An 11-year-old boy was bitten by the usually-docile carpet shark, or wobbegong, on the Northern Beaches yesterday.The boy needed hospital treatment on Monday 24 January after he was bitten while swimming at Turimetta, a popular spot with surfers and body-boarders on the northern part of the beaches.
Marine specialists believe that it was a wobbegong, a seafloor-dwelling shark with symmetrical camouflaged markings that resemble a carpet – hence their common name: ‘carpet shark’.
The boy’s mother, Renee Shackle, told Manly Observer that her son Jack received “deep puncture wounds around the Achilles area and on top of his foot” in the surprise attack, but she was relieved that the shark “missed the tendons and bones – nothing serious.”
“Jack kicked and thrashed a lot. He fought back and tried to kick the shark off. I think the shark first assumed Jack’s foot was a fish, then thought ‘No, this is too hard! It doesn’t taste right, this thing is fighting back too much, I’m out of here!’”
Jack was swimming through the Warriewood blowhole tunnel at Turimetta Head when the bite occurred. The tunnel, which is an extended marine cavern that burrows through the headland and ends at a basin surrounded by rock ledges, is popular among local teenagers. Swimming through it is an accepted ritual of young adulthood.
Potentially treacherous during rough seas – at least six people have lost their lives since 1992 – the tunnel is accessible from either end. Thrill-seekers choose a 13 metre drop into the ocean from the cliffs above; the younger and more circumspect clamber down a steep roped track to a ledge that affords a six-metre drop into the blowhole basin end – known locally as The Keyhole – which is best attempted when waves surge inwards.
It was meant to be Jack’s last jump of the day before heading home.
Ms Shackle details: “Jack was jumping off the rocks into The Keyhole area and swimming through the tunnel, which was dark… Jack then felt something grab his foot with a powerful grip, so he knew something was wrong.
“His friend was with him – he’d just jumped in the water behind – so Jack yelled at him ‘Get out! Get out! There’s something in here!’
“Jack’s dad heard him yelling, and came running. By the time he got to him the shark had let go, so he pulled Jack out of the water and then saw all the blood. He applied pressure immediately – he had a surfboard with him so he wrapped the leg rope like a tourniquet to stop the bleeding.
“My husband calmed him down to make sure he was okay. There was another dad there as well as Jack’s friend, so my husband left Jack with them and ran up and around the headland to the lifeguards at nearby Warriewood Beach. The lifeguards sent their boat out and collected my son and his friend and took care of them until the ambulance came.
The Lifesavers assessed it was most likely a wobbegong shark, judging by the bite wounds. “The wobbegong shark probably thought Jack’s foot was a fish!” Ms Shackle exclaimed. “The ambulance crew recommended Jack go straight to hospital for X-rays to make sure there were no teeth stuck in the wound and no damage had been done to bones and tendons.”
Jack was taken to Northern Beaches Hospital. “They don’t normally stitch puncture wounds,” Ms Shackle explained, “because ocean bites are prone to bacterial infection.”
What are wobbegongs?
Wobbegongs, found in shallow temperate and tropical seas, typically hide in sand and among rocks where they ambush their prey, which includes crabs, lobsters, octopus and small fish.
They are not renowned for biting humans, though the Australian Shark Incident Database contains 50 recorded incidents of wobbegong attacks, a handful in this area – although none of them fatal.
Spotted wobbegongs are often found along the Sydney coast and often a treat to see in Manly’s Cabbage Tree Bay. In fact, there was one spotted in Manly today with a frisbee stuck around its neck, and there’s a call out to the local snorkelling and diving community to help set it free.
According to Sydney Dive Charters, “A wobbegong bite is similar to a pit bull’s. Once a ‘wobby’ bites on, there is no way to get them to release unless they try to adjust their hold. Many a wobby have been killed when they wouldn’t let go.”
Ms Shackle revealed “Jack kicked and thrashed a lot. He fought back and tried to kick the shark off. I think the shark first assumed Jack’s foot was a fish, then thought ‘No, this is too hard! It doesn’t taste right, this thing is fighting back too much, I’m out of here!’”