A year without Ben

He was a larrikin who loved the ocean. Twelve months on and Ben Gerring's death has not been in vain.
By Marta Pascual Juanola, Amy Martin and Nathan Hondros.

Rick Gerring speaks with journalist Marta Pascual Juanola one year after the shark attack which took his brother Ben's life.

Some of Rick Gerring’s fondest memories are of him and his brother Ben growing up together.

“He was a larrikin, you would always know you were going to have a banter with him,” he said with a grin.

“He loved his mates, he loved his surfing, loved fishing, loved the ocean, it was always good times.”

The Gerring brothers grew up in and around Falcon Bay; the ocean was their backyard.

“We were always on push bikes, or down the beach or swimming or snorkeling,” Rick Gerring said.

However, their passion for surfing began with a trip to the tip.

The family had just moved to Falcon when their father took the two young boys to the tip to give him a hand.

“We went to the tip with him and found this surfboard,” Rick Gerring said.

“We said to dad ‘Dad, can we take it home? Can you teach us how to surf?’, and he said ‘Yeah, no worries’, so we threw it in the car and we went down to Falcon Bay and he was pushing us into the waves.

“That’s how we learned to surf, it was down at Falcon Bay."

And they never stopped.

“In summer we would spend hours upon hours just doing that, fighting over who’s turn was next up on the board,” Rick Gerring said.

“Before we knew it we were surfing out of Cozies, we were starting to do turns and what not, and some of our older mates who lived just across the road from Gearies took us under their wing and they’d push us out to surf.”

Shortly after, Ben was competing with the Mandurah Board Riders Association, a few years later he was representing Western Australia in interstate tournaments and Australia in overseas surfing events.

“Ben was just an absolute champion,” his brother said.

“Any sport he touched he would excel at.”

The 29-year-old fly-in, fly-out worker was in one of his regular surfing trips to Gearies Beach on May 31 last year when he was mauled by a great white shark in an incident that shocked the local community.

Oblivious to the desperation going on at Gearies Beach, Rick Gerring was in hospital visiting his wife, who had just undergone surgery a couple of hours earlier.

Still in hospital, he received a call from one of their best mates telling him Ben had been attacked while surfing off Falcon Bay.

“I sort of laughed, ‘rightio, whatever’,” he said.

Rick Gerring. Photo: Marta Pascual Juanola.

Rick Gerring. Photo: Marta Pascual Juanola.

“And then he said it again and then in his tone of voice I knew that he wasn’t joking.”

He rushed down to Peel Health Campus shortly after Ben arrived in the ambulance.

From then on, Rick said, everything was doctors and nurses scrambling over each other.

Ben died three days later from his injuries, sending waves of sorrow across the Mandurah surfing community, and becoming the first fatal shark attack victim off the Mandurah coast.

“I never thought we’d see an attack here on our Mandurah coastline, we’ve got so much reef down here and its reasonably shallow water,” Rick Gerring said.

The attack, he said, not only brought sorrow to the local community, it also sparked fear of the ocean.

However, determined to protect the way of life he and his brother enjoyed growing up in Falcon Bay, he decided to step in and fight to protect fellow ocean goers and bring peace of mind to the community.

He was one of the driving forces behind the City of Mandurah’s Beach Emergency Number (BEN) system roll-out, a network of signs with emergency information and coordinates to guide paramedics and rescue crews.

The BEN sign at Gearies Beach. Photo: Marta Pascual Juanola .

The BEN sign at Gearies Beach. Photo: Marta Pascual Juanola .

He networked with politicians and representatives to establish a subsidy for personal shark deterrents, and pushed for the installation of a shark barrier off Falcon Bay.

“It’s all for him, for all the other shark victims and families, it’s for our communities and for our way of life,” he said.

“I’m doing it to make sure that we can take that fear out of it for people to enjoy what we love.

“We don’t live in Mandurah or Western Australia to live inland, we all live on the coast, we love our beaches, we love our oceans.”

He said the thought of a shark attack is now constantly in the back of his mind, and he won’t get any deeper than knee-depth in the ocean without a personal shark deterrent.

However, he hopes measures such as the Falcon shark barrier and the subsidies for shark deterrents will allow surfers and divers to get into the ocean at ease, and will allow younger generations to enjoy the water like Ben and him used to do.

