Australia has over 35,000 kilometres of stunning coastline, offering beautiful beaches and rivers for activities such as swimming, surfing, snorkelling, boating and diving, but visitors must bear in mind the risks that can lurk in some of our waterways and seas.
Sharks: Home to approximately 180 species of sharks, only three endemic to Australia have been responsible for most of the unprovoked attacks on humans (which most likely occur when the victim is mistaken for the creatures’ usual food source). Those three are the great white, tiger and bull sharks - the great whites can reach up to 6 metres in length.
Crocodiles: The saltwater crocodile is the largest reptile in the world - adults can average between 5 and 7 metres in length. It has been estimated that a large crocodile can apply two tonnes of pressure in a single bite and they have been known to seize livestock, buffaloes, and adult humans.
Where are they found?
Sharks are found in the cool, shallow, temperate oceans. In Australia, they most commonly live in waters from Exmouth in Western Australia, along the southern coastline to Victoria and up the eastern coast into Queensland’s north. While the habitat of most species is deep in the waters of the continental shelf, there are several that occur in coastal waters and in estuaries and rivers.
Tropical regions of Australia are home to the saltwater or estuarine crocodile (“salties”) and they can be found in lagoons, rivers, estuaries, coastal wetlands and swamps from Mackay on the Northern Queensland coast, up to Cape York at the top end of Queensland and across the top of the Northern Territory coastline to Western Australia, even out into open waters of the ocean. Freshwater crocodiles (“freshies”) are smaller than the estuarine species and their habitat is in the rivers, lagoons and billabongs of northern Australia, away from the coast. Small animals, insects, frogs, fish, birds and bats are their main sources of food.
Risks to travellers - Sharks
The risk of a shark encounter to someone having a quick dip in the ocean is extremely low. According to the Taronga Conservation Society, unprovoked shark attacks occur at a rate of approximately 16 people per year with a 1.1% fatality risk. When you consider that of our population of more than 25 million people, 85% of Australians live within 50 kilometres of a beach and many of them will be cooling off and indulging in ocean-based activities on a hot summer’s day, this is a very low number indeed. Adding that to the fact that many Australian beaches are patrolled by life savers and have shark control equipment, it is positively reassuring! If a shark is sighted, a warning siren will be activated, a red-and-white flag will be erected on the beach and all swimmers and surfers will be directed to leave the water. The risk of an unprovoked attack is far greater for surfers than for swimmers. Diving activities, especially spear fishing risk provoked attacks.
Shark attack prevention:
- Swim on patrolled beaches between the red and yellow flags
- All marine activities should be carried out with a buddy
- Don’t swim at dusk, dawn or during the night
- Don’t swim where fish are being cleaned or near schools of fish
- Avoid swimming near where people are fishing
- Don’t swim with your dogs or other domestic animals
- Always be aware in estuaries, rivers, creeks, canals and streams close to the ocean
Shark Reporting: Any shark sightings should be reported to police on 000, or to the lifeguards if close by, advising if possible the exact location and type/size of shark also.
Risks to travellers - Crocodiles
Crocodiles are able to stay for long periods underwater, their mottled colouring and stillness allowing them to remain unseen while watching and waiting for prey to appear. Their reflexes are lightning fast in the water but both species are slower on land. Attacks on humans are extremely rare when we follow the safety guidelines. The Qld Department of Environment and Heritage Protection estimates an average of 1 attack per year on humans, resulting in one death every 3 years. It is NEVER safe to swim in northern Australian crocodile habitat areas.
Crocodile attack prevention:
- Be aware of the signage in crocodile habitat areas, however bear in mind there may not always be warning notices
- Watch out for crocodiles in areas where they live – they will see you! And keep clear of their slide marks
- Keep a safe distance from the water’s edge - at least 5 metres during activities and at least 50 metres for camping
- Dispose of food scraps responsibly (don’t leave around your camp site or boat ramp)
- Don’t feed crocodiles (it is illegal and associates humans with food), also don’t goad or harass them
- Bear in mind that crocodiles are most active from dusk until dawn
- Keep pets away from the water’s edge
- Beware after heavy rains and high tides when the reptiles may reach higher ground or more inland areas
- If you’re in a boat, it needs to be of a substantial size i.e. not small, as in kayaks or canoes, and keep all body parts (limbs, hands, head) inside the craft
- September to April is a particularly hazardous period – estuarine females are very aggressive as they defend their nests
- Use common sense
Crocodile Reporting: All crocodile sightings in Qld should be reported to the relevant State’s Environmental Management Service. In the Northern Territory, only report to the Parks and Wildlife Commission those that you find in designated safe swimming zones or in managed areas from where the reptiles have been cleared.
In summary, avoid close contact with either creature at all costs and in case of even a minor exposure, seek medical advice as any wound is likely to become infected.
Queensland Government: https://environment.des.qld.gov.au/wildlife/animals/living-with/crocodiles/croc-wise
Surf Life Saving Queensland: https://www.lifesaving.com.au
Taronga Conservation Society: https://taronga.org.au/conservation-and-science/australian-shark-attack-file
Australian Bureau of Statistics: https://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/Web+Pages/Population+Clock?opendocument&ref=HPKI
If a croc bite doesn’t get you, infection will: https://theconversation.com/if-a-croc-bite-doesnt-get-you-infection-will-76308