Life Saving Association.
SNAKES AND SPIDERS
If the surf sounds too dangerous, you'd better stick to land.
But you'll have to watch out for 100 kinds of venomous snakes, 10 of which are among the most poisonous on the planet. Australia's Taipan, with a toxin 50 times as potent as the Indian cobra, is a serious contender for title of the world's deadliest snake.
And don't leave your shoes outside overnight in Sydney. It may be one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities, but it is also home to funnel web spiders.
The hairy funnel web loves to sleep in a warm shoe but its bite -- its fangs strike vertically like a snake -- is deadly. So, if you've decided to stay out of the surf and refrained from going walkabout in the bush, keep your shoes under your bed.
Australia's sizzling summers also carry a real risk of sunburn that can trigger melanoma skin cancers.
Melanoma rates are four times higher in Australia than in the United States, but the death rate is low as most Australians have been educated to avoid sunburn and detect skin cancers early.
Each year hundreds of hatless foreign tourists, ignorant of the protective power of suntan lotion and unaware of the strength of the "Aussie" sun, get badly sunburnt. On Bondi's scorching sands they stand out like pink lobsters.