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Environment and Communications References Committee
Shark mitigation and deterrent measures

WEBBER, Mr Daniel, Private capacity


CHAIR: Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. Do you have any comments to make on the capacity in which you appear?

Mr Webber : I am speaking today as a surfer from Ballina.

CHAIR: We do not have a submission from you, but we—

Mr Webber : You do; it is No. 5.

CHAIR: You are correct; we do have a submission from you. Would you like to give a brief opening statement, and then we will ask you some questions.

Mr Webber : Yes, it is only very brief. The main point I would like to make is that the community has to protect children from predators. Unfortunately, shark shields probably are not suitable for young surfers, because the electric shocks are more severe on smaller surfboards. On the issue of education, I am afraid it is only ever going to help the people who are not at risk anyway. Surfing really is an addiction, and any young surfer who finds good waves going unridden will paddle out no matter what the conditions. Besides, teenagers thrive on risk, especially if someone is advising them against an activity. I should also add that younger surfers surf more often and longer than most adults, and smaller boards are more likely to be attacked. So they are a high-risk group.

CHAIR: Could you explain to us where you got the statistics on the smaller surfboards? I must admit I have not read that.

Mr Webber : That was through private correspondence with John West, who is the curator of the Australian Shark Attack File at Taronga zoo. And there is an academic research paper that placed differently sized and shaped objects and gave sharks the opportunity to choose between them. Consistently, they went for the smaller object.

CHAIR: As someone who is a surfer and is from the Ballina community, I understand that you were in the water when there was an attack?

Mr Webber : Twice.

CHAIR: You have witnessed that. Can you tell us about that experience and the impact that has had on your circle of friends or on your community more broadly?

Mr Webber : It is a complex situation. The impact is on families a lot. Mothers are very afraid for their children. As I have pointed out here, with young kids, they are not terribly afraid. Because there are so few people surfing in the area now, there is a great opportunity to get more waves. We surf regularly with fish all around us, to baitfish, big fish—the works. This is the issue that I think has been overlooked. If you see good waves, you want them, and nothing is going to stop you from taking the risk. Soon after a shark attacks, guys are straight out there—20 minutes after Cooper Allen was attacked, guys paddled straight back out.

CHAIR: Presumably you are in that category, because you are a surfer and you have actually witnessed two attacks.

Mr Webber : I try to impose rules on myself, but it is really hard. Basically, for me, if there has been an attack—no, a sighting—I will not surf for two hours.

CHAIR: Do you use the Sharksmart program? Do you keep an eye on it?

Mr Webber : No, I do not, and I do not want to know about it. I avoid people on the way to the surf so I do not have sharks on my mind. It is not fun thinking about sharks, and you try to keep busy. The worst thing that happens is when the surf backs off, you are dangling for 20 minutes and you start to think about it. Usually for me that is a downward spiral and within half an hour I get out.

CHAIR: You have been surfing all your life. Has this only recently built up because of your lived experiences of actually seeing these shark attacks?

Mr Webber : Oddly enough, I have always been afraid of sharks, but for no good reason, because I never really had any interaction with sharks except for maybe one shark alarm when I was a kid at Bondi. So these last two years has been extraordinary. I was in the surf the day before Tadashi was taken, at that very spot, and paddled in because I thought I saw a shark. Following that, I did a bit of research and tried to learn more about it and speak to the council about it. After the next attack, which was on Matt Lee, I set up the Ballina shark reports page that took reports from the general public. That only lasted for five weeks, because I was asked to take it down. But it was only because of that sharing of information through Facebook that I found out that the afternoon that I had been surfing, the day before Tadashi was taken, a shark had been seen at North Wall, which is a kilometre away, and a couple of guys had come in at three o'clock—I was surfing at six o'clock.

CHAIR: Would you have gone out had you known about that sighting?

Mr Webber : I think it is really hard to know what the answer to that is. If I were to turn up at the beach and see that a shark had been sighted there that morning, I would probably not go out.

CHAIR: Could you tell us a bit more about the incident you did witness, with the great white attack? Sorry, an encounter—I will call it an encounter. If you feel traumatised by having to talk about that, then do not. Do not feel like you need to.

Mr Webber : Not at all. It happened very quickly. All of it took about 15 seconds. I was standing waist deep in water about 100 metres from shore—it was mid to low tide. There were only small waves that were about a metre high. There were three kids out there: two 14-year-olds and a 17-year-old. We were roughly in the middle of Lighthouse Beach. There were about 20 guys on the wall about 200 metres south—by 'on the wall' I mean the surf break at North Wall. We had a great little peak to ourselves and, as I was standing there, I saw a dark shape move very quickly through the wave. I pretty well knew straight away it was a shark, even though it did not particularly resemble a shark. It just had a look about it—it was the movement, I think. We see dolphins every day. There must have been something about its movement that looked different.

