Real Reef Dangers

Christine Retschlag on October 30th, 2017

The Great Barrier Reef is as mysterious as she is beautiful. And this mystique sometimes leads to sensational media reports surrounding Irukandji, box jellyfish, sharks and crocodiles. We speak with three experts who explain the likelihood of encountering actual danger out on the reef.

Curator of Australian Irukandji Stinger Data Base Dr Lisa-Ann Gershwin

Dr Gershwin says 50 to 100 people a year are hospitalised in Tropical North Queensland from Irukandji stings, which is a small number when you consider the size of the coastline and the number of people who swim every day.

There have only ever been two recorded fatalities in Australian history, compared with three from death by swans.

“It has become clear to me through the years that people tend to have two diametrically opposed views on this matter. One is ‘if I dip my big toe into the water I will be stung by Irukandji and I will die’. The other is ‘Oh, that’s all media hype’,” she says.

“They are real, they are true, they are dangerous but they are rare. The chances of getting stung are actually very, very low.

“If you are wearing protective clothing 75 to 80 per cent of your skin is covered. As humans we tend to grossly blow out of proportion the risk and frequency of rare events.”

Dr Gerswhin says tourists should be more scared of sunburn, than stingers.

“There’s far more pink and red people than stung people on any beach on any given day,” she says.

“When you look at the number of people in this country who experience skin cancer versus Irukandji danger it is clear which is the bigger problem.”

Dr Gerswhin, who has recently released The Jellyfish App which is aimed at dispelling myths about stingers, says in Australia, there is one fatality every three to four years from a box jellyfish, compared to 20 to 50 fatalities in places like the Philippines.

“The box jellies are the world’s most venomous animals and are extremely dangerous creatures but we manage them pretty well with the stinger nets in Australia,” she says.

Popular beaches such as Palm Cove, Trinity Beach and Port Douglas are equipped with stinger nets during the stinger season from November to May; for extra protection wear protective clothing (wetsuits or lycra suits).

“We don’t get nearly as many stings and fatalities in this country as we do elsewhere in the world where they occur. The reason you think about it in Queensland is there is more awareness about prevention which is a good thing.

“It breaks my heart when people say they would never swim in North Queensland but they go to Fiji and Bali and Thailand not knowing that box jellyfish occur throughout tropical regions everywhere in the world.

“Misunderstandings of the box jellyfish and Irukandji issues are far scarier than the truth actually is. It is really easy to tilt the odds in your favour so you don’t become a statistic.”

Many reef trips have been operating safely and for many years and with adequate gear you too can enjoys the Great Barrier Reef.

Emmy-award film maker, marine biologist and James Cook University shark researcher Richard Fitzpatrick

Fitzpatrick, whose Townsville based company Digital Dimensions has worked with renowned naturalist Sir David Attenborough, says the chances of being attacked by a shark or crocodile on the Great Barrier Reef are “absolutely, astronomically small”.

“Spear fishermen are the only people who have had bites from sharks. You’ll only really see reef sharks out on the reef and they are fish eaters. There are tiger sharks and bull sharks but they are right out on the reef in the deep water,” he says.

“There’s that terminology used by some journalists when they talk about shark-infested waters. I’d like to see what shark-infested waters look like. I don’t believe they exist and if they did, I’d be out there filming them.

“We do get crocs out on the reef but they are mainly adolescent males pushed out of the river system but they are not huge. Close to shore, avoid swimming in high-risk areas like river mouths and if you go on a tour with a tour operator you won’t have to worry about them.”

Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators (AMPTO) Executive Director Col McKenzie

McKenzie, whose organisation represents 110 tourism operators, says they take around 2.5 million tourists out to the reef each year.

In 20 years, there has been only two fatalities from Irukandji – both of whom had pre-existing high blood pressure conditions.

“There is a low threshold for the number of stings compared to the number of people going into the water,” he says.

“It is certainly not normal for people to die from Irukandji. Irukandji Syndrome really creates an enormous amount of anxiety and people are convinced they are a lot worse off than they really are.

“I think a lot of the hysteria is that people think of stingers and the box jellyfish which can kill you. The box jellyfish has a bad reputation but you won’t see him out on the reef.

“If you don’t swim within a stinger net along the coast where there is box jellyfish you’ve got rocks in your head.”

McKenzie says latest Queensland Government statistics put things into stark perspective.

There are 0.4 fatalities a year per 100,000 people visiting the Great Barrier Reef compared with 8.72 deaths per 100,000 Australians visiting Indonesia; 37.42 per 100,000 Australian visiting Thailand; and a staggering 57.7 per 100,000 Australians visiting the Philippines.

“So you are 20 times more likely to die by going to Indonesia than going to the Great Barrier Reef,” he says.

“The reef is a special place to visit. We have about 300 species of coral compared to the Caribbean and Bermuda, which has 30 species.

“The other thing that you see on our reef that you don’t see on other reefs is plenty of fish. It is a pretty sad day if you don’t see a turtle. We don’t fish everything out here.

“The Great Barrier Reef is as big as Italy or Japan. We can have an environmental emergency such as a cyclone in one area but you have so many other areas that remain untouched.

“While there are dangers in Australia, a normal risk management approach and a bit of common sense negate any risk that is there.”



Christine Retschlag

Christine Retschlag

Christine Retschlag is an award-winning Australian journalist who has worked in newspapers, magazines and online for the past 25 years in Australia, Hong Kong, London and Singapore. In 2006, she won the Australian Travel Writer of the Year award for Best Trade Story as well as the Jack Butters Memorial Award for Travel Writing Excellence. In 2007 she won Best Australian Story over 1000 words and in 2014 won Best Food Travel Story. She is also the author and architect of the successful travel blog: The Global Goddess.

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