Kiama shark-spotting blimp keeping beachgoers safe

BACK IN 2016: The blimp is a speck off Surf Beach as Kiama supervising lifeguard Andy Mole and Kye Adams keep watch. Picture: Georgia Matts
BACK IN 2016: The blimp is a speck off Surf Beach as Kiama supervising lifeguard Andy Mole and Kye Adams keep watch. Picture: Georgia Matts

There has been a “rare occurrence” of sharks spotted at Surf Beach Kiama.

But beachgoers were alerted to the presence of two grey nurse sharks feeding on a large school of fish, during the second season of a shark-spotting blimp trial.

The blimp operator was able to continuously monitor the sharks as they moved around the beach and assisted lifeguards in their decision to re-open the beach when the fish activity moved offshore.

The five-metre blimp is the centrepiece of Project AIRSHIP (Aerial Inflatable Remote Shark Human Interaction Prevention), which logged more than 200 hours watching over Kiama beachgoers during the season.

It is the brainchild of Kiama lifeguard and University of Wollongong marine scientist Kye Adams, who said footage captured from the blimp was also providing valuable insights into the behaviour of other sea life, including curious stingrays, seals and dolphins.

“Sharks have been a rare occurrence at the monitored beach this summer with only a few spotted in conjunction with schooling fish,” he said. “In contrast, numerous stingrays have been spotted on more than 40 occasions swimming close to the beach.

It's great to know that we are providing a real level of safety to beachgoers.

Kye Adams

“The blimp has been successful in spotting other large and mobile species with a few visits from a number of playful seals and dolphins.”

During the 2017-18 season the Project AIRSHIP initiative was also supported by the Save Our Seas Foundation and UOW’s Global Challenges Program.

Mr Adams said it had been great to show the public that this summer dangerous sharks at beaches down on the south coast were quite rare compared to other marine creatures.

Basically, we are teaching the blimp to spot sharks on its own and giving it the ability to alert beachgoers in real time.

Kye Adams

“We've been able to successfully show that the blimp can reliably detect a range of marine life, including sharks, seals, stingrays and baitfish,” he said.

“To see the grey nurses was quite special considering they are an endangered species and we could watch them on the camera knowing swimmers were not in any danger.

“It's great to know that we are providing a real level of safety to beachgoers.”

Mr Adams added researchers, the UOW and the Department of Primary Industries were in the process of developing automated shark detection algorithms that will have the capacity to send alerts to swimmers and surfers’ smart watches if a shark is spotted.

“Basically, we are teaching the blimp to spot sharks on its own and giving it the ability to alert beachgoers in real time,” he said.

This story Kiama shark-spotting blimp keeping beachgoers safe first appeared on Illawarra Mercury.