Whitsundays on tenterhooks following shark attacks

The Whitsundays tourism industry is bracing for impact following two serious shark attacks in the past week.

Even as Airlie Beach, the gateway to the Whitsunday Islands, welcomes tourists to accommodation almost booked out as the start of Queensland school holidays, local operators are nervous of the ongoing impact of the attacks.

The islands, close to the Great Barrier Reef off the North Queensland shore, are a global tourism draw for holiday-makers keen to dive, snorkel and swim in their crystal waters.

But as a warning remains for everyone to stay out of the water, authorities are scrambling to reassure tourists the Whitsundays are a desirable holiday venue.

The region is still recovering from Cyclone Debbie, and can ill afford a downturn in visitors as it looks to rebuild its brand as a world-class destination.

Justine Barwick, 46, was attacked late on Wednesday afternoon as she swam in Cid Harbour on Whitsunday Island and 12-year-old Hannah Papps was bitten when swimming in the same vicinity on Thursday. Both are in a stable condition in Brisbane hospitals.

Before the incidents this week, no one had been bitten by a shark in the Whitsundays for eight years, despite the Great Barrier Reef’s large population of Tiger sharks.

Queensland Fisheries officers quickly installed baited drumlines in the area where the victims were attacked, and on Friday shot three large Tiger sharks caught by the traps.

Ocean Rafting owner Jan Claxton told The Gladstone Observer: “I’ve been here 20 years and I think there was one other shark attack, then this happens.

“You can assume it is one rogue shark. I think it is so out of the ordinary it probably won’t happen again.

“Just think of the amount of people that swim in the Whitsundays every day. It’s thousands.”

In a statement, Tourism Whitsundays general manager Natassia Wheeler said: “These incidents are very rare in the Whitsunday waters and we praise the actions and rapid response of all emergency personal involved.

“Tourism Whitsundays remains focused on providing our ongoing support to our members and the wider tourism industry and we hope this incident will not discourage anyone from enjoying a Whitsundays holiday.”

Queensland Fisheries Minister Mark Furner has said the drumlines will remain until the area is considered “secure from any further attacks”.

“I hope for God’s sake that people adhere to our advice to stay out of the water,” he told The Weekend Australian.

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