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Byron Shire
May 31, 2023

Drone reveals shadowy ‘shark’ secrets

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A surfer and a shark sharing the same ocean. Photo NSW DPI/Southern Cross University.

From Veronica-Pooh Nash-Poleate’s viral video ‘Stay outta them oceans ‘cause that’s the sharks house’, to Shark Girl Madison Stewart who swims with them on a daily basis, there are very few people who don’t have an opinion about these apex predators.

When a dark shape glides past in the surf, the inevitable heart-stopping question confronts beachgoers: is that a shark or dolphin?

A recent study of drone footage is telling us that a shadow in the water is much more likely to be ‘Flipper’ than ‘Jaws’.

A surfer and a small pod of dolphins – data shows that a shadow in the water is up to 135 times more likely to be a dolphin than a shark. Photo NSW DPI/Southern Cross University.

Professor Brendan Kelaher from Southern Cross University whose team has counted the marine wildlife off beaches in two years of drone footage says that the extensive data suggests it is up to 135 times more likely to be a dolphin than a shark. ‘But if you are concerned, it’s best to get out of the water,’ says Professor Kelaher.

Kelaher and his team from the University’s National Marine Science Centre and the NSW Department of Primary Industries have been using drones to monitor  beaches for the past three years as part of the NSW Shark Management Strategy.

The University’s research team carefully analysed the drone footage and counted more than 4100 large marine animals.

Professor Kelaher says that as well as contributing to beach safety, the drone program has been quantifying the diverse marine wildlife off our beaches. ‘Our beaches provide habitat for amazing marine animals including dolphins, sharks, rays, turtles, seabirds, game fish and the occasional whale,’ he says.

‘Over the last three years, we have routinely captured footage of fevers of rays exceeding 100 animals, whales feeding on bait balls in the shallows and incredible chases between sharks, rays and dolphins.’

Professor Kelaher said the results can give some comfort to ocean users. ‘We do see potentially dangerous sharks in the shallows, but our data show they are much less common than people would have you believe.

‘Our oceans are teeming with life and the fact that you can see dolphins regularly by just simply going to the beach is fantastic. We are really lucky to have such a wonderful marine environment on our doorstep.

‘Further, the findings confirm that emerging drone technology can make a valuable contribution to the ecological information required to ensure the long-term sustainability of beach ecosystems.’

The results have been published online in a special 70th year edition of the journal Marine and Freshwater Research.

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  1. I’m not sure what this proves? Dolphins are territorial and we are aware of large pods around Wategos and Broken Head. Shark movements are unpredictable.
    Of course there are many more dolphin sightings.

    • I think it means there are way fewer sharks than we thought. It follows, given fewer sharks for the same number of attacks, that sharks are waaaay more likely to attack than we ever imagined. Look out!


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