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World championship tour surfer Matt Wilkinson has had a close encounter with a shark while surfing at Sharpes Beach at Ballina today.

The welcome arrival of a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) overhead alerted Matt via a warning over the speaker, at the same time a 1.5m white shark surfaced just behind him.

The amazing vision captured by the UAV, operated by Surf Life Saving NSW on behalf of the NSW Department of Primary Industries (DPI), stunned the operator with the speed at which the shark appeared on his screen during a routine surveillance flight.

The former pro surfer said he was aware the drone was overhead and heard the warning, but was still shocked to encounter the shark at such close range. Today’s event was another lucky escape for Wilkinson, who competed in the heat just before Mick Fanning experienced his encounter with a large white shark at J-Bay in South Africa in 2015.

“I was surfing out the back at Sharpes Beach and just cruising on my own and I heard a splash and a noise and looked around and couldn’t see anything,” said Wilkinson. “Then the drone came down and told me that there was a dangerous shark in the area, return to the beach.

“I got to the shore feeling a bit weird and the lifeguards showed me the footage and I realised how close it came without knowing it was there. It looks like it’s going for my leg and it’s changed its mind.

“I feel grateful and pretty weird at the same time but happy it decided not to go me. When I saw the footage I saw the similarities, like I had a yellow leg rope on and Mick’s board was yellow is what I was thinking about when I came in. I called my wife because I didn’t want her to see the footage before I saw it. She doesn’t want me surfing for a couple of days now.”

UAVs proved vital only a few weeks ago when a large shark was spotted near competitors at the Tweed Coast Pro World Surf League event at Cabarita. The event start was postponed until the area was clear and safe for competition to commence.

UAVs are being flown by Surf Life Saving NSW every day during the school holidays at beaches in Ballina, just some of the 34 beaches funded for drone flights from the NSW Government’s $8million 2020/21 NSW Shark Program and many other coastal LGAs to assist lifesavers and lifeguards protect swimmers and surfers from a range of hazards, including marine creatures.

Following this incident, the beach was evacuated and closed until tomorrow.

"It’s nice to know the drones go up and down the beach and can see what we can’t and it makes you feel more comfortable. It makes other people aware that there are sharks out there but usually with no intention. It’s nice to know if there’s a big one around you can just come in and let them go by,” said Wilkinson.

“I’ve been surfing with sharks my whole life and I understand they’re there and know enough about them to know they have not too much interest in humans. I’m just glad today the shark reconsidered at the last second,” said Wilkinson.

The drone operator, Beau Monks from the Australian UAV Service, said he’d just launched his seventh flight for the day when he spotted the shark near the surfer.

“It sort of came out of nowhere, then went right up to Matt. It moved pretty fast. I was tracking it and notified the lifeguards and used the speaker on the drone to get everyone out of the water. Within 10 seconds it was at the surfer and five seconds later it was gone,” said Beau Monks.

“I’d spotted a large baitball and some whales and dolphins earlier in the day and had alerted the lifeguards to that.”

SMART Drumlines were not deployed on the North Coast today, due to large swell conditions.

Drones are the future of aerial surveillance – they have proven themselves to be cheaper and more effective than helicopters and are preferred by the community,” said Surf Life Saving NSW CEO Steve Pearce said.

Download the SharkSmart App or follow @NSWSharkSmart on Twitter for shark alerts and sightings

Note: The Australian UAV Service is a business unit of Surf Life Saving NSW and provides professional UAV services to clients including the NSW Department of Primary Industries and the World Surf League.


Wednesday 7 October 2020