World championship tour surfer Matt Wilkinson has had a close encounter with a shark while surfing at Sharpes Beach at Ballina in New South Wales on Wednesday.
The drone arrived overhead and alerted Wilkinson via its speaker, at the same time as a 1.5m white shark surfaced just behind him.
Amazing visuals captured by the drone, 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.
Shocked at the encounter
According to a media statement from Surf Life Saving NSW, 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.
Yesterday’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 Jeffrey’s 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 [and I should] return to the beach.
Similarities to J-Bay attack
He added: “I got to the shore feeling a bit weird and the lifeguards showed me the footage and I realised how close it came without me knowing it was there. It looks like it’s going for my leg and it has changed its mind.”
Wilkinson said that when he saw the footage he noted the similarities to the Jeffries Bay attack.
“Like I had a yellow leg rope on and Mick’s board was yellow. [That’s] what I was thinking about when I came in.
Aerial drones are proving vital
“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.”
Aerial drones also 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.
Drones, also known as UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) are being flown by Surf Life Saving NSW every day during the school holidays at beaches in Ballina, which are among the 34 beaches in the state funded for drone flights from the NSW Government’s $8-million 2020-21 Shark Program.