Within two seconds, I then heard Cooper Allen shout and I realised then that it was a shark attack. In my mind I was thinking, 'Please don't be a shark attack.' The next thing I saw was the tail of his surfboard flying through the air a good five metres. What had happened was that the surfboard had got stuck in the mouth of the shark—a 3½ metre shark—and it was swimming away on its side. The tail of the surfboard was obscured by the wave that was in front of me. It actually look like the board had snapped, and it had been thrown through the air. Then I jumped over the wave, looked over to my left and saw him swimming backwards away from the shark, with two kids about two metres either side of him. I turned to the right and saw a big dorsal fin and pectoral fin sticking out of the water, with the nose of the surfboard about a metre in front of the pectoral fin, and it was tombstoning, so it had the tail of the board in its mouth and was pulling it down. Then I turned back toward Cooper and paddled toward him and saw the two guys, Jay and Tom, swimming directly towards him, because he obviously did not have his board. That was an amazing thing to see two kids being so brave in that moment. I got to him about two seconds later and asked if he was okay and he said, yes, he was okay. That is honestly 15 seconds. Then, within about five seconds, we were in waist-deep water, so we felt safe. But there was a moment then when we were together and we all turned to look back out to where the shark was and a chill went through me, because I just knew we had this beast literally five metres away from us.

CHAIR: Given that you have experienced this and you are part of this community, you know these people, what do you say to people when they say, 'Well, you understand the risks—

Mr Webber : I accept that entirely as an adult, but I feel for the children, the teenagers, who will take risks because they want to show off. There was one occasion just recently when I was out there with a 14-year-old and it was getting dark—not dark; it was late in day and the sun was setting. It was exactly the sort of time you would not want to be out there. I was wondering whether I should signal for him to come in. There were two other guys—20-year-olds—out there. He was persistent; he just did not want to come in. Oddly enough, none of us was sitting far out. So I am pretty sure all of us were nervous. I had my Shark Shield.

CHAIR: So you do use a Shark Shield?

Mr Webber : Yes, I do. It is odd, because I made two attempts to go in and was looking at him from the shore thinking, 'Surely he's going to come in now.' Anyway, the point I wanted to make was that I finally realised that there were a bunch of his mates sitting on the wall, sort of 20 metres away from him, and it is a 10-metre high wall, which is the north wall of the river mouth. He was probably showing off. They were his buddies, and there were one or two girls there as well. So I would not be surprised if that is a factor as well—not just the quality of the surf.

CHAIR: Just to be clear, your argument is that the personal responsibility argument is fine when it applies to adults who should know the risks, and they make those decisions, but when it comes to younger surfers there are factors there that make it difficult for them to be pragmatic or to look at these issues logically?

Mr Webber : Yes, even to the point that they will defy advice. You can tell them; you can educate them as much as you like. Kids experiment. Even if you said to them that the risk, as I have calculated, is one in 20,000 for every hour that you are on this beach, you kind of think, 'Well, I'll take that risk.' If you consider that there are guys who know full well that there is a shark that has just been out there within an hour of them paddling out—they do not know how it is that we make this calculation. But then again I have seen the helicopters spot a shark at the neighbouring beach and not tell anyone. He is hovering over a shark that is only a kilometre away from us, so he is making an educated decision not to bother us. If a shark has been sighted 100 metres off North Wall, or 50 metres beyond the surface—this is probably a bull shark—the lifesavers will not sound the alarm. They will actually get in their jet ski and report to us individually in the surf so that they do not alarm the swimmers at the north end of the beach—so there is a space of 500 metres between swimmers in between the flags and an actual shark, and they are not even rushing to tell the surfers who are 50 to 100 metres from a shark. Everybody is aware that these sharks are always out there swimming around, and yet there is this random factor.

Senator URQUHART: Mr Webber, thank you for your submission. I am looking at part of your submission headed, 'Appreciating the dilemma', where you talk about the impact on people, not just victims. You say, 'Witnesses are traumatised for months, sometimes years.' You gave us your account of witnessing an attack. Were you offered counselling, or is there counselling available?

Mr Webber : I got a bit of help from the mayor. He checked on me, which was excellent, and he took me out to lunch with another fellow who had been involved in a shark attack.

Senator URQUHART: So it is normally local government, or people within the general region?

Mr Webber : That was just his personal decision. He takes care of quite a few people. He is very on the ball.

Senator URQUHART: Do you know if there is counselling available?

Mr Webber : No, I do not believe there is.

Senator URQUHART: There are two questions that I want to ask you, because you have put in your submission, 'Witnesses are traumatised for months, sometimes years.' Where you do get evidence for that from, and in terms of counselling, do you know—if you do not know, that is fine—if there is a counselling process in place?

Mr Webber : I am involved with a group called the Bite Club. It is run by a shark attack survivor, Dave Pearson, who was attacked a couple of years ago at Crowdy Head. This group is trying to raise funding for therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, and we have a Facebook page where people share stories. I think that this is a serious concern.

