Damn, this has never happened before. I do a virtual military-precise check on fishing gear, motor, battery before I head to sea. But Murphy’s law says if anything can go wrong, it will ... and it does. My fuel-tank clip has failed, the motor won’t draw fuel, the battery’s gone flat with start-attempts ... and I’m a man alone, adrift off a rocky shore. But I’m not alone.
And I’ve never done this before. I wave my arms in a distinctive ‘in-trouble’ sign to a tinny that is fishing a few hundred yards away. I hope he sees me. I don’t want to use a flare. He is instantly heading in my direction. Thank God.
He pulls alongside. Two adults and a lass, possibly early teens; she’s smiling.
“Fuel coupling’s chucked it in mate, battery’s now gone. Sorry to be a pain in the arse…”
“Yeah, we’ve been watching you mate. Thought you might be in trouble. How long’s your painter?”
I throw him my bow-rope and the long tow to his launch site in Barton Avenue is underway. Slightly humiliating. On arrival, he calls his wife to pick me up and drive me to my launch site at West Shelly.
I want to buy him fuel and give him my catch, about a dozen nice flatties. After all I’ve ruined his day and he’s saved mine.
“No mate, it happened to me recently. That’s what we do at sea. Keep an eye out.“
As I leave with his wife, I implore his grand-daughter to take my catch from my boat and put it with her grandpa’s.
“He won’t take it,” she smiles.
And he didn’t. I lost track of them after that day. But never lost the feeling of isolation under stress ... and the immense feeling of gratitude of the law of the sea. Keep an eye out for fellow boaters.
Fast track to the weekend. Saturday July 25, 2015. Right tide, right wind ... a bit chilly, frosts and fogs have been visiting Spring Bay for weeks. Ain’t taking no chances with a sudden blinding mist materialising, as has happened before. So I stay at home. Had I gone, I would have fished near Lachlan Island, where a horror and hero-story are being played out.
We get a phone call from our son in Melbourne. It’s on the news. A diver has been taken by a great white, off Lachlan Island. My territory.
We have friends who dive for scallops in-season. Do I know who it is?
“No, but I’ll go for a drive.”
Camera too, of course. Journalist instinct I suppose. En-route I see a mate just up the road. Has he heard it? Yes. It’s a fatal. A local fisher has been on the scene. Helping out.
“Where you heading?”
“Gonna try Rheban Beach, close to Lachlan.”
“No they’re back at Deep-water Jetty. Try Barton Avenue.”
From Barton Avenue I aim my 60-times zoom for close-ups across the water, take stills and film.
Police and plain-clothes officials are busy. They are photographing for the coroner. Journos are on the scene but are staying out of the way.
A van arrives, a blanket is placed in position and a body moved onto the van tells the horror side of the tragedy. A monster has come into our paradise and Lachlan Island, a playground for man and seals, is added to the list of fatal Tasmanian shark attacks. In memory, Bobby Slack went missing in 1975 in an abalone dive off Bruny Island; Geert Talen, a snorkeler in the remote South West whose body was never found; Terese Cartwright, diving off a seal colony in Bass Strait in 1993. Is Lachlan Island a seal colony? Have seen seal there, but there a hundreds more nearby at Ile de Phoque and on the outside coast of Maria Island.
The mortuary van leaves Triabunna’s Deepwater Jetty. Soon after, the boat that, I can only presume played a vital role in the incident, also leaves the jetty.
In the confusion of early reports it is unclear as to what has happened. But I can only guess at the horror and bravery of a young woman who re-entered the water in search for her dad; her presence of mind at having ignited a flare; the horror and bravery of a Good Samaritan of the sea, making way rapidly to her side; the great difficulty they must have endured in getting the body into their boat. The twin-towns of Orford-Triabunna are saturated with natural empathy for the victim, his daughter; the amazing presence of mind of the rescuers; ignoring the real possibility of a giant shark returning to its hunting-ground as they battled to retrieve the body.
At Triabunna Police Station, police are assembling shell-fish near the tinnie of the victim, as fact for the coroner. There are rumours of a shark-attack the day before. Stuff has been posted on FaceBook of an earlier attack. Some rumours say the attack went unreported. Had it been reported, then perhaps Saturday, July 25, Orford-Triabunna, would have been no more than just another cold winter’s day. It is reasonable that had authorities known and broadcast the presence of an aggressive shark, the waters may have been clear of divers.
In the detailed news on Saturday night, police are naturally cautious as to the details of the fatality that has stunned two small communities and is spreading across all news fronts. But they don’t hold back on confirming the valiant effort of the boater who answered the distress flare.
In the Tasmanian Times recently I had posted a warning from RecFishTas veteran spokesman, Don Paton, of the dangers of too may divers chasing scallops; too many drownings. Paton wants a return to small recreational dredges, to reduce the incidence of diving for scallops:
Here: The Old Man of the Sea and the humble Tassie scallop
If a report in The Australian is true, that maritime authorities were alerted but chose to ignore the warning, then it is a matter that should be put before a coroner. It is a place for a determination based on fact. Was the first attack-close-shave reported? Was it Ignored? Should there be a pubic reprimand for a failed maritime safety system?
Or is it mere rumour. That is the business of a coroner. To sort fact from fiction, for the death of a man in pursuit of his right to enjoy the call of the sea and the bounties within ... will take its place in the tragic history of a State surrounded by sea.
• Paul Tapp in Comments: … Rob Steane raises interesting points that our legislators should consider. If its law to have expensive restraining seats in cars for kids, bike helmets for bikers, seat-belts for you and me, hard-hats underground and on construction-sites…then why not determine the price of fish-to-market (and let’s face it, there are more Chinese millionaires than there are Australians) and outfit our divers with SharkShields. …