SURF­ING WITH SHARKS

HOW YOUNG PEO­PLE ARE COM­ING TO TERMS WITH THE RE­AL­ITY OF SURF­ING IN BALLINA’S WILD WA­TERS

Tracks - - BITSA -

I grew up on the south coast of NSW in a small town called Broulee. My lo­cal break was a quick 10-minute pushy ride away from our house, and like most young surfers in this close-knit beach­side com­mu­nity, I was free to make my own way to the surf and back again. This was a blessed up­bring­ing, and one I al­ways took for granted.

Young surfers liv­ing on the NSW north coast, where I now live, have been com­ing to terms with a dif­fer­ent kind of re­al­ity. One in which the idea of sharks – the fear of be­ing at­tacked, the me­dia stir­rups, and the com­pli­cated and often heated en­vi­ron­men­tal and po­lit­i­cal dis­cus­sions sur­round­ing them – is part and par­cel of their surf­ing lives.

With a spate of at­tacks oc­cur­ring in the area in re­cent years, Ballina has be­come a no-go zone for many north coast surfers. While an empty beach is con­sid­ered a plus for any surfer, these va­cant line­ups tell a dif­fer­ent story. Those with the means have re­sorted to surf­ing else­where, but what of Ballina’s youth? The groms and the teenagers who not so long ago might have hopped on their pushies of an af­ter­noon and made their way down to North Wall?

Cooper Allen, the 17-year-old kid who got mauled last year, was one such young surfer. He was surf­ing his lo­cal with a few friends when a 4-me­tre great white ru­ined their fun. Cooper lived to tell the tale, and re­port­edly asked the am­bos not to tell his Mum he’d been bit. It later sur­faced that his Mum was away at the time, and had asked Cooper not to surf Light­house any­more. It is a sce­nario that rings true for many fam­i­lies in the area.

Tom and Shea McEvoy are two young surfers from Sken­nars Head, just north of Ballina. They lived in East Ballina for a stint last year, and have felt the im­pact of the shark at­tacks first hand. Tom (17) has con­tin­ued to surf the same breaks he al­ways did, al­though he’s got his mother’s en­treaty in the back of his mind when­ever he pad­dles out at a ‘shark hotspot’.

“Mum wasn’t that keen on me surf­ing the Ballina area. I didn’t re­ally surf North Wall for a while be­cause she was fully against that.”

His younger brother Shea (15) knows his bound­aries well: “Mum says any fur­ther south than Flat Rock is off-lim­its.” “It was pretty quiet out North Wall for a pe­riod,” con­tin­ues Tom, “and there were a few times that it was pump­ing and I went out with­out Mum know­ing. But now that I have my li­cence I surf any­where north of Nth Shel­ley,” he tells me.

For Shea the pres­ence of sharks has slowed his surf­ing right down. “I used to surf a cou­ple of times a week,” he says, “and now I surf once ev­ery 2 weeks. I surf up By­ron way mostly. My brother’s got his P’s, and if I can’t go with him then Mum will drop me. When we lived at An­gel’s I used to run down there, surf Shel­ley and North Wall all the time. But I wouldn’t surf there now… It seems stupid to me to surf where all the sharks are be­ing seen… I feel a lot safer at By­ron. It’s al­ways in the back of my mind now, but I feel bet­ter there. Bum­mer when the surf is pump­ing in Ballina though!”

The at­tacks have sparked on­go­ing de­bates about pos­si­ble so­lu­tions, with the NSW Gov­ern­ment re­cently opting to in­stall shark nets. Protests against the in­stal­la­tion, as well as demon­stra­tions of sup­port, oc­curred on Light­house Beach. For most young surfers, it’s a dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tion to weigh in on.

“I think the nets are a good idea,” says Shea. “It’s sad, that dol­phins and tur­tles and stuff get caught in them. It would be bet­ter if nets weren’t needed, but…”

Tom reck­ons surfers are slowly fil­ter­ing back into the lineup at North Wall and sur­rounds. Are peo­ple scared? I ask him. “Not re­ally. We’ve got the shark nets, the he­li­copters and the shark buoys now. I don’t know too much about the nets, only that they don’t cross the whole beach, so not sure how much they re­ally do but Mum lets me surf North Wall now so I’m happy.”

What these two young guns tell us is that the shark pres­ence af­fects ev­ery surfer dif­fer­ently. Per­haps those surfers who are al­ready well and truly lost to surf­ing – the full-blown ad­dicts – will al­ways find a way to work through their fear. For those younger surfers who were on the cusp of slip­ping into surf­ing’s vor­tex just as the at­tacks be­gan, well, they might need an ex­tra nudge.

SHELLY BEACH IN BAL­LINA WAS THE SITE OF A FA­TAL SHARK AT­TACK IN FEB 2015. HOW WOULD YOU FEEL ABOUT YOUR KIDS PAD­DLING OUT?

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