Things that go bump in the surf.
For surf frequenters on the NSW North Coast, life is in a bit of a state of turmoil at the moment. A string of fatalities, close calls and near misses with Sharks, particularly of the Great White kind, has re-enforced the reality that going for a leisurely paddle is now an increasingly riskier proposition that at any time in living memory.
The crew in the Ballina/ Byron area have been at the forefront of this paradigm shift ever since a horror run beginning in late 2014 saw 13 significant attacks from sharks on humans in just under a 24 month period.
Infoamed recently surveyed Mitch Oke, Jarrah Coates, Matt Graham, Craig Rose, James McQuaker and Michelle Batterham, all members of Headlanders bodyboard club based in the Ballina area, for their thoughts on how the surfing experience has changed for them in light of the rising shark menace in the region.
Have you been personally impacted or affected by shark interactions over the last few years?
James McQuaker: I haven’t been bitten fortunately just some interesting encounters. I had a 10ft Mako pirouette 3 meters in the air at high speed in front of me. Also a large Tigershark swim between me and a breakwall once. I’ve had a few friends bitten, some with life threatening injuries.
Mitch Oke: Only once – behind the shark nets at burleigh about 5 years ago there was a shark fin gliding in the shoulder of the wave. I had to paddle a channel to get it. Wasn’t thrilled. Otherwise just mates that have been in the water when others have been attacked by sharks.
How would you describe the vibe in the Ballina / Byron Bay in regards to
the prospect of shark attack?
Craig Rose: Myself, I am continuously aware of the strong risk during certain times of the year and time of day, currently is a time for extra caution due to higher levels of sealife activity with abundant bait fish, whale migration and albertros birds. Friends are also very aware and and choose to surf popular breaks with people rather then a lone bank along a stretch of open beach.
Matt Graham: Considering this Xmas just gone I was the only one out at North wall one morning enjoying backdoor caverns to myself to north wall being quite busy again 6 months later I’d say the majority are putting it to the back of the mind. The vibe seems to go in waves. It’s not long between drinks when it’s the main topic of conversation around Ballina.
Mitch Oke: It’s something people talk/think about now. 15 years ago when I was a grom, you heard the odd story but were never too concerned about it. Now it’s a real concern. It’s definitely had a negative impact on the community. No one in my small circle is 100% comfortable in the water anymore, however we’ve accepted the risk vs stoke ratio.
Have you modified your behavior in terms of going surfing?
Matt Graham: I have. Especially having a mate who’s been bitten and has said a few things in regards to safety. I now avoid breaks with birds and bait fish in the water. In saying that though, I’ll still stay out in the water if there is a shark or sharks near us (reefs or small makos only), especially if its pumping. Calculated risks.
James McQuaker: The attack in Ballina on Japanese surfer Tadashi was brutal. I re-evaluated my whole exposure to the ocean as this completely rattled me. For 5 months I didn’t surf.
Jarrah Coates: Yes, massively. I rarely surf anymore. I have 2 young children. Risk is a very real concern that overrides my indulgence most of the time. I really think twice before surfing and I never surf solo.
Are there any breaks you don’t surf anymore, or feel particularly sketchy to surf?
Jarrah Coates: Yes, south wall used to be a regular but only a few times in recent years. One of the reefs is a bit spooky and of course north wall where most frequent encounters have occurred. North wall was the go to spot. Always the swell magnet from ENE through to south swell.
Matt Graham: None really, although if I had to pick one though, it would be Lighthouse. Purely because just recently a good mate spotted a massive white (approx. 4-5m) in close.
Michelle Batterham: Backsides, Shelley and the breakwalls but I still surf there regularly.
Are there any local rituals or practices that have people have adopted to try to make the prospect of a shark attack less likely?
Don’t paddle out pre dawn. Watch out for not just your mates and anyone in the water.
Pay attention to Shark reports from aerial surveillance & shark tag receivers. Get out of the water when bait balls / birds diving close by.
Matt Graham: That’s a truly interesting question and it’s quite surprising as I’ve never seen or heard of any rituals. Mine would be stay real fucking positive and hope for the best.
Craig Rose: No local rituals that I know of, I am a little superstitious and prefer not to talk about it or think about it, just be happy and aware and catch waves.
What do you think are the best management practices that should / could be adopted to help limit shark interactions?
Matt Graham: I like the drum lines, however not sure if they’re (Sharks) being taken far away off shore once caught, then again I’m no expert. A team of specialised drones would settle the nerves a fair bit.
Craig Rose: Obviously aerial surveillance is the best prevention and alerts, being at sea level as we know doesn’t give much visually. And the behaviour of most attacks are from behind and below so we are usually not even aware what is behind us. If local councils could adopt a drone pilot for 3 time periods a day like 7am to 9am 11am to 1pm and 3pm to 5pm at a popular beach breaks it would provide comfort and reassuring head space knowing someone is overlooking the line up. Recently the government have stopped local helicopter services (Roterwing) due to not being able to fund them, they were a key resource for shark encounter prevention without these guys in our sky’s the risk remains high. As we have seen recently on the north coast of N.S.W.
Jarrah Coates: Government money for research and development for ocean user safety!
Drones with warning sirens.
Some sort of Apple Watch type device that a surfer can wear that pings a warning if a tagged shark is within 50m of you.
Where do you stand in relation to the idea of a cull of Great White
Sharks in your area?
James McQuaker: I was open to it during the peak of the attacks as there were 16 events in a short time. A cull doesn’t make sense to me now though.
Jarrah Coates: Not really sure to be honest. I consider myself a conservationist but geez there seems to be a lot more of them around these days.
Michelle Batterham: I’m in favour of it.
Matt Graham: Before I answer that I’d have to see the numbers. If there’s plenty, I don’t have a problem with culling and using the meat somehow rather than wasting the animal. Just like I don’t have a problem with the shark if it eats me, it’s only doing what has to be done. If the numbers though are low, don’t fucking touch them and surf at your own risk.
Any other additional comments or information you would like to share?
Jarrah Coates: I think baited drum lines are a controversial topic. They may attract sharks closer to shore to tag them? Don’t get me started on cage diving!
I have put in a proposal to delist the Great White Shark off the Endangered species appendix with the federal minister of agriculture and fisheries so their recovery can be managed via stock assessment survey and fished if needed.
Huge thanks to Headlanders club president Troy Taylor for facilitating and collaborating all of the interviews and the crew who took time to respond.