Natural dangers: how to be safe with sharks and other Australian deadly creatures

Natural dangers: how to be safe with sharks and other Australian deadly creatures

Natural dangers: how to be safe with sharks and other Australian deadly creatures

Updated 2 May 2014, 10:28 AEST

Australia may have a well-deserved reputation for deadly creatures, but just how likely is it that you will encounter one? 

As the country debates the need for permanent catch-and-kill programs for sharks, we’ve taken a look at what else is lurking in the Australian environment and the chances of you getting on the wrong side of one of these creatures.

The reality is that while Australia is a place where potential danger is always around the corner, the chance of you becoming a victim is small especially if you're sensible and follow local advice.  

Here are some facts about sharks and other deadly Australian animals you'd be very unlikely to meet.   

1. Shark
Great White Shark
Flickr: CC Michael Heilemann

Think terrifying creatures, think Great White Shark.  With an average 2,800 teeth they're pretty much at the top of the food chain and have even been known to tackle small whales.  

Great Whites can be found in all major oceans of the world and on all coasts of Australia.  But they're not the only type of shark living in Australian seas - there are about 170 different species lurking out there.  And that may make it seem crazy even contemplating popping in for a swim, no matter how tempting the water looks.

Realistically though, becoming a shark attack victim is exceptionally unlikely (in fact drowning is more probable).  According to the Toronga Conservation Society of Australia, in the last 50 years, there have been 51 recorded unprovoked fatalities due to shark attack, which averages around one per year. 

There is a risk of course, but thousands of people swim, surf or dive in Australian waters every day and manage to make it home.  And if it's any comfort, most close encounters with sharks don't prove to be fatal.

There are a few things you can do to reduce the risk of meeting a shark.  Swim at patrolled beaches, avoid entering the water alone (sharks can be deterred by larger groups of people) and don't wear shiny swimwear or accessories (which may attract the eye of a shark).  And remember, it's only the very, very unfortunate, in the wrong place at the wrong time, who will ever meet a shark.
 

2. Box Jellyfish
Box Jellyfish
ABC
Most of us know that Australia has beautiful beaches. What might not be known is that in some parts of the country, in some months, swimming without protection can be very dangerous indeed.

The box jellyfish, while nowhere near as terrifying in appearance as a great white shark, is far more prevalent. It can be hard to see these graceful creatures because they're transparent. They have many tentacles up to 3 metres in length, each covered in thousands of stinging cells. Contact can cause excruciating pain, shock and even death.

The good news is that box jellyfish are only found in the tropical waters of Australia and they're most common from November to May. There is clear signage in areas of danger and if you must go for a swim, stick to patrolled beaches. Wearing a full-body lycra suit in the water, while not particularly fashionable, will protect against the harmful stingers.
 
3. Saltwater Crocodile
Saltwater Crocodile
Flickr: CC Ramy Alaa
Imagine a peaceful evening, far from anywhere, camping under the stars by a billabong. Then imagine being dragged from your tent in the middle of the night by a saltwater crocodile. This has actually happened!

They may appear lifeless on shore, but the world's largest reptile can go from passive observer to terrifying hunter in a split second. They're also able to hold their breath underwater for hours, so even if the water looks safe, you can never be entirely sure.

Plenty of people have survived crocodile attacks by fighting back, targeting blows at the eyes, ears and nostrils.  But the best survival strategy is simply to avoid being a victim in the first place.  Keep away from the infested waters of Australia's Top End, adhere to the many warning signs and remain vigilant. The rate of crocodile attacks may be increasing, but 95% of victims are locals who become complacent.
 
4. Funnel-web Spider
Funnel-web Spider
Flickr: CC Jurgen Otto
If you suffer from arachnophobia, or the fear of spiders, then just seeing a picture of Australia's funnel-web spider is sure to bring on anxiety.

These spiders are big and ugly. And deadly. They're darkly coloured, with a shiny head and thorax. And they have large, powerful fangs capable of penetrating fingernails and shoes. They often strike repeatedly.

