Nick Carroll’s Surfing Illusions: A Shark Will Attack Me!


There are many estimates of how many surfers live in Australia. Three point eight million, say the organisations and groups who have a financial incentive to encourage a belief there are more surfers than all other sportspeople put together. (An Illusion in itself; we’ll get on to that at some future date.)

Meanwhile, in 2011 the Australian Bureau of Statistics made a somewhat saner estimate, based on actually asking people. They reckoned back then there were 226,000, give or take about 30,000 or so. Oddly enough this roughly coincides with the number of surfboards of all kinds sold in Australia each year.* 

Let us imagine that figure has since inflated to 300,000. I mean surely it is rising! And let us imagine each of the 300,000 surfers go surfing once a week. That means each year, 15,600,000 separate and distinct surf sessions occur.

The average annual number of shark attacks on surfers in Australian waters over the past seven years is just under 9. (It’d be a fair bit lower if not for the spike in 2015, during the infamous North Coast attack cluster.)

So on a purely theoretical numbers basis, the chances of any one surfer being attacked during a particular surf session is a bit over one in 1,733,333.

Surf for, say, 40 years and your chances are still way the hell out there at one in 43,333 and a bit.

I know this is just an average and it can be skewed by all manner of things: time, location, surfing habits, shark behaviour, meshing, etc. But you take the point. 

So why are many people convinced that entering the water on a surfboard is pretty much certain to expose them to a terrible death in the jaws of a huge, incomprehensible person-eater?

As with all Illusions, this is a question of perception.

Sharks live in the Ocean, and as we noted last week, the Ocean is a symbol of the Unconscious: the place within each of us that we dare not go. We see the surface, but what’s underneath? Terrifying shit, that’s what. It doesn’t matter that we’ve never seen it, or that as far as we know there isn’t an actual real shark within 10 nautical miles of us. And because we can’t see it, the shark becomes a symbol too. It’s not the actual shark that’s got us spooked. It’s the shark in our heads.

I mean, look at Donald Trump. (Well, don’t necessarily, but…) The President of the United States doesn’t surf, or even swim in the ocean, but he is absolutely terrified of sharks. “I wish all the sharks would die,” he is reported to have told one of his female companions over dinner in his hotel suite. Imagine the sharks in his head.

If you see sharks on the reg, like you might if you live in a sharky surfing area or go diving or fishing or whatever, an ironic thing happens. The sharks are out of your head. They become real: more formidable in a way, because a big shark is very formidable. It’s a big powerful dangerous beautiful animal. But it’s no longer a symbol, and you have to go look for another Illusion to replace it. Like Donald Trump in the lineup. 

*Of all kinds: laminated, softboards, bodyboards, the lot.

Nick Carroll