Swimmers are being urged to avoid two beaches south of Batemans Bay in NSW after sharks were spotted feeding on a nearby whale carcass.
The carcass was found floating in the water about 300 metres east of Broulee Island at 6.30pm on Saturday night.
But it wasn’t alone.
Fears of a deadly attack were raised after the Westpac Life Saver Helicopter crew spotted a large number of sharks feeding on the dead whale.
“At 7pm, two civilian vessels under the supervision of Surf Lifesaving attached a tow line to the whale and towed the carcass approximately two kilometres out to sea,” NSW Police said in a statement.
Despite moving the carcass further away, the risk of an attack still remains, with police advising swimmers and recreational boat users to be aware of sharks in the water.
South Coast Police District duty officer Chief Inspector Peter Volf said those planning on fishing should be extra careful.
“People should be aware that sharks are attracted to whale carcasses and to avoid the area to prevent any unnecessary distraction to the sharks while feeding,” Chief Inspector Volf said.
The shocking discovery followed a separate incident in Victoria last Tuesday when an 18-metre sperm whale carcass washed up on a beach at Fairhaven.
The beach, alongside Victoria’s Great Ocean Road, was closed between Fairhaven and Moggs Creek on Tuesday and Wednesday while authorities removed the dead body.
VicEmergency issued a shark warning on Tuesday morning, as whale carcasses are known to attract sharks closer to shore than normal.
Michael Forkgen, a 60-year-old passerby from Jan Juc, said the smell of the dead whale was “horrible”.
“Just the sheer size of it, it was like looking at a bus or something it was so big,” he said.
By Wednesday afternoon, the crew had finished dissecting the whale carcass on the beach and transferring it by truck to a landfill facility.
The incident management team, led by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, worked closely with traditional owners to respect the cultural significance of a whale coming ashore on Country.
Part of the ceremony included burying small pieces of the whale at the beach to respect where its journey ended.
Beachgoers have since been given the green light to return to Fairhaven beach.
Dr Vanessa Pirotta, a marine scientist at Macquarie University, said a few tell-tale marks on the whale’s body indicated some sharks had already gotten there first.
“It’s rule 101: When you’ve got a dead whale on a beach, it’s not advised to go swimming because it’s a massive safety risk,” she told TND.
“That’s because sharks play an ecosystem service. They’re doing their bit by coming in and breaking the animal down, which is a positive thing.”
Judging by the whale’s decomposed skin, it likely died some time ago and the sea conditions helped push it onto land, she said.
It’s an observation that has raised questions about the movements of sea animals caught up in the wild waves pounding Australia’s east coast.
Last week, the coast of south-east Queensland and north-east NSW was pummelled by wild weather, raising fears of sharks and other “dangerous” hazards.
Heavy rainfall and thunderstorms also smashed towns north of Newcastle in NSW, down to the Victorian border.
Chris Smyth, digital and communications manager at Surf Life Saving NSW, urged swimmers and surfers to avoid beaches along the north coast, adding Byron Bay had been “decimated”.
“There’s been a huge amount of coastal erosion,” he told TND.
“Sand has shifted, rocks have been exposed that weren’t there before and a lot of rips have moved on beaches.”
Sea water that was previously pristine quickly became murky, making it difficult for swimmers to spot dangers underneath.
“A lot of of foreign objects have washed into the sea down the river systems, a lot of pollution is in the water, and there’s a lot of logs and debris in the water that will pose dangers to people venturing into the surf, even where it’s calm,” Mr Smyth told TND.
In particular, he urged swimmers and surfers to avoid river mouths, where sharks typically congregate as water volumes move out of the river systems into the ocean.”
Should we be worried about the ferocious weather pushing sharks or other marine animals onto shores?
It’s possible, but unlikely.
“This extreme weather is likely to be quite extreme for marine animals generally speaking so we might see more instances of animals exhausted and becoming stranded,” Dr Pirotta told TND.
“You might see a desertion of more rare species. In terms of sharks, we don’t know what’s going on.”
Associate Professor Chandra Salgado Kent, a whale expert at Edith Cowan University, agreed that “weather conditions can change where animals are spending their time and sometimes bring them closer to shore”.
“For example, if they’re unwell, then the combination with wild weather could result in a stranding,” she said.
The strength of the current can also change environmental cues that influence animals’ behaviour, she said.
“For larger, migratory animals that move long distances, it can shift where they spend their time as a shift in prey may change their focus,” Associate Professor Salgado Kent said.
But this doesn’t mean dolphins or whales will suddenly turn up at Byron Bay.
Normally prey will stick within their habitat, Associate Professor Salgado Kent said, so if they’re a deep water species then they’ll stay in deep water and won’t suddenly come to the surface.
In other words, you don’t need to stress about stumbling across deep-sea creatures like fangtooth fish or vampire squid on your morning beach walk.
But it’s wise to steer clear of the water after wild weather hits.
To find out if a beach near you is safe, click here.