And if that's not enough to make you wary, funnel-web spiders don't hang around the house like regular spiders.  They hide away in silk-lined burrows - under rocks, in rotting logs, sometimes in the hollows of trees metres above the ground. So you never know when you may come across one while you're outdoors.

Actually, funnel web spiders are usually found in the moist, humid regions along the eastern coast of Australia. They're most active at night and are only aggressive if provoked or threatened. Not all species are extremely venomous either.

Of course all bites should be treated as potentially dangerous and thankfully there is an anti venom available. There have been no fatalities since it was developed more than 30 years ago.
 
5. Stingray
Stingray
Flickr: CC DocJelly
Stingrays might look placid and graceful as they glide by, but they sure can pack a punch if threatened.

The spine of a big stingray is a seriously scary weapon. Venom lies along the tail barb, safely contained inside a sheath. But once the barb is broken (say by impact into a human body) the venom comes into direct contact with the victim's body fluids and it begins to spread. Extreme pain follows.

If you're lucky enough to get away with just some slashing injuries, hopefully you'll receive good emergency treatment and survive the attack.  Infection, immune system breakdown, amputation and years of suffering could be the unhappy ending.

Unfortunately famous Australian wildlife warrior Steve Irwin wasn't even that lucky. While filming a television program in 2006 on the Great Barrier Reef, a stingray struck him several hundred times in just a few seconds. The massive ray's spine pierced his heart and despite receiving CPR, Steve died before reaching shore.
 
6. Inland Taipan
Inland Taipan
Flickr: CC Matthew Klein
Australia is home to many dangerous snakes, and at the top of the list is the inland taipan. Also known as the 'fierce snake', it's not the biggest, or even the scariest looking, but legend has it that a single drop of it's venom can kill 100 men.

A bite from an inland taipan causes gradual paralysis, dissolves muscle and tissue and can cause death in as little as 45 minutes. It is fast, agile and can strike instantly, with extreme accuracy, snapping it's jaws fiercely several times to inflict multiple punctures. That's one snake to avoid!

Luckily, avoiding it is quite easy. The inland taipan may be Australia's most deadly snake, but it's also a reclusive creature. 'Fierce' describes it's venom, not it's behaviour. It lives in remote locations far away from most people. The dose of venom it delivers is small compared to other snakes, and there is an anti venom available, so with emergency treatment a bite is not necessarily a death sentence.
 
7. Blue-ringed Octopus
Blue-ringed Octopus
Flickr: CC Saspotato
Like many of Australia's most deadly creatures, the blue-ringed octopus isn't an aggressive species. They don't attack people for fun.

These octopus are in fact very shy and try to keep to themselves. They're small, well camouflaged and hide in crevices or under rocks in tide pools.

But when disturbed, blue-ringed octopuses quickly change colour and iridescent blue circles suddenly glow all over their bodies. To predators they appear threatening, but to unsuspecting humans they become very attractive.

If you make the mistake of picking it up for a closer look, the octopus is sure to 'bite' with its saliva containing a powerful nerve toxin. Within minutes your lips and tongue will become numb and the muscles you use to breathe will become paralysed.

You should survive the encounter though, providing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation is administered early enough. Victims usually go on to make a full recovery and in fact there are only 2 cases of death-by-octopus in Australia.
 
8. Stonefish
Stonefish
Flickr: CC Bill & Mark Bell
By now you should be convinced that you'll need to keep your eyes wide open when swimming in Australian waters. Well, don't forget to look down too!

The stonefish is the most venomous fish in the world.  It's also very well camouflaged, resembling a rock or a lump of coral.  It has 13 sharp dorsal spines projecting from poisonous venom glands and lays in shallow waters, waiting for pray … unless someone's foot finds it first. The venom brings on extreme pain, swelling, muscular paralysis and breathing difficulty.

Again, becoming a victim is far from likely if you go prepared and be cautious. Stonefish are only found in the northern tropical waters of Australia. Wear thick-soled shoes and shuffle your feet when walking in shallows and don't pick up rocks - they might not be rocks!