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Truth revealed after Sydney shark tragedy labelled as ‘provoked’

Simon Nellist, 35, died last February after being attacked by a great white shark.

The death of a 35-year-old British migrant who was mauled by a shark at a Sydney beach last February has been omitted from an internationally renowned list of “unprovoked” attacks.

Florida Museum’s International Shark Attack File (ISAF) found the attack on Simon Nellist was "provoked"— a classification that caused uproar in Australia and Britain after it was reported widely this week.

But director of ISAF Dr Gavin Naylor told Yahoo News Australia there had been "confusion" about what drove the decision.

Simon Nellist can be seen underwater smiling and gesturing the shaka sign with both hands before the fatal shark attack.
Simon Nellist was a scuba diver instructor and spent many hours in the ocean before he was killed by a shark last February. Supplied: 7 News

What happened to Simon Nellist?

Mr Nellist was swimming off the coast of Sydney near Little Bay Beach when he was attacked by a great white shark reported to be four metres in length. The incident gained global attention after camera footage of Mr Nellist's final moments were shockingly circulated on the internet.

After Mr Nellist's death, witnesses claimed to have seen bait balls in the water — a last-ditch defence measure used by fish to avoid predators. It was also reported people had been fishing in the area.

The mauling was Sydney's first fatal shark attack in 60 years.

We are committed to understanding the behaviours of sharks to better understand them. We anticipate that with an improved understanding of species-specific shark behaviours, actions can be taken to minimise the frequency of shark bites on people.Dr Gavin Naylor

Why the shark death was not deemed an ‘unprovoked attack’

The classification was not connected to Mr Nellist's behaviour, but rather what was happening nearby.

When it comes to determining whether an attack was "provoked" or "unprovoked", ISAF's scientists make one simple, technical determination — did any human influence the shark's aggression?

They only categorise an incident as "unprovoked" if it can exclude human activities that could draws sharks into an area where they otherwise would not be. They use this data to determine what activities "provoke" sharks, and this enables them to provide advice on how to avoid attacks.

"In the tragic case of Simon Nellist, there were people fishing nearby," Dr Naylor said to Yahoo in an email. "Fishing activity is known to attract sharks, primarily because fish caught on lines struggle and generate vibrations that bring sharks in."

Quick facts about the shark report

  • ISAF deemed just five shark fatalities to be “unprovoked” in 2022.

  • Two were in Egypt and South Africa and one was in the United States.

  • It deemed 57 bites across the globe to be "unprovoked".

Does everyone agree with 'provoked' classification?

ISAF's decision to classify Mr Nellist's death as "provoked" is at odds with the Australian Shark-Incident Database (ASID) which determined the opposite. However, the two organisations use different criteria in their decision making.

Australian Marine Conservation Society shark expert Dr Leonardo Guida said while he appreciated why ISAF have such strict guidelines, he felt the "provoked" classification was “a little jarring”.

He said some discussion about the outcome left him feeling “uncomfortable” because “no one was to blame” for the incident.

An image of a great white shark swimming in the ocean under sunlight.
A great white shark was determined to have killed Simon Nellist. Source: Getty (File)

“People fishing aren’t to blame for someone being bitten by a shark and dying. Simon Nellist isn’t to blame for swimming in that area either. At the end of the day the ocean is a wilderness and tragic accidents like this can occur. It’s important that we don’t prescribe blame to anyone.”

Dr Guida also doesn't believe human activity can always be linked to provoking a shark attack. “Just because fishing was occurring, this correlation doesn’t necessarily mean causation,” he said.

How the Florida report became a national story

The decision to leave Mr Nellist off the ISAF 2022 list was widely reported by Australian media on Thursday.

Interest in the ISAF decision grew after a conversation between its director and YouTube shark enthusiast Kristian Parton was made public.

In an email, program director Dr Gavin Naylor clarified that Mr Nellist had done “nothing consciously to provoke an incident”, he was swimming in an area where people were fishing.

Simon Nellist was due to be married

He was set to marry "the girl of his dreams" after their wedding was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and was reportedly training for a charity ocean swimming event when he was attacked.

A friend called the swimmer one of the “nicest, kindest” humans, saying his death caused a "huge loss".

Mr Nellist “really knew the water” and multiple reports share he had previously made posts on Facebook calling for a ban on shark nets.

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