“There’s some days where I don’t want to talk to anyone or talk about anything shark-related because it absolutely drains me,” he said.

“But you have to pick yourself up and think why are you doing it, the positives that it is going to bring to the community and that gives me the drive to keep going.”

Some of his regrets include not sitting down to have more beers with Ben or hitting the waves together, but above all not being able to see Ben become a great father.

That is the sort of suffering he hopes other families won’t have to experience by adopting simple measures such as the nets and deterrents.

“There’s still a long way to go in the whole shark mitigation scenario but I definitely believe that we are now on the right track to doing that,” he said.

“I’m not going anywhere, until I’m six-foot under I won’t stop, no matter what happens.

“I’m not the sort of person that would give up on something like this which is so important to myself, but also to our community and the West Australian way of life.

“It might take a little bit longer than I had liked or hoped but I’ll definitely continue on.”

"That’s how we learned
to surf, it was down
at Falcon Bay."
- Rick Gerring.

Photo: Marta Pascual Juanola.

"There’s some
days where I
don’t want to
talk to anyone
or talk about
anything
shark-related."
"You have to pick yourself
up and think why are you
doing it, the positives."

On May 31, 2016, 29-year-old surfer Ben Gerring was enjoying one of his regular surfing trips to Gearies Beach, Falcon, when he was mauled by a great white shark.

The alarm was raised shortly after 4pm, with reports of an injured surfer.

The incident would become the first fatal shark attack off the Mandurah coast, shock an entire community and prompt changes in WA’s shark mitigation strategies.

Ben was surfing with a large group of local surfers when the shark struck, severing his leg above the knee.

As soon as Ben went underwater, fellow surfers risked their lives to help Ben and bring him ashore.

"I paddled out to them, they needed a hand and that's when I saw this fellow, he was very pale, they had him propped up on a surfboard paddling in, there was about 100m to go so we got him all the way ashore and then applied CPR," Ian Barker told reporters at the time.

Ben Gerring's friend and Mandurah Boardriders Association president Brian Williams told the media he had just paddled further out into the ocean to catch a bigger wave when "all hell broke loose".

A rescue chopper and an ambulance had been dispatched to the scene, but as it was discovered later on they took an additional six minutes to find Ben’s location along Falcon Bay in a situation in which every second counted.

Witnesses to the horrific scene said they could hear the sirens around Falcon but the ambulance was yet to arrive to the carpark.

When paramedics arrived to the scene they took over the fight to save Ben’s life, while surfers built a barrier with their surfboards to protect them from the rising tide.

All the while, dozens of residents, family and friends were waiting in the carpark as the sun went down for Ben to be taken to hospital.

The chopper was finally stood down, and he was taken to Peel Health Campus by ambulance.

Meanwhile, Ben’s brother, Rick Gerring, was driving down from Perth after receiving a call telling him Ben had been attacked.

He arrived at Peel Health Campus shortly after Ben, as doctors and nurses were scrambling over each other trying to save his brother’s life.

He was later transported to Royal Perth Hospital with life-threatening injuries, as authorities started a hunt to cull the shark that took his life.

Ben died in Royal Perth Hospital three days later from his injuries after a long fight.

“They build us Gerrings pretty strong, pretty tough,” Rick Gerring said.

“And Ben definitely showed that in the hospital fighting for three days, it showed the drive he had to stay with us.”

A heartbroken community laid tributes and flowers at Gearies Beach after Ben’s death, while local surfers hit the water in an emotional paddle out ceremony.

Surfers at Ben Gerring's memorial paddle out. Photo: Tenelle Dunseath

Surfers at Ben Gerring's memorial paddle out. Photo: Tenelle Dunseath

Ben’s death sparked a statewide debate about shark culling and the need for better signage to guide rescue crews in a beach emergency situation.

Mandurah mayor Marina Vergone took the fight on board and moved a motion in July 2016 to roll-out a Beach Emergency Number (BEN) signage system that would include emergency information and linked coordinates to shorten the response time of emergency crews.

The initiative was met with the support of the McGowan government in May, which committed to funding local governments who wished to embrace the system.

The state government also committed to the installation of a shark barrier of Falcon Bay, where Ben was attacked, which would prevent sharks from getting close to the shore without harming other marine life.

Rick Gerring has also been the drive behind the regulation changes, pushing for state subsidies for personal shark deterrent devices.

