Sharks in the Whitsundays

Blacktip reef shark on the Great Barrier Reef

October 29, 2019

The Whitsunday Islands support an array of plant and animal species, both in and out of the water. One of the most important animals on the planet are sharks, a vital player in the delicate balance of the reef ecosystem. Following recent incidents in the Whitsundays in November 2018 and October 2019, it is important to educate ourselves about how to co-inhabit this beautiful aquatic playground safely. There are many variations of all species that add to the diverse and amazing ecosystem of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, all of which play an important part in its lifecycle and continued health. 

Shark Species of the Whitsundays

Shark species vary in tropical waters compared to colder oceans. You won’t find larger sharks like Great Whites here, but you can still see large Lemon, Hammerhead, and tiger sharks. Most commonly spotted are reef sharks, including Blacktips, Whitetips and Wobbegongs. Many inlets and estuaries provide safe nurseries for hatching sharks, and often you can see baby lemon sharks in Hill Inlet off of Whitsunday Island, which is an incredible experience! It is rare to see sharks in the most popular snorkelling spots, but also important to note that these incredible creatures can be present at any time.

Shark Safety

It is important to remember that when we enter the water, we do so at our own risk. The ocean is vast and wild, and it is our responsibility as guests in their home to arm ourselves with knowledge in order to enjoy this environment safely. Following several incidents in the Whitsunday waters in November 2018 and recently in October 2019, it is important if you are heading out on the water you listen to your highly trained crew about where and when to enter the water. Never swim at dawn or dusk, and ask the locals about areas to avoid that have a muddy bottom, or are a well-known fishing area. Be especially careful if you are chartering your own bareboat, and if you are unsure if the area is safe for swimming, it’s best to avoid entering the water. For more information on how to be SharkSmart, click here

A baby lemon shark in Hill Inlet

Sharks Are Important to Reef Health

Sharks play an important part in this ecosystem and act as the largest apex predator in their environment. While media outlets and Hollywood have portrayed these creatures as terrifying maneaters, any rare incidences have been a case of mistaken identity. In fact, their role is vital to the health and well-being of this amazing part of the world. They balance ecosystems, keeping species below them in the food chain in check. They are often an indicator of marine health, as their presence is normal and healthy to marine environments. They help ensure species’ diversity by picking off weak and sick animals as well as keeping species numbers from getting too high. Most of all, their presence continues to ensure the health of the reef.

Sharks Affect the Ecosystem

As apex predators, they hunt other marine animals and indirectly control populations in seagrass beds and coral reefs, such as those found in the Whitsundays. This is because when hunting, they shift their prey's spacial habitat, forcing them to alter their feeding strategies, and possibly moving further around the reef in search of food. In short, this means that in hopes of not getting eaten, prey will swim away from sharks and graze for food elsewhere when they are around. This means resources also get spread out, as prey are unlikely to stick around eating from one source of food, which would deplete it. In their hunting, sharks take out larger species of fish, such as groupers, leaving more space for smaller species to flourish. In doing this, they balance the delicate ecosystem that makes up the Great Barrier Reef. If they didn't do this, the larger and more dominant species could become overpopulated and take over the reef.

Sharks Control Fish Populations and Coral Growth

If there was no population control of larger species of fish we would see a decline in herbivores - the fish that control algae growth on coral reefs. If this population declines, we could see an increase in the number of algae on the reefs, which could, in turn, cause a mass decline in coral growth as they compete for space. By giving smaller herbivores a chance to live, sharks are indirectly allowing the coral to grow and the reef to continue to expand and survive. The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park is a large circle of life where sharks play a vital role. If shark populations decline, we can expect devastation worldwide as the ecosystem falls out of balance. 

They Are Extremely Important to the Survival of the Great Barrier Reef

Overall, a decline in shark populations will result in a loss of coral reefs and seagrass beds. Their vital role is overlooked when it comes to the importance of the health of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park as fear and misunderstanding often take precedence over love and compassion for these extremely misunderstood creatures. Within the park, you can find many species of sharks from smaller, non-threatening species such as the whitetip or blacktip reef shark to larger species such as lemon sharks. There are also wobbegongs, tiger sharks, hammerhead sharks, grey whaler reef sharks, leopard sharks, bronze whalers, bull sharks and even the occasional whale shark. 

Protecting People As Well As Sharks

While several incidents in the Whitsunday region have stirred up debates about shark management, the community has been greatly divided on the subject. Politicians have called for the deployment of drum lines and shark nets, whereas environmentalist groups have counter-argued that the aimless killing of these necessary preditors does little to protect people and more to damage the ecosystem and food chain on the Great Barrier Reef. There are definitely pros and cons to both sides of the argument, but everyone can agree that posting warning signs and tour operators educating their guests is an important strategy to keep both people and sharks safe in the Whitsundays. "No Swimming" signs have been posted at locations like Cid Harbour, similar to the crocodile warning signs in the Proserpine River, and hopefully, visitors to the region will heed these warnings. You may also opt to only swim off the shorelines of Whitehaven Beach, or take advantage of other water-based activities available on many charters, such as stand up paddleboards, kayaks, and even glass-bottom boats and submarines!

A Wobbegong shark, Whitsundays

There is still so much to learn about these incredible animals, and it is our responsibility to ensure their survival in order to protect the delicate balance their presence maintains in our oceans. To learn more about how you can help the Great Barrier Reef and its inhabitants, click here.

Travelling to the Great Barrier Reef? Ask our friendly and knowledgable team about our which tour is right for you. Click the chat button online to find out more information about the many ways you can see the Great Barrier Reef safely. 

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