Shark encounter


Campfire, Flickr image by Melyss33Every year a dozen or so 20-somethings converge at a friend's beach house on the bastard side of Victoria's coastline in Gippsland. Further up the coast towards our real lives at university Phillip Island juts out into Bass Strait, nightly sacrificing itself to the infinite blackness of sea and clouds.

And some nights, when playing cards seems too inconsequential for a place like this, we head out into that darkness too. Holding hands through the tea trees as the narrow beach track curls its way towards the dull roar of the ocean, we are rebonded.

One night last summer the full moon illuminated the silky water and tepid sand like a disco ball. Rounding one corner suddenly we could see a kilometer of open beach and, in the middle distance, two men standing around a fire. Distance and flames distorted their shadows, turning them into phantoms.

There was a moment when we checked our step, but the group mentality did not counsel caution. Six on two; but what were they doing here? Our motives were innocuous but they had established a fire, marked their territory.

At 400 m sparks shot up as the men hurriedly began throwing things on the fire. It was still impossible to make out the aim of their industry but at 300 m they left the fire still burning and began walking towards us. At 200 m fishing rods became discernible in their hands.

At 100 m I remembered the famous scene from Camus' The Outsider, which I had read for school on that same beach a few summers earlier: A man approaches two other men across blisteringly hot sand. One of the two produces a knife which glistens in the sun, and so the single man — overcome by sweat and an unnamed oppression — shoots him. Later he cannot justify his actions and is made to hang.

That night, however, the men passed with a laconic wave and self-evident aside: 'There's a fire over there if you guys want it.' Relieved we said thanks and continued on to inherit their camp.

The flames were still licking up off the sand and we made jokes about Survivor as we sat in a circle to feel warm. We admired the fire's structure, expertly kindled in the shape of a tee-pee — or a funeral pyre.

We spoke about the same profound, naïve things we usually did, trying to link our small fears and audacious dreams to the enormity which surrounded us. But nature seemed to be the only one who really knew what it was doing.

I left to go back to the house early and was slumped in a chair reading when the others returned. 'We found something,' a friend reported. 'Just after you left we heard this weird sound coming from the foreshore. Nick went to have a pee and found two sharks. Their fins had been cut off and they were just flapping around. We couldn't help and we didn't know what to do so we just left them.'

Not that we could ever have stopped those poachers, but now our pretty summer sentiments seemed emptier than ever.

Vince ChadwickVince Chadwick is an Arts/Law student at Melbourne University, currently studying in Poland. He has written for The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Age, Sunday Age, The Sydney Morning Herald, Crikey, National Times, Classical Source, Farrago and Voiceworks. Flickr image by by Melyss33

Topic tags: vince chadwick, sharks, poachers, camus, the outsiders, gippsland, philip island



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Existing comments

A beautifully shaped story that leaves you uneasy. "We didn't know what to do so..." - it's a frequent experience in a world where disturbing things are brought to our attention daily .
Joe Castley | 24 November 2010

If it was a dog 'flapping round' with a leg cut off would you have left it without doing anything? The treatment of some animals in our society is appalling. Admittedly, it may have been dangerous to kill the sharks, but it would certainly have been kinder.

You should at least have reported this to the RSPCA.
Penelope | 24 November 2010


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