Demon Monsters or Misunderstood Casualties?

Writing about Sharks in Australia



How to Cite

Brien, D. L. (2021). Demon Monsters or Misunderstood Casualties? Writing about Sharks in Australia. M/C Journal, 24(5).
Vol. 24 No. 5 (2021): monster
Published 2021-10-05

Over the past century, many books for general readers have styled sharks as “monsters of the deep” (Steele). In recent decades, however, at least some writers have also turned to representing how sharks are seriously threatened by human activities. At a time when media coverage of shark sightings seems ever increasing in Australia, scholarship has begun to consider people’s attitudes to sharks and how these are formed, investigating the representation of sharks (Peschak; Ostrovski et al.) in films (Le Busque and Litchfield; Neff; Schwanebeck), newspaper reports (Muter et al.), and social media (Le Busque et al., “An Analysis”). My own research into representations of surfing and sharks in Australian writing (Brien) has, however, revealed that, although reporting of shark sightings and human-shark interactions are prominent in the news, and sharks function as vivid and commanding images and metaphors in art and writing (Ellis; Westbrook et al.), little scholarship has investigated their representation in Australian books published for a general readership.

While recognising representations of sharks in other book-length narrative forms in Australia, including Australian fiction, poetry, and film (Ryan and Ellison), this enquiry is focussed on non-fiction books for general readers, to provide an initial review. Sampling holdings of non-fiction books in the National Library of Australia, crosschecked with Google Books, in early 2021, this investigation identified 50 Australian books for general readers that are principally about sharks, or that feature attitudes to them, published from 1911 to 2021. Although not seeking to capture all Australian non-fiction books for general readers that feature sharks, the sampling attempted to locate a wide range of representations and genres across the time frame from the earliest identified text until the time of the survey. The books located include works of natural and popular history, travel writing, memoir, biography, humour, and other long-form non-fiction for adult and younger readers, including hybrid works. A thematic analysis (Guest et al.) of the representation of sharks in these texts identified five themes that moved from understanding sharks as fishes to seeing them as monsters, then prey, and finally to endangered species needing conservation. Many books contained more than one theme, and not all examples identified have been quoted in the discussion of the themes below.

Sharks as Part of the Natural Environment

Drawing on oral histories passed through generations, two memoirs (Bradley et al.; Fossa) narrate Indigenous stories in which sharks play a central role. These reveal that sharks are part of both the world and a wider cosmology for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (Clua and Guiart). In these representations, sharks are integrated with, and integral to, Indigenous life, with one writer suggesting they are “creator beings, ancestors, totems. Their lifecycles reflect the seasons, the landscape and sea country. They are seen in the movement of the stars” (Allam).

A series of natural history narratives focus on zoological studies of Australian sharks, describing shark species and their anatomy and physiology, as well as discussing shark genetics, behaviour, habitats, and distribution. A foundational and relatively early Australian example is Gilbert P. Whitley’s The Fishes of Australia: The Sharks, Rays, Devil-fish, and Other Primitive Fishes of Australia and New Zealand, published in 1940. Ichthyologist at the Australian Museum in Sydney from the early 1920s to 1964, Whitley authored several books which furthered scientific thought on sharks. Four editions of his Australian Sharks were published between 1983 and 1991 in English, and the book is still held in many libraries and other collections worldwide. In this text, Whitley described a wide variety of sharks, noting shared as well as individual features. Beautiful drawings contribute information on shape, colouring, markings, and other recognisable features to assist with correct identification. Although a scientist and a Fellow and then President of the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales, Whitley recognised it was important to communicate with general readers and his books are accessible, the prose crisp and clear.

Books published after this text (Aiken; Ayling; Last and Stevens; Tricas and Carwardine) share Whitley’s regard for the diversity of sharks as well as his desire to educate a general readership. By 2002, the CSIRO’s Field Guide to Australian Sharks & Rays (Daley et al.) also featured numerous striking photographs of these creatures. Titles such as Australia’s Amazing Sharks (Australian Geographic) emphasise sharks’ unique qualities, including their agility and speed in the water, sensitive sight and smell, and ability to detect changes in water pressure around them, heal rapidly, and replace their teeth. These books also emphasise the central role that sharks play in the marine ecosystem. There are also such field guides to sharks in specific parts of Australia (Allen). This attention to disseminating accurate zoological information about sharks is also evident in books written for younger readers including very young children (Berkes; Kear; Parker and Parker). In these and other similar books, sharks are imaged as a central and vital component of the ocean environment, and the narratives focus on their features and qualities as wondrous rather than monstrous.

