We’re not just afraid of predators, we’re transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables and chatter endlessly about them, because fascination creates preparedness, and preparedness, survival. In a deeply tribal sense, we love our monsters.
MY OLDER BROTHER took an interest in the sea first, and, as with everything he did, I followed close behind. By the time he was ten years old, surfing and fishing and diving had become obsessions. He was devout; I was cautious. But in his gravitational pull I ended up spending many of my childhood days down the port beach in front of our house in Geraldton, on the central rural coast of Western Australia. Fishing for herring from the edge of the reef. Spearing for the skippy and sweetlip that hid in the dusty green shallows, the water warm with the Leeuwin Current that flowed south from Indonesia.
If an interest in the ocean can be hereditary then the link would be our grandmother. Freda Vines lived alone in a war-service home in the Perth coastal suburb of Marmion. On school holidays our family often made the five-hour drive south of Geraldton to stay with Freda, setting up camp in the ethereal clutter of her home. Amid the loose papers and paintings and overstuffed bookshelves were strange, exotic things. A death notification from the Royal Australian Air Force dated 5 February 1945. Spears and woomeras and boomerangs recovered from the Cape Range in the north-west of the state, which hung on a living room wall. In a cupboard of coats and boots I found a .22-calibre Lithgow rifle and, in breathless moments alone, I felt the weight of a gun in my hands.
I had grown up knowing my grandmother was a novelist, historian and a painter, and even at seven I had her pegged as an eccentric. Freda had over-large reading glasses and she wore her waist-length grey hair swept up in a gigantic beehive. She liked lipstick and heavy jewellery, but she wasn’t anything like other old women I knew. I’d once overheard a distant relative whisper that my grandmother wasn’t ‘houseproud’ in a way that suggested something truly wicked, though I didn’t know what it meant. I did know Freda preferred ordering pizza to cooking dinner. She drank beer and sherry and, when we were at hand, had her grandchildren fix her strong rum and cokes.
In her old age Freda walked with a stoop and only seemed able to comfortably look someone square in the face when she sat down, and would smile when she locked eyes on you. I remember her spending long summer afternoons on those school holidays sat at the kitchen table, a drink sweating in front of her, staring out the sea-facing windows.
IN PERTH MY brother and I continued our daily practice, indifferent to the sprawling city to the east, preferring to explore the limestone coves and beaches down the street from Freda’s house. The sea there was foreign to the one we had grown up with in Geraldton. We knew it was the same Indian Ocean, of course, but the water was a darker, deeper blue, and even in the summer months it kept its chill, the inshore reefs flushed by the nutrient-rich current reaching up out of the Southern Ocean. I became more circumspect than usual on those beaches. Despite the mansions peering over the busy water and the constant hum of shark-spotter planes and rescue choppers patrolling above, and despite the visual boundary of the surf-fringed outer reefs and the island standing guard beyond them, the city beaches always felt exposed, as if a window had been left open.
Freda noticed our prepubescent seafaring and responded to it in a way that these days might be condemned as irresponsible. One day my brother and I returned from the beach, and were given a book titled Sharks: Silent Hunters of the Deep (Reader’s Digest, 1987). I had never seen a book like it. It was a real book, a book for grown-ups, but it was ours. Beyond its innocent cover – the side-profile of a harmless grey nurse shark – were stories and images our parents would not have permitted had they known, and we kept its content secret. We were drawn to that book in a way we suspected was dangerous, always wanting to look as much as wanting to look away. Silent Hunters of the Deep was in some ways my first experience of addiction and, through the book’s stories, my first true encounter with death. I developed an encyclopedic knowledge of shark attacks that had taken place decades before I was born. Like the 1967 attack several hundred metres off the remote Western Australian township of Jurien Bay. How twenty-four-year-old spearfisherman Bob Bartle was separated in two by a great white shark in front of his friend Lee Warner, and how Warner, after shooting his own spear at the circling shark, had to retrieve the gun floating near Bartle’s upper half to arm himself for the long swim to shore. Or the 1923 attack on thirteen-year-old Charles Robinson, killed while bathing near the Scotch College boatshed in the Swan River. I learnt them all, and I would re-read each terrible account until I could almost recite them verbatim, revisiting them like biblical passages.
