Shaping the Way We See Sharks

In recognition of Shark Awareness Day today, July 14, Coastbeat chats with Kim Wolfenden, a Community Engagement Officer with the Department of Primary Industries to find out more about those big grey fish we’re all so curious about…

Q: Hello Kim. Can you please explain your role to us?

I’m lucky to lead the community engagement program for the NSW Shark Management Strategy. A work day for me can range from organising community drop-in stands at beaches where we’re trialling new technology like drones, running virtual excursions for students, creating videos that help communicate shark science and working with our partners like Surf Life Saving NSW and Councils.

Kim (r) and her colleague Sarah (l) work closely with beach communitiesKim (r) and her colleague Sarah (l) work closely with beach communities

Q: In our most recent magazine we chatted to Dr Paul Butcher who spends his days monitoring sharks. Are you part of the same team?

Yes, I work in the same team as Paul and our other DPI shark scientists, Vic and Amy. Along with my colleagues, Emma and Sarah, I feel very proud to work with such a dedicated group of scientists who are so passionate about their work. You can meet all of the DPI shark scientists and PhD students here.

Our scientists are leading one of the largest shark tagging programs in the world to understand more about shark movements. We’re currently tracking over 330 White Sharks, 80 Tiger Sharks and 80 Bull Sharks. Part of my role is to share their incredible work with the community.

Q: Tell us more about your role within the NSW Shark Management Strategy.

Over the past few years, DPI has been testing and trialling new technologies to increase protection for people from shark bites. My work involves working with beach communities to explain these trials and listening to community views about sharks.

At the moment, part of my role is planning a Shark education roadshow for this Summer. As we speak, the final touches are being made to a new DPI education trailer that will travel along the entire NSW coastline to bring shark science to the beaches.

All of the social research we’ve done to date shows that most people in NSW want to coexist with sharks and would like more education about these predators.

This roadshow will include the very latest in shark science, interactive shark activities, tips on how to avoid a shark encounter and the results of the trials we’ve been running over the past few years. We’ll be travelling to all 29 Coastal Councils along the NSW Coast from the Tweed in the north to Eden in the south. Can you tell we’re super excited about it!

Q: Please share with Coastbeat some of the biggest misconceptions about sharks?

Misconceptions can come from some of the sensationalist media coverage on sharks and films that depict sharks as mindless predators. One of my favourite myths to bust is this idea that sharks ‘hang’ off beaches. I love watching peoples’ jaws drop when they see the tracks of our tagged sharks and just how far they travel.

One of my favourite sharks to talk about is Shark #28, a 3.06m White Shark tagged off Ballina nearly three years ago. This shark has travelled over 39,000km from Northern NSW to Western Australia and back again, twice.

A White Shark on the move 
A White Shark on the move 

Q: What would you most like people to know or take comfort in when it comes to the ocean’s apex predator?

If you think about how many people are in the ocean every day right around our beautiful Australian coastline, it’s very rare for a person to be bitten by a shark. In saying that, we should not downplay how traumatic it is for the people and their families who go through this terrible experience. I do think, however, that we can take some comfort in the fact that these incidents are very rare.

Q: Congratulations on last year’s Churchill Fellowship. Tell us more…

Thank you! Churchill Fellowships give you the most amazing opportunity to travel overseas to investigate a project you’re passionate about that will benefit Australia.

My project was about investigating cases of human-wildlife conflict to improve how we coexist with sharks in Australia. I researched how we, as government, can better work with and listen to communities who have different views about sharks.

I travelled around the world looking at cases like wolves in Washington, bears in Alaska, sharks in Cape Cod and cheetahs in Namibia. I was also really lucky to meet with the United Nations in New York and train with an amazing organisation called the Centre for Conservation Peacebuilding in Washington DC.

This adventure has given me so much insight into the complexities of people and wildlife and it’s been really phenomenal coming home and sharing what I’ve learned.

I’m really passionate about finding solutions for both people and wildlife and protecting and celebrating our unique Australian beach culture.

Churchill Fellowships are open to everyone so if you have a great project that you feel could benefit Australia, check it out at www.churchilltrust.com.au

Kim receving the Churchill Fellowship last year Kim receiving the Churchill Fellowship last year 

Q: What does the ocean mean to you?

The ocean means everything to me. I grew up on the Gold Coast and my husband Andy and I now live in a small beach town on the Coffs Coast where we spend most of our time paddleboarding and kayaking. It’s our sanctuary – the wildness, the beauty and the freedom are what we live for. There’s nothing like getting out into the ocean to soothe one’s soul and feel connected. It’s hard to describe but those that get it, just get it.

Q: What do you enjoy about living and working on the NSW North Coast?

What’s not to love about living and working on the north coast? The beaches, the mountains, the lifestyle, the wildlife, the fresh air, the pace, the people! I love that I wake up every morning and the first thing I get to do before work is check the ocean for a morning paddle, swim, or walk with my dog.

Kim and Andy embrace the coastal lifestyle and love kayaking and paddle boardingKim and Andy embrace the coastal lifestyle and love kayaking and paddleboarding

Thank you for such great insight Kim.

Once the new Shark Education Trailer is all ready, Kim and Dr. Paul Butcher will be hosting an interactive talk at Coffs Central (children are also welcome). We’ll let you know as soon as a date has been set.

In the meantime, you can download the SharkSmart app to check shark activity in your local area, learn more about the NSW Shark Management Strategy online and view great video content here on Coastbeat TV