Sharks as Predatory Monsters

A number of books for general readers do, however, image sharks as monsters. In 1911, in his travel narrative Peeps at Many Lands: Australia, Frank Fox describes sharks as “the most dangerous foes of man in Australia” (23) and many books have reinforced this view over the following century. This can be seen in titles that refer to sharks as dangerous predatory killers (Fox and Ruhen; Goadby; Reid; Riley; Sharpe; Taylor and Taylor). The covers of a large proportion of such books feature sharks emerging from the water, jaws wide open in explicit homage to the imaging of the monster shark in the film Jaws (Spielberg). Shark!: Killer Tales from the Dangerous Depths (Reid) is characteristic of books that portray encounters with sharks as terrifying and dramatic, using emotive language and stories that describe sharks as “the world’s most feared sea creature” (47) because they are such “highly efficient killing machines” (iv, see also 127, 129). This representation of sharks is also common in several books for younger readers (Moriarty; Rohr).

Although the risk of being injured by an unprovoked shark is extremely low (Chapman; Fletcher et al.), fear of sharks is prevalent and real (Le Busque et al., “People’s Fear”) and described in a number of these texts. Several of the memoirs located describe surfers’ fear of sharks (Muirhead; Orgias), as do those of swimmers, divers, and other frequent users of the sea (Denness; de Gelder; McAloon), even if the author has never encountered a shark in the wild. In these texts, this fear of sharks is often traced to viewing Jaws, and especially to how the film’s huge, bloodthirsty great white shark persistently and determinedly attacks its human hunters. Pioneer Australian shark expert Valerie Taylor describes such great white sharks as “very big, powerful … and amazingly beautiful” but accurately notes that “revenge is not part of their thought process” (Kindle version).

Two books explicitly seek to map and explain Australians’ fear of sharks. In Sharks: A History of Fear in Australia, Callum Denness charts this fear across time, beginning with his own “shark story”: a panicked, terror-filled evacuation from the sea, following the sighting of a shadow which turned out not to be a shark. Blake Chapman’s Shark Attacks: Myths, Misunderstandings and Human Fears explains commonly held fearful perceptions of sharks. Acknowledging that sharks are a “highly emotive topic”, the author of this text does not deny “the terror [that] they invoke in our psyche” but makes a case that this is “only a minor characteristic of what makes them such intriguing animals” (ix).

In Death by Coconut: 50 Things More Dangerous than a Shark and Why You Shouldn’t Be Afraid of the Ocean, Ruby Ashby Orr utilises humour to educate younger readers about the real risk humans face from sharks and, as per the book’s title, why they should not be feared, listing champagne corks and falling coconuts among the many everyday activities more likely to lead to injury and death in Australia than encountering a shark. Taylor goes further in her memoir – not only describing her wonder at swimming with these creatures, but also her calm acceptance of the possibility of being injured by a shark: "if we are to be bitten, then we are to be bitten … . One must choose a life of adventure, and of mystery and discovery, but with that choice, one must also choose the attendant risks" (2019: Kindle version). Such an attitude is very rare in the books located, with even some of the most positive about these sea creatures still quite sensibly fearful of potentially dangerous encounters with them.

Sharks as Prey

There is a long history of sharks being fished in Australia (Clark). The killing of sharks for sport is detailed in An American Angler in Australia, which describes popular adventure writer Zane Grey’s visit to Australia and New Zealand in the 1930s to fish ‘big game’. This text includes many bloody accounts of killing sharks, which are justified with explanations about how sharks are dangerous. It is also illustrated with gruesome pictures of dead sharks. Australian fisher Alf Dean’s biography describes him as the “World’s Greatest Shark Hunter” (Thiele), this text similarly illustrated with photographs of some of the gigantic sharks he caught and killed in the second half of the twentieth century.

