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Australia's Lifeguards Want More Helicopters for Shark Spotting
by Vesna Poljak
January 13, 2006 00:00 EST

SYDNEY, Australia -- Australian lifeguards who cleared swimmers from coastal waters this week say they want full-time helicopter patrols to help make the most-popular beaches safer from the threat of shark attacks.

Authorities evacuated swimmers from four beaches in New South Wales state, including Sydney's Bronte and Tamarama, after shark sightings as close as 50 meters (164 feet) from the shore. The reports followed a bull shark attack on Jan. 7 that killed a 21-year-old woman on Queensland state's Stradbroke Island.

"With a shark, visual observation is the key," said Sean O'Connell, a spokesman for Surf Life Saving Australia in a telephone interview yesterday. "For lifeguards monitoring beaches, it's never going to be as good as having someone hundreds of meters above the water looking down and seeing sharks who don't necessarily swim at surface level."

Shark attacks in Australia, the world's sixth-largest nation by land mass with 59,736 kilometers of coastline, have claimed about 60 lives in the past 50 years according to the Australian Shark Attack File published by Sydney's Taronga Zoo. About one- in-three attacks are fatal, the organization says.

Surf Life Saving Australia has access to helicopters it shares with the government's Department of Health for search-and- rescue emergencies. As a volunteer-based group which patrols as many as 400 of the nation's 11,000 beaches, it wants more equipment so services may be dedicated to watching the waters as warmer weather lures people for a swim.


"We're a volunteer service, hence a charity, and these are capital-intensive gear and equipment we're talking about," said O'Connell. "The way that Australians are using the coastline in greater numbers and with the ongoing demographic drift to the coast, to our mind it's a necessary response to these changes in demographics."

Record-high temperatures in some Australian states have drawn more people to beaches, heightening the potential for danger, O'Connell said. Last year was Australia's hottest on record, according to the government's Bureau of Meteorology.

In Australia's east coast states, where there are more bays and inlets, state government spending includes shark nets.

The New South Wales state government spends A$700,000 ($525,000) a year installing 150-meter long nets at 51 of its most-visited beaches. The nets cut the number of fatal attacks to one-in-69 years from an average of one each year up to 1937, according to the state's Department of Primary Industries.

In Queensland state, the site of the most recent attack, the government spends A$1.3 million a year.


"There's been a couple caught in the nets, about 15 years ago they got a big, long 15-foot hammerhead and a bull shark," said Billy Rae, a 75-year-old resident of Sydney's seaside suburb of Bondi and a member of the Bondi Surf Bathers Life Saving Club. few mates of mine, they're board riders, young blokes, they often see sharks here out the back," said Rae.

Australia's Department of Environment and Heritage lists the Great White, Tiger, Bull and Whaler sharks as dangerous to humans. ``Only a few of the 450 or so shark species have been known to attack people,'' the department said in a statement on its Web site.

The department opposes culling of protected sharks and supports a recovery plan to boost numbers of the Great White.

"Internationally, the Australian government is a signatory to conventions relevant to the conservation and management of sharks," the department said in a statement e-mailed to Bloomberg News. "It is recognized as a world-leader in shark protection."

Declining Numbers

The government in 2004 listed the Great White as a threatened species, which makes it legally protected in territorial waters.

Sharks, sometimes referred to as ``the living fossil,'' have existed in the oceans for some 400 million years, according to some estimates.

Great Whites are found in colder southern oceans and can grow to 25 feet, according to the Australian Shark Research Institute. Australia ranks second behind South Africa for the greatest number of recorded shark attack deaths, according to National Geographic.