Silent Hunters of the Deep had pictures, too, but there was no Finding Nemo-style anthropomorphism. I remember the photograph of a South Australian diver lying flat out on the deck of a boat, his right leg gone, blood fanning out from the stump across the timber boards like the jet stream from a rocket. There were photographs taken in ambulances and operating theatres, gloved hands holding torn limbs under surgical lamps. Shredded tissue over spoilt hospital linen.
And every birthday or Christmas we would be gifted a new book about sharks, each one surpassing the one before it for the visceral hit it provided. One book contained a section of glossed pages preceded by a warning, so graphic were the coronial photographs within. I can only imagine Freda in a bookstore, flicking through pages, the grim amusement as she ensured they contained the adequate gore.
My brother and I took the books home to Geraldton and dutifully studied each one, over and over, imbibing the tales and photographs and the zoological information that would never be forgotten. Like how a fully motivated, two-tonne adult great white shark could reach speeds of over thirty kilometres an hour, covering the final twenty metres between itself and its target in less than two seconds. And how, water depth permitting, their preferred attack trajectory was vertical, striking from underneath the eyeline of its prey.
I soon had trouble putting my head underwater. I would never go in the backyard pool on my own. My only memory of vacation swimming lessons was the five-metre white pointer that stalked the deep end of the Geraldton aquatic centre.
Even now, when I am in the sea, I find myself circled by the repeated visions of an attack in progress. The huge shifting of ocean and then the sudden heaviness on my legs. I see the tumbling red clouds in the water around me. I have surfed for two decades and though I have never once seen a shark, I am never without them. The ocean I live with is an ocean of monsters, vivid, fully formed. I am almost resigned to it now. I suspect this is how it always will be.
I don’t write of this to show how my grandmother gave me a mental illness. It is clear that is, by some definition, what has happened. I wanted to propose a question: why? Why did she cast monsters into an ocean that I loved, an ocean she loved? What was the lesson or the instruction?
BECAUSE THAT IS what a monster is. An instruction. The Latin root of monster, monēre, means not only to warn but also to remind and advise. To instruct.
Perhaps the earliest story that has a monster of the sea at its heart is the Greek myth of Andromeda, the daughter of Cepheus and Cassiopeia, king and queen of Aethiopia. The boastful queen Cassiopeia enraged Poseidon, god of the sea, when she claimed her daughter Andromeda was more beautiful even than the Nereids, the sea nymphs. In vengeance, Poseidon sent Cetus – the Greek ‘Ketos’ meaning large fish or sea monster – to stalk the African coastline. Cetus would only be placated by the sacrifice of Andromeda. Cepheus chained his daughter to a rock in the sea but she was rescued by Perseus, who slayed the leviathan and married Andromeda.
References to Leviathan are littered, too, throughout the Old Testament – most popularly in the tale of the prophet Jonah, who spent three days in the gullet of a ‘great fish’. Israeli biblical-zoologist Menahem Dor has written about the possibility of the original Hebrew given to the sea monster – dag gadol – having been inspired by great white sharks, believed to have inhabited the Mediterranean at the time. The account of Leviathan in the Book of Job has all the fevered poetry of Melville: ‘On earth there is nothing like him, which is made without fear.’
Like the eternal, inscrutable Leviathan of the Bible, great white sharks stalk the Western Australian literary imagination. In Robert Drewe’s short story collection The Bodysurfers (Penguin, 1983), a character imagines sharks everywhere: ‘In every kelp patch, in the lip of every breaker, I sense a shark. Every shadow and submerged rock becomes one; the thin plume of spray in the edge of my vision is scant warning of its final lunge.’
On the page, sharks are the witnesses of human fears and failures. The deadpan escorts into psychic uncertainty. And when sharks surface, showing their physical selves, they do so in concert with a protagonist’s deepest troubles. With its primordial gaze alone, a shark can tear a character open, unravelling their human stitching.
Barney, the fourteen-foot great white shark who patrols the bildungsroman of Tim Winton’s novel Breath (Penguin, 2009), silently watches as the book’s young characters, Pikelet and Loonie, tumble into the perils of adulthood:
Barney surfaced like a sub in the channel, rolled over beside Loonie and fixed him with one terrible, black eye before sliding away again. That eye, said Loonie, was like a fuckin hole in the universe.
