Drone effort to ward off shark attacks already underway

A mobile surf life-saving tower at Waihī beach.

Supplied/Waikato Times

A mobile surf life-saving tower at Waihī beach.

Surf Life Saving New Zealand has backed a coroner’s calls for the use of drones and elevated towers at beaches known for sharks, saying trials of drone technology were already underway in New Zealand.

Coroner Michael Robb’s report into the shark attack death of Kaelah Marlow made a number of recommendations, including research using tagging and satellite monitoring of great white sharks in the North Island.

He also said at beaches where great white sharks were known to be part of the population, lifeguard towers with elevated viewing should be considered, along with signage warning about sharks and a statutory provision allowing lifeguards to require people to leave the water.

Robb also recommended “drones be used by or for the benefit of surf lifeguards, where possible, to assist in the monitoring of ocean waters in and around flagged areas.”

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Surf Life Saving New Zealand Eastern Region Life Saving manager Chaz Gibbons-Campbell said lifeguards who helped pull Marlow out of the water that day also felt vindicated after the coroner said they had done all they could to help save her life.

Gibbons-Campbell said while there were limitations around the use of both drones and towers, their combined use could prove effective.

“In relation to towers, we try to have elevated towers at all of our beaches.

“We have temporary, movable towers that we drag out in the morning and bring them back in at night … and some beaches have permanent towers.”

He said towers perched on sand dunes provided excellent vantage points for lifeguards but getting resource consents and funding to build permanent towers had been tricky at times.

“Kaelah’s family made a donation to the Waihī Beach Surf Club that helped with the purchase of two mobile towers at Island View and Bowentown, and they’ll be parked up there for the summer.

“But we can only get limited visibility if there is poor weather or water quality, but they give us a height advantage from up on the dunes.

“In relation to drones, we are working with New South Wales surf lifesavers in Australia where they operate a UAV model to patrol for sharks.

“They are great on a nice calm day when the water is not rough, but we don’t have any trained personnel to use for pilots at this stage.

“There have been a few trials of drones here in New Zealand, on the west coast and by another club in the South Island.”

He said drones were limited in terms of weather, flight times and having trained operators, but were also a concern when used in marine or costal wildlife reserves.

“Drones can be seen as predators to native birds, and they can leave an area if they feel threatened.”

He said while the risk of shark attacks in New Zealand was still very low, noting where sharks were was important, and he encouraged people fishing in those areas to be wary.

“Don’t throw out fish waste near swimming areas,” he said.

He said lifeguards who helped try and rescue Marlow on the day she died were also happy with the contents of the coroner’s report, and had received counseling and “wrap around support” after the incident.

“They know that the work they did on the day was their best effort and nothing more could have been done.

“They will be back on the beaches again this summer doing what they love, and that’s a good sign,” Gibbons-Campbell said.