There is very little that gets between me and a long ocean swim, except perhaps a shark.  

Open water swimmers are a hardy bunch, swimming year-round in all conditions, but when the shark alarm goes off we tend to respond quick sticks. 

Australia Wide presenter Sinéad Mangan is keen on ocean swimming, not so keen on sharks.   (Supplied: Katherine Sturley)

And that’s exactly what happened recently when a group of keen swimmers met at a beach at 6 o’clock in the morning as the sun came over the horizon. 

Instead of calling the whole swim off, we gathered our things and made a beeline to the nearest beach with a shark net a few kilometres down the road.

According to Chris Lowe of the department of biological sciences’ shark lab at California State University, that’s the way it should be.

A shark cruises through waters off Perth, Western Australia.(ABC Open contributor Mitchell Clarke)

“In certain places, we’re seeing more people use the ocean than ever before,” Professor Lowe says.

“But you put the two together and you do kind of increase your probability of a negative encounter, right?

“You just gave probably one of the best examples of what we would hope to see from what we know so far, and that is you can change your behaviour but we’re not going to be able to change the shark’s behaviour.”

Professor Lowe was a key speaker at White Sharks Global, a conference of international experts at Port Lincoln, South Australia, where scuba-diving tourists can eyeball great white sharks from sunken cages.

Open water swimmers choose to swim in the safety of the shark net on Perth’s Cottesloe Beach. (ABC News: Sinéad Mangan)

Sharks get ‘disproportionate media attention’ 

Experts say the challenge is changing perceptions of the apex predators.(ABC)

Although sharks bite few people, the response is often disproportionate and has a huge impact on beachside communities, Professor Lowe says. 

“I’m going to give the classic American example,” he says.

“In the US, we have mass shootings so frequently that it has become normalised in our society, but shark bites are so rare that when they occur, they get this disproportionate media attention.

“So it’s sad to think that we have these other sorts of traumas and that we normalise that, but through education, through better understanding, we think some of that will start to go away.”

At the Port Lincoln conference in November the talk was not about managing sharks but making people think differently about the apex predator. 

“Any shark bite mitigation, it’s not really about sharks,” says Sarah Waries, CEO of South African research and public education group Shark Spotters.

“The sharks are in the ocean. They’re, you know, doing what they do.

“It’s about managing people.”

About 85 per cent of Australians live within 50 kilometres of a beach.  

Come the festive season, Australians head in droves to the coast. 

And for many, it’s the “Jaws effect” that looms large still, preventing them dipping a toe in the water no matter how hot the day.  

Jaws still looms large in people’s psyche.(Supplied: Universal Pictures)

“What’s really interesting about that is the time that [Jaws] book and movie came out [in the 1970s] we really knew nothing about white sharks,” Professor Lowe says.

A drone catches the moment a surfer takes off on a wave as a bull shark swims beneath.(Supplied: Southern Cross University)

“It was it was a total blank and it became really easy for storytellers like [author] Peter Benchley and [Jaws film director] Steven Spielberg to create this monster that we built in our own minds.”  

Professor Lowe says drone footage of sharks close to surfers illustrates how people and sharks exist alongside one another, often closer than some realise.

“In California, we just published a study where we flew drone surveys over these beaches where we have aggregations of white sharks, mostly juveniles, anywhere from a metre-and-a-half to 3 metres long,” he says.

“And there are people around those sharks every single day and nobody’s being bitten.

“For the time being, what we’ve learned is that people are around sharks all the time and it doesn’t match what they’ve been kind of taught to think about white sharks.”

A black shark warning flag indicates poor visibility at Cape Town’s Muizenberg Beach.(Reuters: Mike Hutchings)

A spate of shark bites at South African beaches in the early 2000s sent shivers through the Cape Town community. 

Ms Waries, also in Port Lincoln as a keynote speaker, says some people began to falsely believe there was a rogue shark hunting humans, just like the Hollywood monster. 

“We’ve since done 20 years of white shark research in False Bay in South Africa and we can very clearly say the reasons the sharks are here and why they use different areas within the bay in spring and summer,” she says.

And that’s about the availability of what sharks naturally eat — not humans.  

“This isn’t some strange, you know, horror movie thing,” Ms Waries says.

“This is just a very normal occurrence.

“Having a shark sighting doesn’t mean that something is wrong. It’s actually technically quite a positive thing because sharks, particularly white sharks, are apex predators, they have really important roles and ecosystem function.”

Like False Bay, the Neptune Islands Marine Sanctuary off Port Lincoln is an internationally significant site for sharks. 

And the town embraces the great white shark.  

“Everywhere I walk in this town I see pictures of sharks,” Professor Lowe marvels.

“I see paintings, I see murals. They’re everywhere.

“They’re part of the culture here.

“People are looking at them as being an important part of their community and economic driver in their community, something that puts their community on the map for a good reason.”

There are plans to develop a golf course shaped like a great white shark at Port Lincoln.(Supplied)