Apart from being killed during pleasure and sport fishing, sharks are also hunted by spearfishers. Valerie Taylor and her late husband, Ron Taylor, are well known in Australia and internationally as shark experts, but they began their careers as spearfishers and shark hunters (Taylor, Ron Taylor’s), with the documentary Shark Hunters gruesomely detailing their killing of many sharks. The couple have produced several books that recount their close encounters with sharks (Taylor; Taylor, Taylor and Goadby; Taylor and Taylor), charting their movement from killers to conservationists as they learned more about the ocean and its inhabitants. Now a passionate campaigner against the past butchery she participated in, Taylor’s memoir describes her shift to a more respectful relationship with sharks, driven by her desire to understand and protect them.

In Australia, the culling of sharks is supposedly carried out to ensure human safety in the ocean, although this practice has long been questioned. In 1983, for instance, Whitley noted the “indiscriminate” killing of grey nurse sharks, despite this species largely being very docile and of little threat to people (Australian Sharks, 10). This is repeated by Tony Ayling twenty-five years later who adds the information that the generally harmless grey nurse sharks have been killed to the point of extinction, as it was wrongly believed they preyed on surfers and swimmers. Shark researcher and conservationist Riley Elliott, author of Shark Man: One Kiwi Man’s Mission to Save Our Most Feared and Misunderstood Predator (2014), includes an extremely critical chapter on Western Australian shark ‘management’ through culling, summing up the problems associated with this approach:

it seems to me that this cull involved no science or logic, just waste and politics. It’s sickening that the people behind this cull were the Fisheries department, which prior to this was the very department responsible for setting up the world’s best acoustic tagging system for sharks. (Kindle version, Chapter 7)

Describing sharks as “misunderstood creatures”, Orr is also clear in her opposition to killing sharks to ‘protect’ swimmers noting that “each year only around 10 people are killed in shark attacks worldwide, while around 73 million sharks are killed by humans”. She adds the question and answer, “sounds unfair? Of course it is, but when an attack is all over the news and the people are baying for shark blood, it’s easy to lose perspective. But culling them? Seriously?” (back cover). The condemnation of culling is also evident in David Brooks’s recent essay on the topic in his collection of essays about animal welfare, conservation and the relationship between humans and other species, Animal Dreams.

This disapproval is also evident in narratives by those who have been injured by sharks. Navy diver Paul de Gelder and surfer Glen Orgias were both bitten by sharks in Sydney in 2009 and both their memoirs detail their fear of sharks and the pain they suffered from these interactions and their lengthy recoveries. However, despite their undoubted suffering – both men lost limbs due to these encounters – they also attest to their ongoing respect for these creatures and specify a shared desire not to see them culled. Orgias, instead, charts the life story of the shark who bit him alongside his own story in his memoir, musing at the end of the book, not about himself or his injury, but about the fate of the shark he had encountered:

great whites are portrayed … as pathological creatures, and as malevolent. That’s rubbish … they are graceful, mighty beasts. I respect them, and fear them … [but] the thought of them fighting, dying, in a net upsets me. I hope this great white shark doesn’t end up like that. (271–271)

Several of the more recent books identified in this study acknowledge that, despite growing understanding of sharks, the popular press and many policy makers continue to advocate for shark culls, these calls especially vocal after a shark-related human death or injury (Peppin-Neff). The damage to shark species involved caused by their killing – either directly by fishing, spearing, finning, or otherwise hunting them, or inadvertently as they become caught in nets or affected by human pollution of the ocean – is discussed in many of the more recent books identified in this study.

Sharks as Endangered

Alongside fishing, finning, and hunting, human actions and their effects such as beach netting, pollution and habitat change are killing many sharks, to the point where many shark species are threatened. Several recent books follow Orr in noting that an estimated 100 million sharks are now killed annually across the globe and that this, as well as changes to their habitats, are driving many shark species to the status of vulnerable, threatened or towards extinction (Dulvy et al.). This is detailed in texts about biodiversity and climate change in Australia (Steffen et al.) as well as in many of the zoologically focussed books discussed above under the theme of “Sharks as part of the natural environment”. The CSIRO’s Field Guide to Australian Sharks & Rays (Daley et al.), for example, emphasises not only that several shark species are under threat (and protected) (8–9) but also that sharks are, as individuals, themselves very fragile creatures. Their skeletons are made from flexible, soft cartilage rather than bone, meaning that although they are “often thought of as being incredibly tough; in reality, they need to be handled carefully to maximise their chance of survival following capture” (9). Material on this theme is included in books for younger readers on Australia’s endangered animals (Bourke; Roc and Hawke).

