A high-pitched siren rings out across the beach, sending a flock of seagulls into the air in a flurry of wings and indignant squawking.
The shrill alarm is coming from a bright red-and-yellow drone hovering over the water out past the breakers.
Using carefully designed shark-recognition software, the fully automated drone has detected a juvenile great white cruising past about a cricket pitch-and-a-half away from a group of surfers.
The boardriders look at each other wearily.
‘Third time this afternoon,’ one says to another as the group begin to paddle back towards to shore.
Further in, dozens of swimmers follow suit – trudging back to their towels where their smartphones ping with further warnings that include the size and species of the shark and its prior history.
Unconcerned with the commotion, the young shark continues on its way – scanning lazily for bait fish in the warm, clear water…
It might sound a bit like something out of a sci-fi movie, but this scenario is coming soon to a beach near you.
Fear over shark attacks on the North Coast has driven a wave of new detection and deterrence strategies that are set to make our most popular beaches some of the most scrutinised and surveyed in the world this summer.
Shark deterrent measures
On any given day in the upcoming holiday season, beachgoers are likely to see helicopters and drones searching for shark-like shapes beneath the waves.
Sightings will be immediately relayed, not only to those in the water, but to tens of thousands of smartphone users across the country via apps and social media.
Under the surface, 35 separate SMART drum lines will be deployed up and down the coast, temporarily ensnaring sharks so that they can be fitted with electronic tags for easier detection by floating receivers.
And at five beaches between Lennox Head and Evans Head large, synthetic shark nets been set up in a bid to stop sharks getting too close.
On the face of it, the measures are a great way to reduce the risk of attack.
After all, if a swimmer or surfer is aware that there’s a shark around, he or she can take action to get out of the way. But does being told every time a shark pops up on the radar really make us feel safer?
Do we want our summer beach visits to be punctuated by alarms, hovering drones and smartphone alerts that make us think twice about getting into the water?
Marine biologist Dr Danny Bucher says that while he supports shark-detection devices in general, they need to be used wisely.
‘If we start conducting major shark-detection operations on the North Coast, we are going to see a lot more sharks simply because we’re looking for them,’ says Dr Bucher, from Southern Cross University.
‘The question is, what do we do with the information?’
‘If you want to completely eliminate the small risk of an unwanted shark–human interaction, you’ll find yourself getting out of the water far more often than you’d like to.’
He says there is a need to balance safety with people’s need to enjoy the water.
‘What we don’t want to do is to create fear by telling people there are “dangerous” sharks everywhere, when the chances of being attacked, even when there are sharks around, are very low.’
Fear v reality
The fact is that the public’s perception of shark–human interaction is, in many cases, quite different from reality.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that attacks are a common occurrence.
According to Taronga Zoo’s shark-attack file, there have been 47 fatalities from unprovoked shark attacks in Australia in the last 50 years: an average of 0.9 per year.
To put that figure in perspective, there are an estimated 100,000,000 beach visitations by Australians each year.
So why do many of us have the view that there are so many attacks?
According to Dr Blake Chapman, the author of Shark Attacks: Myths, Misunderstandings and Human Fear, the nature and frequency of media coverage has a big role in this.
‘When we hear repeated media reports of shark attacks it makes it seem like these are happening all the time when they’re not,’ Dr Chapman said.
‘When the reports also focus on the intimate details and personal aspects of the attack, it plays to our basic fears and that gets imprinted in our memories,’ he says.
‘When something stays in our memory, it has the potential to skew our perception – giving us the impression that it’s happening all the time.’
Another common misconception is that a shark will attack if it comes into contact with a human.
A 2014 Plymouth University study of shark–human interactions across the globe found that just five per cent were ‘negative’, with the remainder being reported as ‘positive’ or ‘neutral’ by those involved.
Dr Chapman says this is also borne out by the Australian experience.
‘Sharks are part of the marine environment in this country – we’ve basically been sharing that habitat with them ever since people started venturing into the water.’
‘Yet there have been relatively few attacks given how much time we spend in the water.’
Dr Chapman says the gulf between our perception of shark–human interaction and reality is partly a legacy of our primal fear of physical threats from wild animals.
‘We have a highly developed sense of fear that comes from our mammalian lineage, which evolved in a certain way to ensure our survival,’ Dr Chapman says.
‘And that particularly applies to wild animals that could do us harm.
‘Of course that fear can be very useful when we’re actually faced with a physical threat from a wild dangerous animal; it helps us to fight or flee.
Attacks are rare
‘But it can also skew our perception of the threats around us, particularly in the modern world where being attacked by an animal is very rare.’
Imagine what would happen if we responded with the same level of fear to a more common, contemporary threat like road accidents.
A uniform speed limit of 40km/h? Constant aerial surveillance on public holidays? The culling of drunk drivers to avoid future harm?
Yet, whether they are founded in fact or not, fears of shark attacks remain in our community, and they need to be addressed.
There are suggestions that new technologies, which deter sharks without alarming swimmers, could offer a solution.
The ‘shark shield’ device, which fits onto a surfboard and transmits a signal to deter the sharks, is being hailed as a way forward by some.
Large-scale devices that could potentially protect a whole beach using the same principle are also being tested overseas.
However according to Dr Chapman, the best defence against sharks and the fear of them is education.
‘It would be great to see shark education taught as part of beach education in schools – particularly in coastal areas,’ she says.
‘If things like avoiding surfing at sunrise and sunset, going out with another person and being aware that bait [fish] balls can attract sharks become part of our beach culture, we’ll be safer and I think less fearful of what’s out there.’