A surfer had part of his hand bitten off as he tried to fight off a shark off the New South Wales coast, while on the other side of the country shark sightings caused panic on one of the busiest days of the Australian summer, as scientists speculated that warmer ocean temperatures may be bringing the killers closer to shore.
The surfer, 29, identified only as Luke, was in the water with friends at Diamond Head, 240 miles north of Sydney, when the shark – believed to be a 6ft bull shark – bit him on the thigh. As he tried to push it away, it bit his right hand, taking off his index finger and leaving another finger hanging by threads of skin.
Friends helped him to shore, using the leg ropes on their surfboards as tourniquets. He was treated on the beach by paramedics, then flown to hospital in Newcastle, where his condition was said to be serious but stable.
In Western Australia, meanwhile, 30 people had to be rescued from a rock where they were stranded following reports of an 18ft great white shark in the area. Lifesavers launched a boat to collect the group, who had swum out to the rock, off Twilight Beach in Esperance, on the south-west coast.
That incident followed sightings of several other sharks in the same south-western region yesterday, including three one-metre sharks seen feeding near Margaret River.
Western Australia has acquired the reputation of being the country's shark attack capital, following five fatal attacks in the past two years. In the most recent incident, in July, a 24-year-old surfer died when he was bitten in half by a 12ft shark north of Perth.
The latest victim was camping at Diamond Head, a remote spot near Port Macquarie, with family and friends. Out in the water, he reportedly saw a pod of dolphins – often a danger sign – and 10 minutes later, at about 10.45am, the shark appeared and lunged at him three times.
"He was sitting on his board, waiting for a wave, when the shark bit into his right thigh," said Senior Constable Chris Rowley, a local officer. "He's then tried to push it off with his hand, and his hand has gone into its mouth. He's lost the index finger past the knuckle, and another finger was just hanging by shreds. I don't know if it can be re-attached."
Somehow, Luke recovered one of the shark's teeth, possibly because it lodged in his board. The tooth will be examined by fisheries experts in an effort to determine what species of shark attacked him. Nearby beaches were closed to swimmers yesterday as a precaution.
In Western Australia, scientists are investigating the theory that a marine heatwave may have played a part in the spate of fatal attacks. They say that in the past two summers ocean temperatures have risen to up to 5 degrees Celsius above normal, and that the warm currents may have pushed sharks closer to beaches in search of cooler water.
Stuart Smith, of the state fisheries department, said: "The sharks may be coming in with the colder water, or it may be that the things they're feeding on are coming in with the colder water and the sharks are following them."