I recently did a dive at Fish Rock Cave, and found myself feeling a new kind of nervous.
I'd say it's normal to feel a little on edge about being 25 metres beneath the water's surface, relying on a tank strapped to your back to breath. But this time, it was with a heightened fear of sharks.
Don't get me wrong, I was keen to swim with the Grey Nurse Sharks down there. It's such a privilege to have a healthy number of the endangered species at the South West Rocks site.
The last time I did the dive I found myself in a highway of them. Easily, 50 cruised past me within arm's reach - above, below and on either side of me. I wasn't scared at all, just amazed.
But with my hands gripped to the back of the boat waiting for my dive instructor to signal our descent, I looked around at the six fishing boats bobbing close and my thoughts turned to tiger sharks and great whites.
Growing up here I've always been aware of sharks in the ocean. Like many Aussies I have an understanding and respect that while in the water, I'm in their home. They're around and so they should be.
So why was I feeling so hyperaware of seeing a fin as I floated in the deep blue?
It was because of my fishermen friends' recent talk about "well-fed sharks".
My neighbour for one, a commercial fisherman, says he's been "losing hundreds of dollars worth of gear" daily for weeks now, thanks to "all the sharks lately".
He says they are taking his fish right off the line.
Local Alex Dalley says the sharks are getting "their fair share".
"The Taxman, or 'Bruce', is worse than I've ever seen this season," he said.
"It's like the sharks are waiting on our inshore reefs for an easy feed".
While frustrating for those fishing, it's what we want to see, of course; sharks thriving and surviving in our waters, but it sounds like there's plenty more around this time of year.
I'm curious if there really are more sharks these days in our pocket of the Mid North Coast or are we just taking more notice of them while out enjoying the summer weather and warm water?
The other thing to spark my curiosity is the shark alarm at South West Rock going off five times within a week over the most recent school holidays.
I'd never heard it before and another local mentioned they didn't even know we had one until them. Come to think of it, I guess I didn't either.
'Henry' the shark as he's been known in town for years was seemingly taking advantage of the crowds to get the attention he desired.
Were the Life Savers on patrol being more trigger happy than usual because of the increase in beach-goers, or perhaps there were more eyes on the water at that time of year?
The sharks were always there but were they always this close to shore and we simply didn't take note in the off-season, or are there really more out there to spot?
Drone shark surveillance
The NSW Department of Primary Industries confirmed during the summer and autumn school holidays, Surf Life Saving NSW conducts drone surveillance from Macksville-Scotts Head, South West Rocks and Crescent Head, as well as Town Beach and Lighthouse Beach in Port Macquarie.
It's been said a drone patroller recently watched a tiger shark swim the length of South West Rocks' Main Beach for hours just behind the break.
I asked Rod McDonough, President of Mid North Coast Surf Life Saving and president of the South West Rocks branch about the benefits of using drones to spot and track sharks that come a little too close for comfort.
"Particularly over the Christmas period we've got a drone operator everyday, so they're the ones that have been detected," said Mr Donagh
The procedure once a shark has been sighted is to raise the alarm, get everyone out of the water, and close the beach until the shark leaves.
The shark alarm at South West Rocks is located in the Marine Rescue tower on the headland between Horseshoe Bay and Main Beach and activated by the radio operator on duty, only with directions from a life saver.
"We've got a system in place with them [Marine Rescue] as to when to activate it... so they're involved," said Mr Donagh.
"Generally the beach is closed for at least half an hour after the sighting, but that could be extended if the shark is still hanging around," he said.
"The whole time the drone is keeping an eye on it, and we send out rubber duckies or a jetski to confirm it and in some cases will try to persuade it to go out to sea".
Outside of the Christmas school holiday period, the capability for using drones for shark spotting is allocated mainly on weekends.
The Mid North Coast branch has its own drones that can activated by trained personnel if required.
There are currently 50 SLS drone surveillance locations across NSW.
When the yellow buoys ping
If a drone, member of the public or life saver sees a shark the alarm is raised, but what about when a tagged shark sends a signal to our stations?
Yellow buoys not dissimilar to a traffic cone can be seen not too far from the headlands of the Mid North Coast and are used to track the tagged sharks.
These buoys ping often sending an update to the Department of Primary Industries (DPI) and do not typically lead to a beach being closed.
If that was the case, we'd never get a chance to get wet because to be honest, they're pinging all the time.
This is because they pick up sharks within a 500 metre radius, not just those close to shore.
"The Department of Primary Industries have got a program in place where they tag sharks regularly, and that buoy will pick up those tagged sharks within a 500 metre radius of that buoy," said Mr Donagh.
Shark Management Program
There are currently 15 SMART drumlines set daily at Port Macquarie and four tagged shark listening stations located at South West Rocks, Crescent Head, Port Macquarie, and Nambucca Heads.
These trackers paired with drone surveillance means it is somewhat of a case of 'the more you look, the more you see'.
"It's not surprising that we are hearing more about sharks along our coast," said a spokesperson for the Department of Primary Industries (DPI).
So if my fisherman friends are complaining about the sharks eating all their fish out to sea, why are they coming in close enough to get the attention of the drumlines, listening stations and drones?
Again, for the fish.
"Sharks traditionally use shallow waters as their main habitat areas, often extending to the continental shelf because these waters are rich in food," said the spokesperson.
There are currently 172 bull sharks, 348 tiger sharks and 963 white sharks that have been tagged and released since 2015.
That's a lot of tagged sharks to ping the monitoring stations, with the the "awareness program" available to the public.
We can see we have healthy breeding grounds and there are plenty of fish in our sea for the sharks to eat. A healthy aquatic life is what we want, we don't want to see this decrease.
While the fisherman share their fish with the sharks, swimmers and surfers who may be feeling a little uneasy lately should know the heightened risk time of encountering a shark is when the creek opens up to the ocean and at river entrances, according to the DPI.
Bull Sharks in the river
In November 2021, a friend and I took our dinner down to the Macleay River to enjoy at sunset.
A fisherman with a noticeably large rod had something big it seemed as he walked back and forth behind us as we sat on the break wall, reeling for 15 minutes or more. 'That's big Flathead' I thought.
I eventually called out to him with something along the lines of "you'll be ready for dinner once you get him in" to which he replied "we don't eat the Bull Sharks, we're tagging and releasing".
My mouth remained open with food balancing on my fork as a shark was yanked onto the boat ramp for a closer look.
It was the fifth one they'd caught that afternoon.
"Bull sharks use the Macleay River as a primary location to have their pups during late spring and summer and the wider mid-north coast area (from Newcastle to South West Rocks) is part of the nursery area for white sharks," said the DPI spokesperson.
"While we see a larger number of individual white sharks and bull sharks being detected on the shark listening stations in this region they spend very little time at that spot as they are travelling through".
With a healthy number of sharks in our oceans the NSW Shark Management Program will continue to monitor them while drone operators and surf life savers keep an eye out to keep us safe.
If you hear the alarm always exit the water because it's not a case of the shark being hundreds of metres away.
In the meantime we'll continue to swim and share our fish with the sharks.
Information about the current Shark Management Program, including locations of drumlines and listening stations can be found on the SharkSMART website: https://www.sharksmart.nsw.gov.au/
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