Video: Sharks rattle swimmers Down Under

  1. Transcript of: Sharks rattle swimmers Down Under

    MATT LAUER, co-host: The cold weather here in the US may have you dreaming of a day at the beach , but in Australia , a series of attacks by great white sharks has swimmers there headed for higher ground . NBC 's Peter Alexander has details on that. Peter , good morning to you.

    PETER ALEXANDER reporting: Matt , good morning to you. The experts call the recent attacks a freak coincidence. The fact is, in Australia , you're more likely to die from a bee sting than a shark attack , but try telling that to swimmers and surfers going into the ocean down under these days. Of course, it's summer there, and a wave of shark attacks and sightings have the island on edge. Down under, they're calling it a shark plague.

    Unidentified Reporter #1: The third shark attack .

    Unidentified Reporter #2: Swimmers are being warned to be extra vigilant at the beach.

    ALEXANDER: Steven Foggarty was snorkeling off the Australian coast when a shark locked onto his leg last weekend.

    Mr. STEVEN FOGGARTY (Shark Attack Victim): You know, I was screaming out for help and everybody just looked at me and just kept walking like nothing had happened.

    ALEXANDER: He escaped by punching the shark in the face.

    Mr. FOGGARTY: Just turned, started swinging, you know, tried my best, anyway. I got -- I think I got one on him.

    ALEXANDER: The recent rampage is leaving its mark on the Australian psyche. A 13 -year-old surfer was wheeled away from the beach after a great white dragged her under by the leg twice last weekend. That same day, Jonathan Beard 's friends used rope to stop the bleeding after his great white attack. All three victims survived.

    Unidentified Man #1: I think all Australians have an intrinsic fear of sharks. None of us want to become part of the food chain .

    Unidentified Man #2: Great white shark ! Great white!

    ALEXANDER: These kayakers nearly starred in their own horror film near Sydney .

    Mr. JUSTIN STANGER (Rescued Kayaker): I'm thinking I hope I don't look like a seal or a turtle, pretty much. I'm hoping it's not that hungry.

    ALEXANDER: The great white circled for 10 excruciating minutes before losing interest and swimming away. Some researchers suspect the sharks are in the midst of a feeding frenzy , following fish toward the Australian coast.

    Mr. RON MAGILL (Miami Metro Zoo): This is not an animal that says, oh, I like people, I'm looking for people. This is an animal that feeds on instinct. They're a finally tuned eating machine, and if people happen to be in the way, they're the ones that are going to be the victims.

    ALEXANDER: Across Australia , sharks are blamed for 60 deaths in the last half century. The most recent, Brian Guest , snatched last month by a great white. This is what the ocean's greatest predator looks like up close. The shark burst into a protective cage in Mexico , ripping it apart. Neither diver inside was hurt. Frightening images now haunting this giant island. And experts say a shark's brain is roughly the size of a golf ball . They don't have the intelligence to pick their prey, so the best advice to stay safe, swim in groups and don't wander too far from shore. Matt :

    LAUER: Swim in pools not a bad thing, either.

updated 1/14/2009 9:21:48 AM ET 2009-01-14T14:21:48

A recent string of shark attacks across Australia has rattled swimmers' nerves, but experts say fear not — it's (relatively) safe to go in the water.

"This is a mild hysteria," said Rachel Robbins, chief scientist at Australia's Rodney Fox Shark Research Foundation, named for and founded by famed shark expert. "I think it's just a freak coincidence that we've happened to have three shark attacks" in two days.

Despite the assurances, a debate is raging over whether there are indeed more sharks in Australia's waters — or whether there are simply more swimmers aware of the creatures' presence.

The trouble began on Dec. 27, when 51-year-old Brian Guest vanished while snorkeling with his son off a beach in Western Australia. A piece of his wet suit was later found, and officials said he was almost certainly eaten by a shark.

On Sunday, a 13-year-old surfer in the island state of Tasmania was dragged under water by a 16-foot great white shark, and a 31-year-old surfer was bitten while surfing at a remote beach in New South Wales state. Both survived.

The on Monday, Steven Fogarty was snorkeling in southern New South Wales when a shark latched onto his leg. He survived after punching the creature until it let go.

Meanwhile, several beaches across the country were closed as sharks were spotted close to shore. Officials have cautioned people to swim in groups, avoid swimming at dawn and dusk when sharks are feeding and to stick to patrolled beaches.

But despite the recent incidents, experts point out that there is an average of just one fatal shark attack in the country's waters each year.

Video: Australian shark attacks increasing "People need to put the risk in perspective," said John West, curator of the Australian Shark Attack File database. "Many more people die on the roads in one day in Australia than in a decade by shark attacks."

West said there is no evidence that shark populations are soaring or that there has been a significant increase in attacks in recent years. He said the flurry of sightings was probably a direct result of the recent attacks: The unusual spree made people more likely to be on the lookout for sharks.

'Unbelievable increase'
But Michael Brown, managing director of Surfwatch Australia, which conducts observational flights along beaches in the Sydney area several times a week, said there has been an "unbelievable increase" in the number of sharks spotted over the past few years.

Brown said currents that pulled nutrient-rich waters closer to the coast following storms off of New South Wales about four years ago left a perfect environment for smaller fish, which fed larger fish, which in turn, fed more sharks.

"The way nature works, if there's plenty of food, conditions are good, then sharks breed," he said.

Some have urged officials to add more shark nets to the country's beaches. The nets, which run parallel to the shore, were installed along some east coast beaches in the 1930s, but their effectiveness at keeping sharks away from swimmers is questionable. They are not full enclosures, and many sharks are caught on the inside of the nets as they swim away from the beach.

Others have argued for targeted killings of large sharks, but most experts have dismissed the idea as misplaced and inappropriate.

"Most people who enter the water here know that there are sharks here and respect the sharks being here," Robbins said. "We are the visitors."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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