Michael Alexander speaks to former Dundee man Hamish Smillie about his life-long fascination with fatal shark attacks around the world.
As a youngster growing up in 1940s and 50s Dundee, former Linlathen technical Secondary pupil Hamish Smillie didn’t know much about the sea.
But when an apprenticeship at James F Lowe in Monifieth came to an end aged 16 and “troubles” at home led him to join the Royal Navy, it opened many doors for him including a lifelong interest in sharks.
Today, Hamish, 73, is retired and lives in Kent with his wife Olwen.
But in recent times he’s found his mind wandering back to his childhood in Dundee and also to the days when he went through training to become a Marine Engineering Mechanic and joined his first naval ship.
“It was whilst on-board this ship in the early days in the Indian Ocean the shout “shark” became common,” recalled Hamish. “With aid of that call, I started to have as close a look as possible until the creature chose to “dive”.”
Spending 18 months in the Far East on this tour, Hamish and his colleagues paid several visits to ports other than Singapore and Hong Kong. When they went on shore leave they received warnings of “shark threats” if needed and became familiar with wider sealife.
He remembers an occasion when their ship hit and killed a whale, meaning they had to go into a dry dock in Singapore for repairs.
On another occasion, they were visiting an island off the west coast of Malaysia and about to go in to the enticing waves for a swim when a local cook shouted frantically for them to get out of the water – pointing at shark fins a few metres out.
A few months later, he recalls members of the ship’s galley crew used scraps of raw meat to catch a Bull Shark.
It was when he left the Royal Navy in 1974 after six years as part of the “Emergency Overseas Group”, however, and moved into new employment based in Oxford that he got back into his ‘shark’ work with a particular interest in shark attacks.
At first he relied on his wife’s aunt and uncle in Australia to send newspaper cuttings of shark attacks. As technology moved on, however, and he got a computer, he was able to learn much more about fatal attacks worldwide.
“There was this one that had me feeling the lowest I have ever felt on receipt of attack notification,” he explained.
“This attack took place a couple of years ago very close to shore and involved a 15-year-old schoolgirl who had just arrived on Reunion Island the same morning on holiday from Paris.
“Having got sorted out in the hotel the three family members made their way to the beach and as mum and dad got their lounging area sorted the young girl made her way to the water.
“As she entered and splashed, turned and waved with the parents returning the wave.
“Then due to the steep beach the girl slipped into the water and started swimming. There were very few other people on the beach either holiday makers or staff so no one was watching the girl especially mum and dad.
“Then unsighted by everyone a dark shape moved close to the surface then rose to the surface and opened its mouth. The shark which was to be identified as a “Great White” bit through the torso of the girl with no noise being uttered.
“The shark estimated to be nearly six metres long swam off and then the rush was on to recover what was left of the body.
“The local government put out money to get the shark caught so the body could be completed for burial but that did not happen. Unfortunately there have been many attacks including fatal in that area as it is on the “shark route” between Australia and South Africa.
“One other fatal attack was off West Australia back in 2013 and it was a surfer that was to lose his life and his family to lose his body.
“Two friends were off the coast north of Perth sitting on their surfboards with their legs dangling in the water waiting on a large wave but it was a large Great White that visited.
“The boys quickly pulled their legs out of the water and started to paddle for the shore kneeling on their boards.
“Then the shark came in close to one board and the surfer tried to kick the shark in the face but taking the opportunity the shark bit his leg and pulled.
“The chap disappeared into the water and the six metre shark started to make a mess of the surfer.
“Two other men enjoying the water in a fast craft came down to help after hearing the shouting.
“The water was masked with blood and the victim could not be seen and after a sizable search nothing was found.”
For some 20+ years, Hamish has been paying attention to the seaside local papers in the UK. We may not have Great Whites, but he warbed: “There are plenty sharks out there!”