Sharks. The mere thought of them will send most Australians running up the beach to grab their towel, all thoughts of cooling off in the water left in the sand.
Just recently, two young guys surfing off a beach in Yallingup had a close encounter with a shark, fortunately coming away with nothing worse than a broken surfboard and a terrifying Facebook status.
According to the Department of Fisheries, here were 78 shark sightings in June, compared with just 41 in the same month last year. While there are many reasons the numbers are up, looking at the figures in 2015 from January to June compared with this year’s figures, the results are alarming. There has been a huge increase, with 534 sightings in 2015 compared to 1,460 this year.
For most Australians, the bleak news of a shark attack evokes fear, shock and empathy. The media outlets will cover it for a week or so and then people lose interest, they stop caring, they defend the shark and then life just continues.
But for someone who has been attacked or has lost someone to the jaws of a shark, it’s not always possible to simply forget or to stop caring. Each day, something reminds them of what they have lost, whether it be a limb or a loved one.
And that’s why the membership criteria for one of Australia’s most exclusive support groups is simple – to join Bite Club you, or someone you know, must have been attacked by a shark.
The first rule of Bite Club: you must talk about Bite Club. The second rule of Bite Club: what’s said in bite club stays in Bite Club.
For Bite Club founder Dave Pearson, the day his left arm was bitten by a shark, near Crowdy Head in New South Wales, was both the best and the worst day of his life.
A passionate surfer, Pearson is one of those people who exudes positivity. He is humble, strong and has a distinct matter-of-fact manner when he talks about the night he was attacked and the aftermath.
After the attack, Pearson woke up screaming in the lounge room on one occasion. He says he had questions and only fellow survivors had the answers. “I just wanted to see if other people felt the same way,” he says. “I found heaps of survivors with questions that needed answering, so I started gathering a group of us together.”
Survival (noun): The state or fact of continuing to live or exist, typically in spite of an accident, ordeal, or difficult circumstances.
While Pearson survived his attack, he deals with the consequences every day, as do others who weren’t even bitten. “I had a shark attack but there were four guys in the surf with me who survived my shark attack along with me. My family survived my shark attack,” he says. “Anyone who is affected by my shark attack is unfortunately a survivor of my shark attack.”
For those who don’t survive, their family is left to deal with the tragedy. “When somebody gets taken, the family left behind and the close friends; they are the survivors of the attack and they go through everything we go through and more,” Pearson says. “But they don’t have anyone to hug and say ‘jeez I’m glad you’re still here’ because they have lost that person.”
Sheryl Muscat found Bite Club shortly after her 17-year-old son Jay was killed by a shark in 2014.
December 29 was an ordinary Monday for Sheryl Muscat. Jay left early that morning to go spearfishing with his mate Matt Pullella, with a warning from his mum not to be late for his grandmother’s birthday lunch. Sheryl opened the family pet shop with her husband Mark and daughter Ebony in tow. It was business as usual.
“It was about midday when Matt’s dad called me and basically said Jay had been attacked by a shark,” Sheryl says. “I was sort of like, ‘yeah well what are we going to do about it, how are we going to get him to hospital?’
“At that stage, we didn’t know he had passed away.”
Mark and Ebony were at the shop picking up some things for lunch, when Sheryl called with the news. “When Mark came back he rang Matt and Matt said straight up that Jay was dead,” she says. “One of our workers was just holding on to me as I fell to the ground. Shock is the only way I can explain it. We went from just thinking it was just an attack to being fatal.”
Amid the upset and chaos, the pet shop remained open.
In a community like Albany, news travels quickly. Sheryl says she walked through the shop and a customer asked whether she knew the identity of the person who had been attacked by a shark at Cheynes Beach. “This was an hour after we found out,” Sheryl says. “It was before the police had officially told us.”
Sheryl sits in the office – exactly where she learned of her son’s fate two years ago – with her sister Sue Harness. Since Jay died, the family has become closer. They meet every Wednesday at 10am with their father for coffee. “We didn’t catch up with him much beforehand, but now we catch up every week,” Harness says.
They describe Jay as a larrikin, a gentle giant who was a bit naughty but had a passion for fishing. “I wasn’t into fishing. My husband Mark is. That’s where Jay gets it from,” Sheryl says.
Jay had just graduated from Albany Senior High School and was looking forward to a summer filled with mates and, of course, fishing.
“I hassled him once he finished year twelve to be getting a job,” Sheryl says. “Unbeknown to us, he had actually got himself a job and, this will surprise you, he got a job on a shark fishing boat.”
About 400 people attended Jay’s funeral, on a sunny Tuesday afternoon at Albany’s Middleton Beach. Balloons in Hawthorn Football Club colours decorated the sky in tribute to Jay’s favourite team. Kind words were said, as friends and family remembered the life of a young man who was taken too soon. Then came the silence.
“You’re just left with this feeling of what now?” Sheryl says. “People say ‘at least he passed away doing something he loved’. People say you can take comfort in that.
“I don’t really know if you can, to be honest.”
Harness says Bite Club and Dave Pearson saved her life by helping her come to terms with the attack that killed her nephew. “So very few people know what’s going to happen after a shark attack, whether it’s fatal or not,” Harness says. “Bite Club is a supportive community who knew what we were going through and knew the processes.”
Sheryl and Harness say Pearson has inspired them to help those in WA who are dealing with similar tragedies. “I’d like to just be there at the start to help out, but I just don’t know how to do that,” Sheryl says.
Pearson says the attack that he survived has given him a whole new perspective on life and, though he wakes up each morning in pain, he is grateful to be waking up at all. “From that day onwards, I know I could have died that afternoon and not everyone gets that and I’m lucky I get that,” he says. “The difference between someone being here and someone not is literally an inch.”
While Pearson has helped many Australians through Bite Club, he says Bite Club has helped him more than anyone else. “I’m really lucky to have met these people, for anything I might have done for them they’ve all done more for me,” he says. “That’s the spirit of our group – everyone reaches out to each other.”