Remembering Laeticia: Esperance shark attack, effects on the surfing community and what has been done since

Surf safety: After the death of Laeticia Brouwer local surfer Mitch Capelli created the Esperance Ocean Safety and Support Group to help prevent more shark attacks. Photo: Sam Gibbs
Surf safety: After the death of Laeticia Brouwer local surfer Mitch Capelli created the Esperance Ocean Safety and Support Group to help prevent more shark attacks. Photo: Sam Gibbs

A second shark attack in less than two years rocked the Esperance surfing community and continues to resonate a year later.

One year after 17 year-old Laeticia Brouwer was killed whilst surfing in Kelp Beds, local surfers have taken steps to improve their own safety, but many feel there are measures beyond their control which need to be taken and are frustrated by the inaction of those in power.

In the aftermath of Laeticia Brouwer’s death, the Ocean Safety and Support Group- Esperance was established.

Ocean Safety founder Mitchell Capelli said anyone he spoke to in the Esperance community was ‘horrified and terrified’.

“It happened right there where so many people surf,” he said.

“It wasn’t a massive shock for a lot of people because we had seen so many sightings and we had been having so many aggressive encounters with sharks leading up to that event.

“But still, when anyone’s life is taken it’s a massive tragedy and everyone was shocked and couldn’t believe that we had had a fatality.”

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Mr Capelli said the Esperance community had accomplished a ‘fair bit’ in their efforts to improve ocean and shark safety but there was still a lot that needed to happen, especially at a governmental level.

“Like anything with government, everything is very slow moving,” he said.

“They deployed the two VR4 network buoys at Kelpies and West Beach which detect tagged sharks.

“But that was done as a bit of a counter-reaction from Fisheries to make it look like they were making an effort down here and to keep us quiet, but it actually doesn’t serve any purpose to safety at all or to research.

Safety forum: The first session on ocean safety was held in response to the fatal shark attack on April 17, 2017. Photo: Sam Gibbs.

Safety forum: The first session on ocean safety was held in response to the fatal shark attack on April 17, 2017. Photo: Sam Gibbs.

“They do nothing basically, but we have had to work with what we could get at the time.”

Fisheries Minster Dave Kelly said the McGowan Government has invested in a range of shark mitigation strategies for the WA coast to help protect beach users since being elected in March 2017. 

These strategies include a world-first personal shark deterrent subsidy, funding Surf Life Saving WA beach, helicopter and drone patrols, expanding the Shark Monitoring Network to Esperance, tagging operations, funding Beach Emergency Number signs and provided funding for a swimming enclosure at Falcon.

Mr Capelli said his group had kept lines of communications open with the Department of Fisheries and had conducted two different tagging programs recently.

“We have tagged more Great White Sharks in one little stretch, than anywhere else in the world,” he said.

However, Mr Capelli said more needed to be done to target sharks acting aggressively around humans.

“You have got so many activists and conservationists that value a shark’s life over a human’s life and it’s not on,” he said.

 Mitigation: Mitch Capelli with Federal member for O'Connor Rick Wilson disucssing possible solutions to prevent shark attacks in Esperance. Photo: Supplied.

Mitigation: Mitch Capelli with Federal member for O'Connor Rick Wilson disucssing possible solutions to prevent shark attacks in Esperance. Photo: Supplied.

“While we don’t want a cull we definitely believe something needs to be done in terms of shark mitigation.

Mr Capelli said a ‘smart drum-line network’ would protect the Esperance coastline, especially at times of the year when there was increased shark activity.

“People don’t really like hearing it but the last attacks at Kelp Beds with Sean Pollard and Laeticia Brouwer have been 100 per cent preventable,” he said.

“These sharks had been sighted at that location acting aggressively to surfers, drivers and fishermen for months leading up to that event and it was only a matter of time.

“So if we had been allowed to target the problem we could have saved a life and that’s what it comes down to.”

Police sergeant Todd Pender was appointed a family liaison officer for the Brouwer family and said everyone was responsible for their own safety.

“You need to assess risks and look at hazards,” he said.

“They were out doing a pastime that they loved doing, and it is really just an unfortunate set of circumstances.

“Fortunately the government has put measures in place, there are shark alerts out there but that is only sharks that have been tagged so everybody is still responsible for their own safety.”

Local surfer Chris Pope helped respond following the attack and said the incident forever changed his view of getting into the water.

“It makes you a bit more vigilant and aware of the kind of environment that we put ourselves into voluntarily,” he said.

“We’ve been sort of complacent with it over our lives.

“I’ve been surfing for about 30 years and the sport of it is always going to that next level and always trying out new things, especially when you're surfing new environments

Safety technology: Fisheries minister Dave Kelly with the piece of equipment used to help detect sharks. Photo: Supplied.

Safety technology: Fisheries minister Dave Kelly with the piece of equipment used to help detect sharks. Photo: Supplied.

“When it comes to sharks it really puts us back into our place because it’s really not totally our place to go out and just jump into.

“We have got to keep it in check and remind ourselves that these animals are out there and they are becoming more and more inquisitive.” 

Local surfer and paddle out co-organiser Brendan Franzone said after the attack on April 17 he did not surf in that spot for ad least six months and knew others who were also too frightened to do so.

“Unfortunately as a result of the increase numbers of shark sightings and increased interactions with humans, shark behaviour has certainly changed,” he said.

Mr Franzone said the Ocean Safety and Support Group had been ‘great’ because it helped coordinate the response of local surfres in taking measures to be responsible in the water and had also been a group that had successfully lobbied ‘high levels of government’ to take their concerns into account.

We have had two tragedies in the last couple of years, one with the loss of a young life,” he said.

“I feel something needs to be done, not only from our side in keeping ourselves safe.

“Part of this is looking at what has been done in the eastern states where there are very few fatalities whereas over here in WA the fatalities exceed those of anywhere else in the country.

“You have to look at what scientists and the CSIRO say, but also at statistics and what has been done in these other places.

“Human life needs to be seen as more valuable than a shark’s.”

Want to read more about shark safety in WA? Click on our related links above to see recent coverage from our journalists Caitlyn Rintoul and Jake Dietsch