There is, however, a broad impact on the community. There is certainly anxiety attached to the event itself. There was a period when everybody was nervous every time we heard an ambulance—I think I might have mentioned that. Apart from that, there is the aggro within the community, in terms of how polarising the debate is. I am not completely against what you are suggesting for the broader public, but it would be good if we had a grasp of the ethical dimensions. I know that the ethicists have tools for us to better grapple with this issue so that we do not simply vent at each other, because that is what is happening online, and it is quite traumatic.

Senator URQUHART: And we heard from the previous witness about the Margaret River experience, where there was a lot of blame, but the town really needed therapy. Thank you very much.

CHAIR: Mr Webber, my last question is about Shark Shield. I know you have got one of the new ones; the one I have got still has the antenna on it. An earlier witness, Dr Blount, wears Shark Shield outside of Sydney, and he said both of his kids use Shark Shield. Is it because you think the current is too strong for kids, or are you concerned about—

Mr Webber : Both. I suspect that adults can probably tolerate more pain than children, but I also know, because when I complained to Shark Shield about the electric shocks, they said, 'How big is your board?' and I said 'Six foot two' and they said, 'That's strange, because it's normally a smaller board that's five feet 10 inches or less where the rider is susceptible to electric shocks.'

CHAIR: So they are aware of the issue, but there is not much they can do to mitigate that?

Mr Webber : Yeah, but they play it down. They said that not many people have complained, but I am pretty sure that it is quite a proportion. My experience, though, as I said, is I was really not confident in the initial experience of Shark Shield. I thought there was no way I am going to be able to surf and enjoy my surfing with these electric shocks. It seems bizarre, but after 10 or 12 surfs now I am actually used to it. It is because the benefit is that I am getting to surf plenty of waves and having fun. The disadvantage is getting zapped a couple of times—some of the shocks are quite nasty—but the benefits outweigh the disadvantages.

CHAIR: I had the Shark Shield leg-rope wrapped around my neck at one stage when I got wiped out, and that was not much fun, I can tell you. That is on the old system. These days it sticks under the board, so it is not a leg-rope attachment.

Mr Webber : There is one situation that worries me the most, and that is when there is fairly sizeable surf and you are pushing through a set of three waves, say, and you lose control of your board while duck-diving, you are going to instinctively grab the board. This happened to me, and I got a big shock. If my body is exerting at that rate, and my heart is going to be racing, what is it going to be like? I asked my doctor if that was an issue and she laughed; she did not think it was an issue at all. It is not a comfortable whack when you get the full electric charge, and so I would like to know—

Senator RHIANNON: How frequent is it?

Mr Webber : At least once or twice in an hour of surfing.

CHAIR: It reminded me that it was working, which was not a bad thing, when I was using it.

Mr Webber : Exactly. Sometimes you can just laugh it off. I think there are situations where—it is every five minutes, probably, that you get a zap—it is distracting. Sometimes it will be as you are taking off that you get it in your legs, and you simply have to get on with riding and realise that it is not an issue. It is not enough to worry about, so you ignore it. It is strange that you can actually ignore something, but—

CHAIR: Could I ask you very quickly, Daniel, how many other surfers do you know who are using them up there in Ballina now? Is it being taken up?

Mr Webber : Oddly enough, among the hardcore surfers—and they are the ones that are surfing most regularly—almost none of them have it. There are definitely a lot of them in the area, but I think that they are mainly the surfers who are not surfing as frequently. I apply the 80-20 rule, which I think really does make a lot of sense: that 20 per cent of the surfers surf 80 per cent of the time. I am pretty sure that this group that I am familiar with—and we are mainly surfing at Lighthouse Beach—I do not think any of them have it. It is not like I have asked everyone. I see them after surfs and they do not have it attached to their board. I think the attitude among this crew is to simply take the risk and just get on with your life.

CHAIR: Could you tell us, in your experience of the surfing community that you know—we heard from Surf Life Saving New South Wales yesterday; their representative from Ballina said their membership is evenly split—what the feeling is amongst surfers. Is it 80-20, is it 50-50 or is it 20-80 the other way?

Mr Webber : In relation to what?

CHAIR: In terms of other lethal mitigation measures like shark nets and culling.

Mr Webber : I am almost certain that the majority of hardcore surfers would prefer to cull. I know it is not the other way round and I am pretty sure it is not 50-50. It is the majority of people that I know. I do not think many people are that keen on the nets; a lot of people just do not care what happens to the bycatch. I do not think that many people are that happy with the nets. It is really hard to know.

CHAIR: It is something I would like to investigate further with the committee anyway. Hopefully, at some stage, as we were discussing yesterday, we will at least get up to if not Gold Coast then Ballina to hear evidence. I think what is going on in northern New South Wales is going to have implications for the region.

Mr Webber : I think the main argument that is hard to get past is that Queensland, which is so nearby, has so few shark attacks and encounters, and they have a different attitude to nets and drum lines. We feel like we are second-class citizens relative to Queensland.

CHAIR: Thank you for giving evidence and being very patient for the last couple of days. We look forward to keeping in touch.

Proceedings suspended from 12:59 to 13 : 41