World championship tour surfer Matt Wilkinson has had a close encounter with a shark while surfing at Sharpes Beach at Ballina.
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 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. The 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 the next day.
“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.