It’s about 8am. I arrive at Albany’s popular Middleton Beach for my morning run and surf.
I get out of my car, run across the short piece of lawn, round the corner of the Surf Club building and face a small gathering of people around an ambulance.
Oh, I think, an early morning beach-side exercise.
I know some of them: the local member of State Parliament, a couple of friends and I recognise surf club members.
The politician turns to me and asks: You swimming?
I think: Yeah, of course I’m swimming. I swim every morning. I’m dressed for it. You know I swim. You being a smart-bum?
I nod, sideways.
He nods to the ambulance.
I look at the friends. They are agitated, focussed. They look through me. Something is clearly wrong.
The tale unfolds.
The early morning swimmers were about 20 metres from shore when one of them spotted a fin and said to his companion “dolphins.” His companion agreed, but then they both had second thoughts and a mate, one closer to shore, yelled “shark.” And in the same instant, the shark attacked. He yelled. The two out near the buoys decided to swim together for shore, keeping close and talking their way in. The shark circled and charged. Three times. They kicked hard and kept talking. On their way in they grabbed their mate. Another early morning swimmer, not yet in the water, saw their plight, ripped off her clothes and charged into the water, grabbed the severely injured man and dragged him ashore. Meanwhile, two others arrived, one raced in fully clothed, the other went for his mobile phone to call an ambulance. With the bitten man on the beach, they cared for him, wrapped him in towels, applied a tourniquet to stem the flow of blood to his badly lacerated leg and the man with the phone called the injured man’s wife. Within five minutes the ambulance had arrived and the injured man placed on the stretcher.
I see the fin. It’s big. Around it the surface water changes texture, like it’s tense, nervous, agitated. Then more fins, not fish, mammals, dolphins. The big fin is clearly a shark, a big fish. Others see it.
The ambulance leaves. A police vehicle drives onto the beach and heads north to warn walkers and swimmers along the beach line. A city vehicle arrives with an electronic sign: Beach closed because of shark.
Someone says the sea rescue boat is on its way. We can see it now.
The fin is moving around the pontoon, a popular destination for kids who like to jump and dive. No-one is in the water now.
I go to my friends. Now they see me. We talk. We agree to meet for coffee. They leave for the hospital with clothing belonging to the other friend, the one who was in the water, the one who was charged, and survived. She was in the back of the ambulance with the badly bitten man.
People arrive ready to swim. We send them away.
The sea rescues boat arrives. A surf lifesaver points to the pontoon. The boat circles it then begins searching in a deliberate pattern.
I stand around, listening, waiting for decisions to be made and ready to offer assistance, a car, a shoulder, whatever.
I see the woman who ran into the water sitting alone. I go to her.
“You remember me?”
“You’re the laughing man.”
She laughs. Then cries. Then talks. She says she’s ok. She will call her son. She knows she’s wobbly.
I leave, meet my friends for coffee. They are wobbly, emotional, bonded.
I’m at the beach again. Talk to a bloke from Fisheries. He tells me they spotted two sharks, females, one 4 metres and the other 5 metres. Big fish. Hungry fish. I ask if it’s safe to swim, anywhere. It’s all a risk, he says.
I drive out to Goode Beach, 20ks out of town, facing King George Sound. I run in the soft sand. I run up a sand hill. I’m hot. I want to go into the ocean. I find a clear spot, no weed and watch. Nothing. I go in. I’m cautious, swim with eyes wide open above and below the surface, head swinging both ways and taking breaths from left and right. It feels good, wonderful, invigorating.
I get out, run up the beach, grab my chamois towel, turn, and tense: two fins. Bugger, dolphins.
Later Sunday morning
I’m back at Middleton Beach. A crowd is building. TV crews are lurking. Two boats are sweeping, one with a loud speaker system: “Keep away from the beach.” A helicopter sweeps with a leaning cameraman. Families arrive, park and rush to the shoreline. I meet an artist I met the previous day at the Albany Farmers’ Markets. He’s from Austria. He tells me it is madness, that on this very day many people will die on the roads, that people in other countries are starving, that people in Burma have no homes, that the Junta will take advantage and kill people they don’t like, that in Austria unspeakable things will continue to happen to innocent people and that people in the Western world watch too much television and the media feeds their insanity. Two dolphins frolic in the shallows. Some are interested in them, most seem eager for another sighting.
I get in my car and call the friends who were involved in the attack and the rescue. None of them slept well. They have heard others involved also did not sleep well. I did not sleep well, a night plagued with dreams about losing control and one about swimming over dark weed and panicking because I could no longer see the shark I was sure was there, even though I had not seen it.