12 January 2006

Shark Jumping, Part 1

Apropos of the other day's oft-heard quote, to wit, "You're more likely to get struck by lightning than attacked by a shark," I remembered after the fact that based on my experience of getting caught in a Sydney thunderstorm last year, getting struck by lightning seems a good bit easier in these parts, too.

I was out in Moore Park at the time, and I could hear the distant rumbles of thunder and see the clouds bubbling up on the horizon. In a sensible country, that would have indicated that I had a half hour or so to make my way to shelter, but in no more than five minutes, the full fury of the storm was upon me. I took shelter under one of the park's many stately trees, and was just remarking to myself what an excellent job its broad leaves were doing keeping the rain off me when I remembered that standing under a tree was one thing you weren't supposed to do in a lightning storm.

This point was emphasised by a dramatic bolt of lightning that shattered the top of the tree a few hundred feet to the south of me. Well, then, I thought, should I set out across the field in the direction of home? But wait, you weren't supposed to stand out in a flat field in a lightning storm either, because then you'd be the tallest object around and a certain target. Well, there was a dilemma. I decided to compromise by following the line of trees toward the edge of the park, on the grounds that if I were going to be electrocuted, at least I'd be dry when it happened.

Another thing that happens in a rational country is that a thunderstorm approaches from one direction and heads off in another, so once the worst of the lightining has passed by you, you're generally all right. Not here: no sooner had I set off in the opposite direction from where the lightning had just been, it would pop up in front of me. Reversing my direction achieved the same effect, as did walking sideways or backwards. It was if some demonic entity were sitting up there on a cloud having a good old laugh at my expense.

But I survived, and that was, after all, a year ago. Why bring it up again? Well, last night we had another blinder of a thunderstorm. I was safely inside long before it hit, and the nearest the lightning came was half a mile or more away. But I'd heard stories, no doubt apocraphyl, about lightning bolts coming right in people's windows and chasing them across the room, so I sat as far away from the window as possible and left the ilghts out just in case. No sense in making myself an easy target.

It took ages today for the sun to come out, but when it finally did, I was swimming out at Nielsen Park, near Watson's Bay, and I think I'll make it my regular base from now on, because they've got some proper shark nets there, rising some two metres about the surface. Most of Sydney's popular beaches are netted, but in the latest hubbub about shark attacks, it's come out that most shark nets don't reach all the way to the surface, thus leaving large gaps, and that 40% of the sharks they snag are caught on the inside of the nets. Charming. I felt much more secure at Nielsen Park, swimming just inside the nets and thinking smugly about the sharks out there who couldn't get at me, until I felt something brush my leg. Then I thought, hang on, while most shark nets don't come up to the surface, maybe the deal with these shark nets was they they were all above the surface and didn't go down very far under the water. It would be typical of the way the council tries to save money around here.

Anyway, whatever brushed my leg didn't eat me (I think it might have been a leaf) and I'm safe back in Sydney again, but I note with displeasure that some of the nature-loving fanatics have been sounding off in the local press to the effect that it's no big deal if people get eaten now and again by those lovely sharks ("We're meat," says one North Queensland observer, "and sharks eat meat. What's the big deal?"), and they love to repeat that "only" 1.1 people per year are killed by sharks. Of course this rather neatly downplays the many more people only only lose an arm or a leg or a chunk of their stomach, but I wonder if some of the shark-lovers aren't remarkably similar to the primitive peoples who thought it perfectly rational to chuck an occasional virgin into the volcano on the grounds that the volcano would then be content to leave the rest of the tribe alone.

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