All at once, a half-dozen people in masks and fins leap into the ocean and surround the tiger shark. They grab her pectoral fins and hold her snout. Someone tickles her chin. They swim in circles like this for 15 minutes, then 30, with backup swimmers relieving the weary. "Amazing," says Mike Dicks, recording the scene from his boat with a GoPro. "This will go viral."
Luke Eller swims over and climbs back aboard. "She's in bad shape," Eller says. "There's a hole in her head. Her gills are torn up. She's not responding." It's probably a lost cause, but a shark expert on one of the other boats has insisted that if they "swim" the animal long enough – prop up her head, channel water through her mouth and gills – she might survive. "Come on, little sharky," Dicks mutters. "Swim!"
We're bobbing in slight chop off Trigg Beach, near Perth, Australia. Our boat, the Bruce, is one of three "observer boats" that are monitoring the activities of a much larger vessel, the PV Hamelin, a 72-foot cutter operated by the Western Australia Department of Fisheries. Moments earlier, Fisheries employees in blue jumpsuits had hauled this shark onto their deck to remove a massive hook from her mouth. The baited hook had been dangling beneath three orange buoys, a contraption known as a drum line. Such devices have been positioned off beaches along the coast as part of a shark-mitigation policy designed to protect beachgoers from three predators – great white, tiger, and bull sharks. According to department policies, only sharks in excess of three meters long can be killed. But the drum lines have been snaring a lot of smaller sharks, such as this one fighting for her life. She had probably hung on the hook all night. When the blue jumpsuits released her, she'd left a bloody smear down the metal ramp off the back of their boat before hitting the water and sinking like a Buick.
That's when everyone from the observer boats jumped in and attempted to revive the animal.
The Fisheries employees watch the shark-swimmers in tense, stony silence, until the Hamelin finally motors off. The observers confer. Dicks, who pilots the Bruce on behalf of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, decides to leave two of his crew swimming with the shark and chase the Hamelin, which is heading north to check more drum lines. He guns the engine, and we fly across the water. His 21-foot hard-bottomed inflatable (named for the shark in Finding Nemo) can't match the Hamelin, but we arrive off Mullaloo Beach in time to see the Fisheries workers plucking another shark from the sea. We maneuver in close, but that only irritates them. "Back off!" one of the men snarls. "Fifty meters! That's the law!"
There's no question about this tiger. She's huge. They lasso her tail, and while two of them steady her with the rope at the water's surface, another lowers what looks like a long pole over the side of the Hamelin until it touches the shark's head. "That's a powerhead," Eller tells me, sighing. "That's what they use." There's a loud pop! Then another. Two rounds, blasting the animal's head wide open.
Our boat goes quiet. We watch the guys in jumpsuits winch the shark tail-first up the ramp, and we watch the ramp flow red with blood. Then the Hamelin turns and heads out to sea. Normally, Dicks would give chase and video them dumping the carcass. That would play well on social media. Local TV news might even want it. But finally he says, "Let's go get our swimmers." He hopes they've been able to revive the smaller shark released earlier. Eller shakes his head. "That shark's not going to make it."