Air patrol wages war on sharks, but critics doubt effect

PUBLISHED : Friday, 02 February, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 02 February, 2007, 12:00am

The single-engine Cessna plane banks in a stomach-churning corkscrew as the ocean below flashes past in a whirl of blue.

'This is what we do when we see a shark,' pilot Charles Supplice says, his voice crackling over the intercom system. 'We orbit above and keep on top of it until everyone clears out of the water.'

The distinctive red and yellow aircraft of the Australian Aerial Patrol maintains a constant vigil over a large portion of the New South Wales coastline, including Sydney and its dozens of beaches.

Last summer, air crews spotted more than 200 sharks, including great whites, tiger sharks, hammerheads and bronze whalers.

The patrol's volunteer pilots and spotters insist that shark numbers are increasing and the predators are being lured closer into shore by a rise in water temperatures caused by global warming.

The debate over the threat posed by sharks has been fuelled by a commercial diver's remarkable escape from the jaws of a great white last month as he collected abalone from the ocean floor in the far south of New South Wales.

'Nobody can tell me sharks are diminishing in number,' said Harry Mitchell, general manager of the aerial patrol. 'In the last five years we've seen a marked increase in shark numbers close to shore. I'd suggest that, in particular, there are more great whites out there than scientists estimate.'

The patrol maintains it is a vital frontline tool in the campaign to keep swimmers safe from sharks. But critics question the usefulness of the aerial patrols.

The New South Wales state government refuses to fund the service, arguing it is hard to spot sharks from fast-moving aircraft.

The A$500,000 (HK$3 million) it costs annually to keep the patrol flying instead comes from local council grants and corporate sponsors.

Scientists said that far from increasing, shark numbers were declining, partly as a result of chronic overfishing and demand for shark's fin soup in Asian countries.

When nets were first strung across a handful of Sydney's beaches in 1937, 1,500 sharks became entangled and died in the first 12 months. Seventy years on, and with 49 beaches now protected by nets, fewer than 200 sharks are caught each year.

But the aerial service maintain their patrols save lives. If a shark is spotted close to swimmers or surfers, air crews make radio contact with surf lifesavers on the ground, who send out jet skis or inflatable boats to herd the predators out to sea.

'If a shark is sick or old, it may not be able to go after its normal prey and it's then that its next target might be you or me,' said Mr Mitchell.