Shark Conservation

By 1991, shark conservation in Australia and overseas was a topic of serious discussion in Sydney, with an international workshop on the subject held at Taronga Zoo and the proceedings published (Pepperell et al.). Since then, the movement to protect sharks has grown, with marine scientists, high-profile figures and other writers promoting shark conservation, especially through attempts to educate the general public about sharks. De Gelder’s memoir, for instance, describes how he now champions sharks, promoting shark conservation in his work as a public speaker. Peter Benchley, who (with Carl Gottlieb) recast his novel Jaws for the film’s screenplay, later attested to regretting his portrayal of sharks as aggressive and became a prominent spokesperson for shark conservation. In explaining his change of heart, he stated that when he wrote the novel, he was reflecting the general belief that sharks would both seek out human prey and attack boats, but he later discovered this to be untrue (Benchley, “Without Malice”).

Many recent books about sharks for younger readers convey a conservation message, underscoring how, instead of fearing or killing sharks, or doing nothing, humans need to actively assist these vulnerable creatures to survive. In the children’s book series featuring Bindi Irwin and her “wildlife adventures”, there is a volume where Bindi and a friend are on a diving holiday when they find a dead shark whose fin has been removed. The book not only describes how shark finning is illegal, but also how Bindi and friend are “determined to bring the culprits to justice” (Browne). This narrative, like the other books in this series, has a dual focus; highlighting the beauty of wildlife and its value, but also how the creatures described need protection and assistance.

Concluding Discussion

This study was prompted by the understanding that the Earth is currently in the epoch known as the Anthropocene, a time in which humans have significantly altered, and continue to alter, the Earth by our activities (Myers), resulting in numerous species becoming threatened, endangered, or extinct. It acknowledges the pressing need for not only natural science research on these actions and their effects, but also for such scientists to publish their findings in more accessible ways (see, Paulin and Green). It specifically responds to demands for scholarship outside the relevant areas of science and conservation to encourage widespread thinking and action (Mascia et al.; Bennett et al.).

As understanding public perceptions and overcoming widely held fear of sharks can facilitate their conservation (Panoch and Pearson), the way sharks are imaged is integral to their survival. The five themes identified in this study reveal vastly different ways of viewing and writing about sharks. These range from seeing sharks as nothing more than large fishes to be killed for pleasure, to viewing them as terrifying monsters, to finally understanding that they are amazing creatures who play an important role in the world’s environment and are in urgent need of conservation. This range of representation is important, for if sharks are understood as demon monsters which hunt humans, then it is much more ‘reasonable’ to not care about their future than if they are understood to be fascinating and fragile creatures suffering from their interactions with humans and our effect on the environment.

Further research could conduct a textual analysis of these books. In this context, it is interesting to note that, although in 1949 C. Bede Maxwell suggested describing human deaths and injuries from sharks as “accidents” (182) and in 2013 Christopher Neff and Robert Hueter proposed using “sightings, encounters, bites, and the rare cases of fatal bites” (70) to accurately represent “the true risk posed by sharks” to humans (70), the majority of the books in this study, like mass media reports, continue to use the ubiquitous and more dramatic terminology of “shark attack”. The books identified in this analysis could also be compared with international texts to reveal and investigate global similarities and differences. While the focus of this discussion has been on non-fiction texts, a companion analysis of representation of sharks in Australian fiction, poetry, films, and other narratives could also be undertaken, in the hope that such investigations contribute to more nuanced understandings of these majestic sea creatures.


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Author Biography

Donna Lee Brien, CQUniversity, Australia

Professor Donna Lee Brien is Professor of Creative Industries and Assistant Dean, Research & Postgraduate, Creative and Performing Arts, at Central Queensland University, Australia. Her biography John Power 1881-1943 is the standard work on this expatriate artist and, with Tess Brady, she co-authored Girl’s Guide to Real Estate: How to Enjoy Investing in Property and Girl’s Guide to Work and Life: How to Create the Life you Want for Allen & Unwin. Founding Editor of dotlit: The Online Journal of Creative Writing, Donna is currently Commissioning Editor, Special Issues, TEXT: Journal of Writing and Writing Courses, on the Editorial Advisory Board of the Australasian Journal of Popular Culture, a Foundation Editorial Board member of Locale: The Australasian-Pacific Journal of Regional Food Studies, and a Past President of the Australasian Association of Writing Programs. She has been writing about food writers and their influence since 2006.