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