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Swimming with wobbegongs

Wobbegongs [1] are great. They are like a natural version of that Elephant [2] that Banksy painted. Or a roll of colourful Turkish carpet that has fallen over and unravelled in a disused stockroom. They grow to about 3 metres and are called, with magnificent appropriateness, carpet sharks.

I used to snorkel regularly at Port Noarlunga reef, just south of Adelaide. I was about 3 metres under when there was a movement below me. As soon as it moved I could see the shape of the wobbegong. Usually when I see the shape of a shark when I’m in the water, I get a horrible panicky feeling. This time I didn’t. A wobbegong doesn’t look threatening. It looks like something in a jumble sale.

I surfaced, took a breath and went back down. It hadn’t moved. It didn’t look alive. I circled over it and wondered what it would do. Nothing. I took a few more breaths and kept examining it. After a while there wasn’t much to examine. It didn’t do anything.

Next time I dived, I touched a pectoral fin. Nothing happened. Then I ran a hand down its back, feeling its sandpapery skin. Lastly, I touched the floppy fringes around its mouth. Its little eyes didn’t even seem to look at me. It was obviously harmless.

I asked about it next time I went to the South Australian Museum and discovered that I had been quite silly.

Here’s a section of an article about Wobbegongs:

I’m pretty certain wobbegongs are responsible for
more diver ‘shark attacks’ in Australia than any other
shark species. The International Shark Attack File
only lists 18 attacks by wobbegongs, but most attacks
must go unreported, as the diver is either too
embarrassed, uninjured or couldn’t be bothered to
report it.

That was some time in the 1970s. Much later, my wife and I paid one of our periodic visits to Adelaide. We went for a swim at Somerton Beach, between Brighton and Glenelg. I finished my swim and came out. My wife was still finishing her distance. I stood on the beach and watched her. Then I saw a fin. I thought it must be a dolphin. A woman walking past stopped next t me.

“That’s not a dolphin, is it?” she said.

“Isn’t it?” I looked. The fin was triangular with no hook shape like a dolphin. The animal wasn’t undulating like a dolphin. It was much bigger than a dolphin. It was just cruising along a submerged sandbank about twenty metres from my dear vulnerable wife.

“We should warn her,” said the woman.

At that moment, my wife turned towards shore and made her way to the sand with an unhurried breast stroke. I met her as she came out.

“Look at that.” I pointed at the fin.

“What is it?”

We looked it up on the web when we got home. The only thing it could have been was a Great White [4]. Good thing it wasn’t hungry.

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