Don't dabble in the Sea of Death

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 June, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 24 June, 1995, 12:00am

WE should wish Baroness Dunn good luck in Britain and hope that her new neighbours are not too disturbed by all the white makeup. The Brits are a cultured lot - they invented the queue, which never made it as far as the colonies - and will presume she is a retired Cantonese opera star, probably the one who played opposite Jeremy Irons in M. Butterfly.

It is sad that she is leaving at such a crucial juncture in our history. For weeks you have probably been waiting to hear her opinion on the one issue that has threatened to divide Hong Kong and turn Chinese against Chinese, taipan against taipan and Government against the people.

So far she has remained stoically quiet. But from the tea and toasted security of one of her new English homes - last time she counted there were two - perhaps Dame Lydia will find time to offer some guidance.

Is it a rogue male, or is there a pack of them? Personally I am of the rogue male school. Those subscribing to the pack theory entirely overlook the overwhelming evidence against it: that a rogue male makes better newspaper copy because it reminds us of Jaws.

That Dame Lydia has not volunteered an opinion is surprising. Everyone else has. From Our Man in Australia With The Shark's Tooth Necklace, Vic Hislop, to environmentalists still spreading half-baked conspiracy theories about shark revenge for too many of their fish friends ending their days in advertisements for American Express.

Dr John Bass is the latest. If I were a cynic I might suggest Dr Bass is a figment of some shark-fatigued reporter's imagination. But until I can prove otherwise we will have to accept that he is real. Dr Herring has a better, more eccentric timbre about it, but an alert copy-editor would probably have spotted that one and gone running to mummy.

Dr Bass is a world-renowned shark expert, but not world-renowned enough that you will have heard of him. Perhaps he is world-renowned in his field, which is not the same thing. His hypothesis is that sharks form an exclusion zone around themselves, much as eaters of baked beans do, and are apt to give incursive swimmers a warning nip on the toe. In the heat of the moment it is easy for them to go too far and bite off a leg.

This seems acceptable, but does not explain why sharks would want to go about their territorial business in and around Sai Kung. A shark with any sense would cruise south for Palawan, where there are fewer plastic bags to accidentally ingest.

Presumably it is because there is no shortage of men and women in Sai Kung who are willing to volunteer a foot for some sub-aquatic pedicure. One elderly gentleman swimmer was not scared because, he said, if he got eaten it would simply be fate. This is akin to saying we should let our children play with plutonium rods because there's always a chance they'll get cancer anyway.

Sharks, I believe, have built-in radar that enables them to detect the shake of a gill from 100 metres. An early morning recreational swimmer with trunks the size of a small hot air balloon must sound like the gong for buffet time at a Chinese wedding.

One can't help but feel that the satirical magazine Private Eye would be having a field day. There has been enough pontification to keep the Bores of the Day column in business for the foreseeable future. 'Large blurry object seen in sea', the headlines would say.

The Standard went for the arrow approach, pointing it at an underwater object that could have been a five-metre tiger shark, but could equally have been a fridge. Ming Pao circled something that looked like, well, nothing. An amoeba perhaps, or a Mercedes Benz on its way to Guangdong.

A more accurate headline would be 'Shark seen in ocean'. That we are so surprised is a worry. It would be news indeed if a shark were seen strolling through Chater Gardens, or queueing for a sardine sandwich at Oliver's.

The whole thing is turning into a cruel circus of hysterical headlines. Did my eyes deceive me, or did I really see a newspaper, not this one, refer to Clear Water Bay beach number two as the 'Beach Of Death'? Following the same logic, our airport, where a number of people died in a Hercules aircraft last year, should be the Airport of Death. Our Country Parks, where occasional hikers have been known to stiff-out under the burden of their Gore-Tex wilderness wear, are criss-crossed by Walking Trails of Death.

The deaths are tragic, but we know who is to blame. It is the Government. Just as the Government is to blame for the fact that I slipped and did a prat-fall on an oily patch in the road last Wednesday or that the bank holiday weather did not live up to expectations.

The Government must offer the people of Hong Kong a firm guarantee that all sharks in territorial waters are either nice, or vegetarian. Until it does, stay out of the water.