Rick Austin knew he had hooked a big one as his fishing rod bent and he reeled furiously from his kayak off the Nova Scotia coast, but he never dreamt there would be a great white shark on the end of the line.
On a perfect summer morning July 30, when the wind was just right and the water was calm, Austin anchored his kayak off Kingsport in the Minas Basin, which feeds into the Bay of Fundy. He was looking for striped bass, and he set out his fishing rods with baits.
“I didn’t want to get too far out because it was my first time out there, and also I was alone,” he said in an interview Tuesday from his home in Eastern Passage, N.S. “When I got there, I anchored, and everything was perfect. It was a perfect scenario.”
But after three hours without a single bite, he decided to switch up his bait, putting a live mackerel on a stainless steel hook. “It wasn’t very long, just minutes and my reel starts to click,” he recalled.
Austin, a retired Royal Canadian Air Force sergeant, said his thoughts went to the 1975 movie “Jaws” because of a scene in which a character’s reel is clicking as he prepares for a big catch. “This is exactly what I did. However, I had no idea it was a shark — ever — the entire time it was out there.”
He turned on the GoPro camera on his hat and began trying to reel in his catch. “It was quite the adrenalin rush for sure,” he said with a laugh. “I sincerely thought it was a dolphin or a huge striped bass.”
Then he saw the large, grey fish he had hooked swim near the surface, mere feet from the bow of his kayak. On the video he filmed, he can be heard exclaiming “Holy lifting!” and a few other choice words, before he decided he would need to cut the line.
He said after being cut loose the shark swam a little distance and breached, then returned to circle Austin’s kayak before taking off. “My heart was thumping so fast that I couldn’t hear anything — the birds and stuff — if they were even there, I was totally unaware of,” he said.
Dr. Chris Harvey-Clark, a veterinarian at Dalhousie University, helped confirm the animal Austin hooked was indeed a great white shark. He said it could be identified by its stocky body profile, distinct dorsal fin and black colouring on its top. The other shark species that are similar in the Bay of Fundy waters are porbeagle and mako sharks, but they are slimmer and bluish, he said.
The shark was a juvenile, between 1.5 and two metres in length, and probably weighed between 45 and 70 kilograms, he said.
“At that age they’re kind of like puppies. They have oversized things like their pectoral fins and their tail fins are actually wider.”
But Austin did the right thing by cutting the line and letting the animal go, he said.
“One of the things you have to realize is a lot of species of sharks have a bit of a temper,” he said. “When you hook them up, they’ll come back and wreak vengeance on you. They’re quite capable of retaliatory measures … you’re messing with animals that are peak apex predators in the ocean. They really rule that world.”
An abundance of marine mammal food combined with conservation efforts that have helped population numbers could be attracting more sharks to Canadian waters, Harvey-Clark said.
“I think we’re in the sweet spot for the species right now,” he said. “It probably means we’re going to see an increase in numbers here.”
He added that the hook left in the shark would likely not do the animal much harm. “The sharks heal very quickly,” he said. “Their metabolic rate is amazing.”
Austin, 61, said he hopes the animal has recovered from its ordeal of being hooked.
“It probably was hanging around me for quite a while, which is kind of scary in itself,” he said. “Then it finally saw something that it really wanted, which was the live mackerel.”
Austin stayed behind that Sunday and fished — still oblivious that the one that got away was a white shark — but he didn’t hook anything else. Now that he knows, the story is more than enough.
“I don’t want another experience like that,” he said, with a laugh. “Thank you very much.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Aug. 9, 2023.
— Austin’s video of his shark experience can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7AQSSzmTjec. Note video contains obscene language.