LIFE ON AUSTRALIA’S south-west coast is a life lived in the company of sharks. The months from November to March repeat a cycle of the arrival of great white sharks followed by the ritual horror they inspire, captured here in John Kinsella’s 2004 poem, Perth:
the Great White comes in close to the shore,
tracking seals and the human swimmer
on the surface agitates the water
in much the same way; government
must be seen to be in control
so increases air and sea patrols,
a network TV station lends its chopper,
fishermen hunt like sentinels
In 1997, fifty-one-year-old lawyer and ex-VFL hero Brian Sierakowski was attacked by a five-metre great white shark while paddling a double surf ski with friend Barney Hanrahan off Cottesloe Beach. The men were thrown from the ski, and Sierakowski hit over the nose by an errant tail, but the men survived. The story gained unprecedented media attention and aerial patrols were increased. Shark-spotter planes became a daily fixture of Perth summer life.
The death of businessman Ken Crew in 2000, fatally bitten in knee-deep water beneath the Cottesloe Beach mansions and restaurants, signalled a distinct elevation in the scale of media reporting on shark attacks in Western Australia. It wasn’t a surfer ‘up the coast’ or an abalone fisherman making his risky living on a remote southern ocean shelf. A great white shark had struck at the heart of the establishment.
And they kept coming back, every year, harassing the central Perth coast like Poseidon’s Cetus. Five fatal great white shark attacks in Western Australia – in the span of ten months from June 2011 – marked the tipping point, including the 2012 disappearance of sixty-four-year-old CEO Bryn Martin, last seen swimming alone two hundred metres off Cottesloe Beach. Later that year, on 12 September, Western Australian Premier and Cottesloe resident Colin Barnett announced a $1 million drum line trial designed to kill large sharks. Premier Barnett hit the front page of the West Australian holding a thirty-six-centimetre stainless steel shark hook, recast as Captain Ahab, desperate to vanquish the eternal leviathan. Over the following summer, one hundred and seventy-two sharks were killed, either drowning on the lines or shot if found still alive. Fifty tiger sharks were shot, their carcasses dumped in deeper water. But no great white sharks were caught. In September 2014, following numerous protests and global criticism from the marine science community, the Environmental Protection Authority recommended against future implementation of the drum line program, citing ‘too much uncertainty in the available information and evidence about the south-western white shark population’. Reluctantly, Premier Barnett abandoned the policy.
Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws (Doubleday, 1974), wrote of the ‘paradox inherent in our reckless assault on sharks’. In recent times Benchley has spoken and written mournfully of his first novel that had him, in his own words, ‘catapulted to two-bit celebrity’, and great white sharks vulnerable to extinction. He wrote: ‘As the bizarre overreaction to Jaws demonstrated, while we may fear sharks and profess to hate them, we are also thrilled by them.’ Benchley references here the oft-quoted writing of biologist EO Wilson: ‘We’re not just afraid of predators, we’re transfixed by them, prone to weave stories and fables and chatter endlessly about them, because fascination creates preparedness, and preparedness, survival. In a deeply tribal sense, we love our monsters.’
Was that the lesson my grandmother was trying to teach us? Was it preparation, an education in survival?
FREDA DIED BEFORE I could ask her myself. It was 7 July 2000. I was fifteen. The whole family was there, in that cluttered house. By then we were living in Perth, and had moved in with Freda when a bad fall had left her too frail to manage alone. My brother and I slept in the room at the end of the hall that had once belonged to my father and uncle. I remember the cold on my face as I lay in my bed. A storm was up outside. I remember that my father came in and told us to follow him. We sat around Freda’s bedroom, the room cluttered with books and paint canvasses, and looked at her, her face strange without the glasses in place, her long grey hair looped under her head.
My brother and I walked to the beach at the end of her street when the funeral directors arrived. Our surfboards were heavy, with the westerly against them. I remember how low and grim the sky was, how the water was cloudy with sediment. My brother and I bobbed around in the roiling sea without words.
In the week following there were the expected rituals, retelling stories and sifting through keepsakes and writings. The grandchildren learnt about the death notification Freda had received from the Royal Australian Air Force. Her first husband, Ted, had been a navigator in a Lockheed Ventura bomber that crashed in the Gulf of Carpentaria on the 27 January 1945. Her first book, The Maker of Music: The Story of the RAAF, was released as the war came to an end. She had been twenty-eight, my age now.
