Pro surfer's eerily close encounter with shark

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A former world number one surfer has revealed the moment he saw footage of his alarmingly close encounter with a shark on the NSW north coast.

Footage released by Surf Life Saving NSW shows surfer Matt Wilkinson paddling in Sharpes Beach in Ballina on Wednesday when an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) spotted a 1.5-metre shark eerily close behind him.

Surf Life Saving NSW, who operate the UAV, said in a release on its website the operator was “stunned” by how quickly the shark appeared during the routine flight to survey the beach.

Wilkinson, who in 2016 won world championship events at the Gold Coast and Bells Beach, had no idea how close the shark was to him until he heard an urgent warning over a speaker.

It was the second lucky escape for the surfer, who competed in a heat right before Mick Fanning was attacked by a shark in South Africa’s J-Bay in 2015.

Matt Wilkinson did not notice the 1.5-metre shark behind him. Source: Surf Life Saving NSW
Matt Wilkinson did not notice the 1.5-metre shark behind him. Source: Surf Life Saving NSW

“I was surfing out the back at Sharpes Beach and just cruising on my own and I heard a splash and a noise and looked around and couldn’t see anything,” Wilkinson told Surf Life Saving NSW.

“Then the drone came down and told me that there was a dangerous shark in the area, return to the beach.

“I got to the shore feeling a bit weird and the lifeguards showed me the footage and I realised how close it came without knowing it was there. It looks like it’s going for my leg and it’s changed its mind.”

Wilkinson added he was grateful the shark turned away, and noticed similarities in the footage to circumstances around Fanning’s attack.

“I had a yellow leg rope on and Mick’s board was yellow is what I was thinking about when I came in. I called my wife because I didn’t want her to see the footage before I saw it. She doesn’t want me surfing for a couple of days now,” he said.

After the shark sighting the beach was closed and will reopen on Thursday.

Surf Life Saving NSW said in the statement the UAV had been flown over beaches in Ballina during the school holidays and is part of the NSW Government’s shark program to protect swimmers and surfers.

"It’s nice to know the drones go up and down the beach and can see what we can’t and it makes you feel more comfortable. It makes other people aware that there are sharks out there but usually with no intention. It’s nice to know if there’s a big one around you can just come in and let them go by,” Wilkinson said.

UAV operator Beau Monks told Surf Life Saving NSW he spotted the shark on his seventh flight of the day.

“It sort of came out of nowhere, then went right up to Matt. It moved pretty fast,” he said.

“Within 10 seconds it was at the surfer and five seconds later it was gone.”

People headed to the beach are urged to download the SharkSmart App or follow @NSESharkSmart on Twitter to keep up to date with shark alerts and sightings.

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