The War on Sharks
Credit: Jeff Rotman / Getty Images

Between 2011 and 2013, half a dozen people were killed in shark attacks in Western Australia. Globally, this is not a unique phenomenon. During the same period, there were 10 attacks off France's Réunion island, in the Indian Ocean. In 2010, there were six attacks off Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt. Over the past six years at a single beach in Port St. Johns, South Africa, seven people were killed by sharks. "If you look at the statistics, the number of attacks has increased," says George Burgess, director of the International Shark Attack File at the University of Florida. To protect beachgoers, governments have been experimenting with everything from banning surfing to building artificial reefs offshore to lure sharks away from beaches.

Here in Western Australia, it's drum lines. By the time I arrived at the end of March, the state's shark-mitigation program was two months old and had caught 133 sharks and killed 56. Opponents of the program were destroying drum lines and liberating sharks. Authorities were hitting back with open-water, high-speed chases and strip searches of activists in marina parking lots. You were either pro-cull or anti-cull, and either way, all hell had broken loose. I'd come to witness the spectacle.

(Grant Faint / Getty Images)

I had also come seeking answers to a simple question: Why, in 2014, is a conservation-minded nation like Australia destroying sharks? Isn't the global plight of sharks obvious at this point? After all, the International Union for Conservation of Nature classifies a quarter of all shark species, including tiger and bull sharks, as "threatened" and 25 species as "critically endangered." Great whites, considered "vulnerable" by the IUCN, have long had a champion in one particular country – Australia. The Australians run a nationwide White Shark Recovery Program, and the species receives both federal and state legal protection. A cull seems to make little sense, and Western Australia had been informed of this – loudly and often – by the world's shark scientists, environmental groups, and all manner of celebrities, from Ricky Gervais to Richard Branson to Kelly Slater. "If I got eaten by a shark, I'd be honored," Slater said.

To understand how things had come to this, I traveled three hours south of Perth to an idyllic spot called Bunker Bay. There, in the dunes behind a surf break known as Boneyards, stands a sculpture dedicated to a young man named Kyle Burden. In blue and red wrought iron, it playfully depicts a surfer shooting through a tube.

Burden had arrived here in 2008 at age 18. He and his girlfriend were from Sydney, but they'd bought a van, traveled the country, and landed in Margaret River, a stone's throw from Bunker Bay and the center of a region known for two things: world-class wines and world-class waves. Margaret River sits halfway between two capes on an anvil-shaped chunk of coast that juts into the ocean and forms what surfers call the perfect "swell magnet." Building momentum over the endless Southern Ocean, monster swells arrive daily and, shaped by offshore desert winds and limestone reefs, become the longest, roomiest tubes on the planet. "It's just so consistent," says Jason Rhodes, a friend of Burden's. "It's nonstop."

Burden took a job as a dishwasher – or, as he preferred, "an underwater ceramics technician." That's what people loved about the guy, his sense of humor and relentless cheeriness. "Kyle was always up," says Rhodes. "It was like he was on permanent vacation. It was all about the waves."

On September 4, 2011, Burden arrived at Bunker Bay to find the waves at Boneyards head-high and clean. He paddled out. There were four others in the lineup, including a kid he knew, Sollee Morris. At 1 pm, Morris grabbed a wave and rode in. When he turned back around, surfers were paddling frantically to shore. The water had turned red. Burden was nowhere in sight. Morris swam back out and found Burden – but only half of him. He somehow mustered the courage to pull Burden to shore.

Nobody saw what happened to Burden, but judging from his lacerations, authorities concluded he'd been attacked by a 16-foot-long great white. They closed the beach for 36 hours. Four days later, 40 of Burden's friends paddled out and tossed flowers into Bunker Bay. Sharon Burden, Kyle's mother, read a statement thanking Sollee Morris and Kyle's friends. "There's no real explanation for the randomness of Mother Nature," she read. "Kyle loved the environment; he loved the ocean and all the creatures that go with it."

Burden's death terrified Margaret River. "People stopped surfing alone," says Rhodes. "There are so many waves, and you want to surf every one. But you can't paddle out by yourself, because of the sharks. You see every other animal, but not the sharks. It's a weird, scary feeling."

Then things got weirder and scarier.

On October 9, five weeks after Burden's death, a shark took a 64-year-old swimmer off Cottesloe Beach in Perth. Three weeks later, off Rottnest Island, also near Perth, a shark killed a 32-year-old scuba diver. That totaled three fatal attacks in seven weeks. It didn't stop there. On March 31, 2012, a shark took another scuba diver near Margaret River, off Stratham Beach. And on July 14, a surfer was killed by a shark off Wedge Island north of Perth. Five fatal attacks in less than a year, along a 260-mile stretch of coast. Every attack was attributed to a great white and accompanied by a media frenzy.

There had been fatal attacks in Western Australia before Burden's death – 18 of them going back to 1882. But there'd never been a spate like this. "Attitudes in the community started changing," says Max Clifford, a friend of Burden's. "People said, 'There are way too many sharks. They've been protected for too long. Let's cull them.' "