In the following decades she published numerous books. Her short fiction appeared regularly in The Women’s Weekly and she wrote radio plays for the BBC. But that was a career I would only learn to understand years later, when I was trying to begin a writing career of my own. As grandchildren we had known her as a storyteller, but just for the tales she had told us when we were alone with her, and in the days after she died we shared each one, revelling in the irreverent darkness of them. One of these was a sort of ghost story that she told many times and that surprised people due to the enthusiasm with which she would tell it, and for the fact she might tell it at all. As the story goes, and as all of her grandchildren could recite, years after Ted’s death and the conclusion of the war Freda was on a date, walking in Perth’s Kings Park, when she looked away from the path and saw Ted, her husband, glaring out at them from the banksia woodland, apparently displeased. Her startled date saw the man too, but it was Freda who recognised who it was. It was a chilling story. I often dreamed of that spurned soldier, the angry ghost in the shadows of the jarrah and marri trees. Her cheery moral of the story – that the spectre of Ted had warned her out of the arms of her date and into those of my grandfather, Joseph – did little to make me sleep better.
My older sister remembers another story Grandma told her about the disappearance of the family cat, Rusty, when my father was still only a small child. The cat had been badly injured fighting with neighbourhood moggies and was weak with infection. After dinner one night, when my father and uncle had been put to bed, Joseph had taken Rusty out into the large yard behind the shed, away from the house. He fed the cat its favourite kangaroo meat, and once it had finished eating blasted it in the head with a .22-calibre Lithgow rifle. My grandfather had been distraught over the ordeal, Freda reported. That story stayed with me, too. Joseph, the World War II veteran, crying in the backyard, alone in the dim of evening with his children’s wounded cat. It made me think about the weight of secrets and the toll of violence carried by a generation.
And there was ‘the Braeside tragedy’, the story of Freda’s great-uncle, Dr Edward Vines, who was speared through the heart in 1899 by tribesmen on the remote Braeside station in the north-west Pilbara desert. Dr Vines had been attending the pregnant wife of the stationmaster, Mr Hodgson, when they were attacked. It had been payback, and unfortunate timing for the doctor. The stationmaster, as it turned out, was notorious for his violence and had been suspected of ‘interfering’ with his workers. Mr Hodgson survived his injuries and later fled the Pilbara while six tribesmen, some of whom are believed not to have been in the Pilbara at the time of the attack, were hanged.
Freda told her grandchildren things other adults would never trust to a child. And we were disciples of her stories, spellbound by their even-handed melancholy, the way they delivered the darkness within them without agenda or simple moralising.
I WOULD NEVER have known when I was fifteen, watching her still body in the winter cold, the influence my grandmother would have on me. I was too flaky and too easily distracted to see myself in her. I often wonder about the conversations we might have on writing if she were still alive. I rehearse the questions I would ask. And I would give anything to quiz her on why she bought those books about great white sharks, on exactly what the lesson was.
Because of Freda I can tell you that a great white shark has forty-eight exposed teeth, two hundred and fifty more set back in its mouth, hidden by tissue, like knives sheathed. I can tell you that a single committed bite can cleave a person clean in two, that a hungry shark can easily consume a person whole.
And it is because of Freda I’ve developed a particular radar for horror. When I read a newspaper I find myself scanning it as I might the dark water beyond the sandbank. I search the internet with the same grim fascination with which I pored over those books about sharks, drawn towards stories and images – so often in high definition – that shake the psyche and that can never be erased, wanting to look just that bit more than wanting to look away.
Everywhere I look for monsters, and everywhere I see them. I see monsters in the world, in my own country and its history. I see monsters in the fears and prejudices of people I know and love, in my own fears and prejudices. I see monsters in the things Australians say and in the things they don’t. I see monsters in myself.
And just as I know I wouldn’t want an ocean without sharks, I don’t wish to know the world without its monsters. More to the point, it is in the places where a reality is disturbed by something below the surface that I have become most interested.
I like to think that was my grandmother’s lesson – an artist’s lesson. A lesson in being drawn to darkness. Maybe if I could ask her now she would quote Keats on how ‘a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul’.
Or maybe she wouldn’t quote Keats. Maybe buying books about great white sharks was simply a dark joke, a prank – the terrible, brilliant plotting of a grandmother who spent long afternoons sat at the kitchen table, a drink sweating in front of her, watching the sea.