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The great white
First, the sharks. Real danger comes from the great white shark which frequents the Southern Ocean, but you'll find sharks in most seas, and occasionally they do come close to the beach where you may be having a swim. Chances are, if you only go to beaches where there are people around, you won't come face to face with a shark. So go to known beaches and do swim between the flags -- this is an area where surf lifesavers keep an eye on the water and the people who swim in it, and this would generally be an area free of sharks.
Shark sightings: Surf lifesavers will clear a beach if there is a shark sighting. If you go for a swim, the other danger is being caught in a rip, and marked off areas are generally safe. If you go to a relatively deserted beach, you can risk being laughed at if you ask the locals about shark danger. Better to be laughed at, of course, than to be foolhardy.