A five-metre blimp is poised to keep watch over Kiama beachgoers this summer as part of an inventive new shark-spotting strategy.
The blimp is the centrepiece of Project AIRSHIP (Aerial Inflatable Remote Shark Human Interaction Prevention), the brainchild of Kiama lifeguard and marine scientist Kye Adams, 22.
The airship will carry a camera that will send live images to a lifeguard-monitored laptop at Kiama Surf Club. On Friday it was set aloft over seawater off Surf Beach for the first time. It will begin providing coverage to swimmers at Surf Beach during a six-week trial coinciding with the summer school holidays.
Costing $5000, with helium costs of $500-$1000 a month. Mr Adams believes the method can be cost-effective and consistent when compared to other airborne spotting techniques.
“Blimps can stay up all day, and our camera can provide eight hours of continuous coverage of the beach,” he said. “Drones last 20 minutes; the really expensive ones last two hours.”
While fixed wing and helicopter patrols cover vast areas of coastline, the Project Airship blimp camera will remain trained on one beach in a “fixed area approach”.
“We don’t want to know where every shark in the ocean is, we just need to know whether there’s a shark in our fixed areas,” Mr Adams said.
The effectiveness of aerial shark patrols was tested in 2010/2011, when lifelike plywood shark cutouts were submerged in waters off Jervis Bay for an Department of Primary Industries experiment. The test returned sighting rates of 12.5 per cent and 17.1 per cent for fixed-wing aircraft and helicopter observers, respectively, and concluded the patrols were “extremely limited in detecting sharks … while giving the public an inflated sense of protection against shark attack”.
Mr Adams, a PhD candidate at the University of Wollongong, will replicate the shark cutout experiment at Surf Beach as part of Project AIRSHIP. But with the test confined to a sandy-bottomed beach only 4-5 metres deep, he is hopeful of achieving a far higher success rate.
“We’ll publicise whatever rate we can achieve and the general public can decide whether it’s effective,” he said.
“I don’t want to give people a false sense of security. I want it to provide effective peace of mind.”