“It’s a bit different when you’ve seen it all happen firsthand. It becomes a bit more real…just seeing him with no legs was… bad.”
Nathan pulls up at Lighthouse Beach most mornings around 6:30am to check the surf. He was there the morning Cooper Allen was attacked by a four meter Great White, though left just before it happened.
“I was keen because I didn’t surf all week… it was really small. There were only five guys out when I checked it,” he says, adding of the attack, “Yesterday wasn’t really a surprise to anyone. I think everyone has been surprised there hasn’t been an attack over winter because there was heaps of whales again. Everyone was saying there has to be an attack soon.
Nathan was also there at Shelly Beach, around the corner from Lighthouse Beach, the day Japanese expat Tadashi Nakahara had both legs bitten off by a monster Great White. He died on the beach shortly after due to blood loss. It was Nathan who called the paramedics and watched on as his mates performed CPR on what was left of Tadashi.
“I was out that day so it kinda ripped me up a bit. I was surfing with him and talking to him. I quickly went in to change boards and it all went down while I was running back up to paddle out,” he says.
Nathan didn’t surf Ballina for two months after that. He also took a couple of weeks off work to deal with the mental trauma.
“It’s a bit different when you’ve seen it all happen firsthand. It becomes a bit more real… just seeing him with no legs was… bad. That was the point where you were like, wow, something that you really love, you love the ocean, and then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘wow that really took it away from him,’” he says.
He might have avoided Ballina but when the North Coast’s sublime string of point breaks kicked into gear a few days later he was straight back out there. First at the Pass in Byron Bay and later the Superbank on the Gold Coast, where he found solace amongst the crowds and the pumping waves.
The Pass has had its share of shark problems. A 50 year old British expat was killed there in 2014 after being bitten on the leg. But not the Superbank, which despite being just 100 kilometres from Ballina, hasn’t had a single shark attack since 1962. That was the year the Queensland State Government implemented its ‘shark control program’, using, among other things, baited drum lines which targets sharks over two meters long. It has been incredibly successful in stopping attacks. There hasn’t been one on a beach using shark control equipment since the policy was implemented.
Nathan has his own theories about sharks, mostly gleaned from chats with members of the local surfing community in the carpark after sessions and local commercial fisherman. He refuses to use the ‘shark spotting’ apps on mobile phones, however, citing the rationale that if you check the app “you’re always gonna see sharks.” He is also deeply critical of the Department of Primary Industries whose task it is to come up with a solution to NSW’s shark problem.
“When they were at the meeting they had in Lennox (in 2015), they didn’t know anything. Their facts were wrong and they were really arrogant towards what the locals knew. It was like, ‘well, we know this, and this is what we decided, and that’s that.’ And they were wrong on a few things,” he says.
Nathan just wants more information.
“For me it’s all about research. I don’t see why they don’t just tag as many sharks as they can, maybe not for now but for 20 years time,” he says.
“I don’t like the nets. What’s one surf break anyway when you surf so many places? I don’t really think nets (work) and I don’t really have an opinion on drum lines. I know a lot of folks want them,” he says.
A lot has changed since he first started surfing this stretch of coast as a 13 year-old. Back then you didn’t even think about sharks. You’d surf till dark, or at dawn, and paddle the river channel two to three times a day to get to the (northerly-protected) break at South Wall. He doesn’t do any of it anymore.
“I was never worried really unless you’re left out at dark on your own. But now if I’m out there at any moment by myself I’m looking around, got my eyes open, having a look, feet up on the board,” he says.
Access to the coastline is arguably the biggest driver in the $1.3 billion annual tourism turnover that makes up the majority of the Northern Rivers economy (a region encompassing Ballina and Byron Bay 20 minutes to its North). Nathan himself works in the local surf industry, making specialist surf fins. He isn’t considering moving somewhere else or giving up surfing. But his five year-old has just taken an interest in surfing and that’s given him food for thought.