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The Shaggy Beard Shark

By Pascal Geraghty on December 20, 2016 in Other

Photo: Evonne Wobbegong

Photo: Evonne Wobbegong

Never mind the brutish great white sharks swarming the north coast. There may be an equally sinister, less conspicuous character patrolling our surf zones – according to the media, anyway. Over the past few years our very best journos have been judiciously reporting on a spate of ferocious wobbegong attacks in NSW waters.

They told us of one lucky survivor who fought off a bloodthirsty wobby in the shallows at Mona Vale. It set upon him in the shorey and tried to drag him to his doom. Miraculously this horrifying ordeal left him with nothing but a spurt of adrenaline, a few small puncture marks, some claret and a souvenir tooth.

In the dreamy, smoky Byron-shire this time, an innocent non-hippie boy was attacked at a popular swimming beach. It turns out he simply kicked the hapless wobbegong away as he exited the water. No stitches required.

Yet another savage wobby attack took place on the Central Coast. The leg of a budding female surf star was mauled shortly after performing a textbook ‘three to the beach’. She laughed it off.

The truth is, wobbegongs are placid, peace-loving, reclusive creatures that only resort to lashing out if stepped upon or threatened. Who wouldn’t?

Until fairly recently there were thought to be two species sleeping on Sydney’s reefs – the spotted wobbegong (O. maculatus) and the ornate wobbegong (O. ornatus). Subsequent genetic research, however, revealed a third, closely-related local species: the banded wobby (O. halei).

The term wobbegong is believed to come from an Australian Indigenous language and translates to ‘shaggy beard’.

Wobbegongs are lazy, bottom-dwelling fish that use their spectacular camouflage to lie in waiting for tasty morsels to mosey on by. Instead of actively looking for food or chasing after prey, they wait for food to come close to them and then grab it with their mouth. Come to think of it, they remind me of a few people I know.

They rest during the day in dark caves, then feed at night on a Mediterranean-inspired diet of fish, lobsters, crabs and octopus.

In contrast to the lazy, bearded types I have in mind, however, wobbegongs are incredibly flexible, which serves as a warning to anyone thinking about picking one up. They are famous for being capable of biting their own tail, including any hand holding it. I’ve seen this happen and it took myself and another armed with a steel meat hook each to pry open its mouth and release the sore and sorry hand in question.

Despite the media’s profiling, wobbegong sharks are quiet, introverted fish. Like anyone, they are willing to defend themselves when it comes to the crunch, but they would much prefer to be left alone to get on with their daily regime of snoozing the hours away.