He is also thinking about starting a business to import surfboard leg ropes from the Unites States that can be used as a tourniquet in an emergency.

“We’ve been very narrow-minded in our way of thinking in the last five or so years in how we tackle it, so we needed a fresh approach in how we protect people so we can enjoy ourselves in the water,” he said.

“It is something that needed to be done, and something that I personally felt that I needed to do for Ben’s death not to be in vain.”

Ben Gerring's memorial at Gearies Beach. Photo: Marta Pascual Juanola.

Fight against shark attacks: Are we doing enough?

In the year since Falcon surfer Ben Gerring died from a fatal shark attack, the fight to keep us safe in the water has been hotly debated by our politicians, who have struggled to agree on solutions that keep the community happy.

From more aerial patrols to shark barriers, there is no shortage of ideas.

The trouble seems to be that the public debate flares up in the aftermath of a shark attack and then dissipates over time. Until the next time.

Shark attacks are up there with our worst nightmares and they are happening more often.

Less than a year after Ben died, we watched the tragic scenes unfold in Esperance as Singleton teenager Laeticia Brouwer lost her life.

Laeticia Brouwer lost her life in a shark attack near Esperance. Photo: Supplied.

Laeticia Brouwer lost her life in a shark attack near Esperance. Photo: Supplied.

It us hard not to think of our loved ones and the risks we take every time we venture into the water.

And it’s impossible not to ask: “Could we have done more?”

Drum lines and shark numbers

The most heated debate is about how many white sharks are in the ocean and whether they still need to be protected.

Former Premier Colin Barnett introduced a controversial policy of setting drum lines at popular beaches, which has been effective in reducing attacks overseas.

However, the policy was abandoned after public protests, with activists labelling it a “shark cull”.

Instead, the Barnett Government spent $30 million on shark hazard mitigation measures, including aerial and beach patrols in the metropolitan and South West regions, research into shark population estimates and shark behaviour, acoustic tagging, jet skis, watchtowers, research into non-lethal detection and deterrent technologies, beach enclosures, and a public education campaign.

The government also funded aerial and beach patrols.

But Canning MP Andrew Hastie called on the federal government to take white sharks off the protected species list and called for the reopening of commercial shark fisheries in the hope that numbers would be reduced.

Mr Hastie’s proposal is still under consideration by the Commonwealth.

Falcon shark barrier

During the 2016 state election Dawesville MP Zak Kirkup campaigned on building a shark enclosure at the beach at Falcon Bay.

Although this is not where Ben Gerring was attacked, Mr Kirkup argued it would give some reassurance to families whose beach lifestyle was being damaged by concerns about sharks.

Shark barriers had been installed at beaches in Perth and Mr Barnett promised if his Liberal government was re-elected, funding would be available.

The project was left in limbo with the election of Premier Mark McGowan’s Labor government.

But fisheries minister Dave Kelly announced his government would build the $200,000 environmentally friendly shark barrier at Falcon.

Fisheries minister Dave Kelly with the type of components that will be used to build the Falcon Bay shark barrier. Photo: Supplied.

Fisheries minister Dave Kelly with the type of components that will be used to build the Falcon Bay shark barrier. Photo: Supplied.

Mr Kirkup and Mandurah MP David Templeman both welcomed the decision.

State government’s responseNew Labor fisheries minister Dave Kelly was a fierce campaigner against setting drum lines to control sharks.

In opposition, Labor announced it would subsidise the cost of 1000 shark deterrent devices, which use an electrical pulse to create spasms in the receptors sharks use to locate food.

The rebate came into effect on May 26.

Mr Kelly said the state government would also make grants available to local governments to implement the Beach Emergency Numbering (BEN)system, which was developed by the City of Mandurah in honour of Ben Gerring.

City of Mandurah Mayor talks to Marta Pascual Juanola on what has changed in the year since Ben Gerring died. 

Mr Kelly said the government’s new strategy would include:

- grants for local councils to install Beach Emergency Numbering signs, a coding system designed to improve emergency response times;

- surf Life Saving WA to use drones to monitor beaches, following on from a successful trial in 2016;

- two VR4 receivers to detect tagged sharks deployed at Esperance; and

- $200,000 for the City of Mandurah to install a beach enclosure at Falcon Beach.

However, the state government had also come under pressure over its decision to no longer automatically set drum lines to catch sharks after an attack on a person.