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Aussie Expert: Death by Shark, Jellyfish Avoidable; 'It's the People Surprising the Animal'

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QUEENSLAND, Australia -- Two shocking deaths in as many days in waters off Queensland were tragic but avoidable, according to experts.

Sarah Whiley, 21, died after being savaged by up to three bull sharks off North Stradbroke Island last Saturday.

The shark fatality was the first at a protected beach since Queensland introduced its Shark Safety Program 44 years ago and the first in Australia since an attack off South Australia last August.

Barely 24 hours later a seven-year-old girl died from a suspected box jellyfish sting near Bamaga in Cape York Peninsula.

It was the 70th fatality from box jellyfish stings in Australia since 1884, the last being in 2003.

Does it mean people should steer clear of the water with a range of potentially fatal creatures like crocodiles, blue-ringed octopus, box jellyfish and large number of different species of sharks - including great whites, whalers, tigers and bull sharks?.

Not so, say experts.

Instead, the public should respect - rather than fear - the water and observe certain rules while in it.

According to Sunshine Coast's Underwater World curator Andreas Fischer all the warning signs were there for a bull shark attack - murky water near a river mouth late in the afternoon with schools of baitfish nearby.

"If you add up all those factors you have the possibility of something happening and that was the case at North Stradbroke Island," Mr Fischer said.

"At the end of the day it is just a matter of public education, knowing what's out there and what to avoid."

So just how dangerous are Australian waters?

Mr Fischer agreed there are potential risks in Australian waters.

"But it's difficult to say it's a high risk area because the chances of it happening are very minimal," he said.

"There are a number of aggressive species here but if you are going to compare it to other countries it is not that much different.

"To be honest, I think the recent fatalities were just unlucky incidents."

Police this week re-opened a 2km stretch of beaches east and west of the shark attack site, but government wildlife officers are still scouring the waters for the sharks responsible.

Surf lifesavers have implored swimmers to stay away from Amity Beach, the site of the attack on North Stradbroke Island.

But Mr Fisher called for a common sense approach to the fatality, not a knee jerk reaction.

"It was the first shark attack in that area for 44 years ... while it is very tragic, how many people die in car crashes each year?," Mr Fischer said.

"When a fatality like this happens it is not handled very well.

"They want to go out and kill everything that moves in the water.

"But if you put it in perspective ... we are going into a marine environment which is not our natural domain and there is an increased risk of something happening.

"But even that increased risk is very minimal compared to something else like road fatalities."

The girl's death from a suspected box jellyfish sting has also delivered a timely wake-up call.

"Box jellyfish is the world's most venomous animal, it can kill in three minutes," said Dr Lisa-Ann Gershwin, Surf Lifesaving Australia's national marine stinger adviser.

"It's an absolute tragedy because it's 100 per cent preventable.

"If she had been wearing ... any type of barrier between the skin and tentacles this would not have happened."

Dr Gershwin said box jellyfish were passive creatures and they don't hunt nor are they aggressive.

"If they see you coming they'll try to get away," she said.

"It's not the box jellyfish hunting people, it's the people surprising the animal."

Box jellyfish are prevalent in summer months from Gladstone, central Queensland north around Australia to Exmouth in Western Australia.

While Australia has recorded 70 deaths since 1884, the records in other countries are far worse.

"If you look at the Philippines, they get about 90 fatalities a year from box jellyfish," said Dr Gershwin.

"You look at that and you think `wow, we're doing pretty good here' - but I don't want people here to get complacent."


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