BALLINA might have gained a reputation as the state’s shark capital, but a trial of aerial surveillance drones has found more large sharks off Redhead beach than any other part of NSW.
Drones sweeping Redhead over summer found 23 sharks, with 16 sharks longer than two metres classed as “potentially dangerous”.
A Department of Primary Industries spokeswoman confirmed drones had found more large sharks off Redhead than at the other trial sites of Kiama, Evans Head, Lennox Head and Ballina.
“Sixteen of the Redhead beach shark sightings comprised sharks of two metres or larger, 10 of which were identified as bull sharks and one as a white shark,” the spokeswoman said.
The trial at Redhead was expanded for the school holidays after a drone found a three-metre great white shark among surfers in mid-December.
Drones scanned the Redhead surf most mornings, and their operators’ tip-offs prompted lifeguards to clear the surf or close the beach several times.
A video released by Primary Industries shows a bull shark within 15 metres of a jet-ski rider off Redhead, another bull shark 25 metres from a board rider, as well as hammerhead and whaler sharks close to shore.
It also confirms Redhead as a habitat for turtles, cownose rays and fairy penguins.
The drone trial was declared a success by Primary Industries Minister Niall Blair, whose department issued a release titled “Saving lives with eyes in the sky”.
Lake Macquarie council lifeguard team leader Paul Stone said it was hard to measure drones’ life-saving capabilities, and that no amount of precaution could protect a swimmer from a shark in the sea.
But he said drones fed back an unprecedented amount of detail about sharks’ behaviour off Redhead.
“Although the helicopter surveillance had been running for a number of years, we hadn’t had that constant surveillance,” Mr Stone said.
“I can think of four occasions when drones did pick something up that we hadn’t picked up.”
Lifeguards have long been aware of “the odd visit” by a shark off Redhead, but data collected in the summer drone trial shows that sharks frequently pass within 100 metres of the shore.
“It also seems that when the sharks do swim past they’re not really interacting with anybody,” Mr Stone said.
The state government launched its drone trial last September as part of a $16 million Shark Management Strategy.
Two people have officially been bitten by sharks at Redhead in the past 70 years, neither fatally.