Does Australia need year-round beach patrolling?

17 September 2014
Byron's Main Beach will now be patrolled on a year-round basis. Photo: SLS NSW.
Byron's Main Beach will now be patrolled on a year-round basis. Photo: SLS NSW.

On September 9 a man was killed in a shark attack 20 metres off Clarkes Beach in Byron Bay on the NSW north coast.

British-born Byron resident, Paul Wilcox, was swimming in the shallows when the shark bit his leg. He was pulled from the water by beachgoer Mark Hickey but died on the scene. The beach was closed for 24 hours following the attack.

This recent attack has raised the question as to whether permanent beach patrols should be implemented at Australia’s more popular beach destinations.

Patrol dates of Byron’s tourist filled beaches vary, with patrolling on the main beach beginning in late September through to the end of June 2015.

That was until yesterday [September 23] when the Byron Shire Council successfully extended their contract with the Australian Lifesaving Service (ALS) with beach patrolling becoming a year-round fixture at Byron's Main Beach.

Byron Mayor Simon Richardson said he was thrilled that Council could provide additional funding this year for the extended service.

“Main Beach Byron Bay is one of Australia’s most visited beaches all year round. It’s a family favourite plus a draw card for young people from around the world.

“Having Main Beach patrolled 365 days through a combination of professional and volunteer services, is a community service that is highly valued and appreciated,” he said.

Ben Dyer, a lifeguard of seven years, believes that if the attack in Byron had occurred in patrolling hours it could possibly have been avoided.

“With radio communication between beaches, use of shark alarms and jet skis we would have been able to scare off the shark before it came too close.”

According to the University of Sydney there are currently 10,685 beaches in Australia, with Byron Bay falling within the top 10 most popular beach destinations in the country

In Australia, 22 percent of drownings occurred in a beach location according to the National Drowning Report for 2013. With 85 percent of Australia’s population living close to the coastline, ensuring these beaches are properly patrolled is extremely important.

Byron Shire Deputy Mayor Diane Woods agreed that permanent beach patrols were something that the state government should start investing money in.

“People swim and surf just as much in winter, if not more, as they do in summer due to there being better waves,” she said.

“We have a lot of people at our beaches, but no where near enough patrolling.”

Dyer also thinks that high traffic beaches should have more patrolling to reduce serious incidents in the future.

“I have worked on the Northern Beaches in Sydney, Cornwell in England and Japan,” he said. “I definitely think if there are plenty of people swimming, surfing or hanging around the beach, there needs to be appropriate patrolling.”

Clarkes Beach at Byron Bay, close to where the shark attack occured on September 9. Photo: Sophie Sambrook

Cr Woods said there would be great benefits from more beach patrolling in the area, but air patrol is also worth pursuing due to the visual advantages it provides.

“It all depends on the visual,” she said. “Other surfers that were there [on the day of the attack] thought it was a turtle in the water.”

Despite Cr Woods' belief to make patrolling more permanent in Byron, money restrictions prevent it from being carried out.

As summer approaches more people, both tourists and locals, will be returning to the beaches in Byron and all around Australia’s coastline.

Cr Woods said it is unlikely that people in Byron Bay will be deterred from entering the water after the attack in saying that “people will soon forget” and they know it is the shark’s territory they are entering.

“I think the best message is to watch out for not only you, but for each other as well by being constantly on the look out for danger,” she said.

Thumbnail photo: SLS NSW.