Aerial patrols crucial asset

Bendigo Bank Aerial Patrol general manager Harry Mitchell says the patrol’s role in beach safety is growing and new technology is planned. Picture: DYLAN ROBINSONWOLLONGONG ADVERTISER

As South Coast beaches become increasingly popular with tourists and residents, Bendigo Bank Aerial Patrol general manager Harry Mitchell believes the patrol continues to prove its worth when it comes to keeping beachgoers safe.

The volunteer organisation is the only dedicated aerial patrol in Australia and patrols the coastline from Stanwell Park to Mollymook on weekends and public holidays from the October long weekend throughout summer.

In a rare show of bipartisanship, Kiama MP Gareth Ward and Shellharbour MP Anna Watson last week handed over $18,000 to the patrol.

Mr Mitchell said the funding would allow the organisation to upgrade their hangar and office facilities.

This season’s patrols got off to a late start due to poor weather, but that has allowed the organisation to patrol the coast during some of the busier periods.

“At the start of the season we had a lot of weather that meant we weren’t going up, but that’s meant that we’ve been able to save that financial energy and from about mid-December we’ve been going up everyday,” Mr Mitchell said.

“It’s something we trialled a few years ago and with it being school holidays and the busiest time of year it’s something the lifeguards really appreciate.”

With their increased patrols through the peak season, Mr Mitchell said they have noticed more people swimming at unpatrolled beaches.

“The area’s becoming more and more popular with tourists, which is a good thing but it also means the beaches are becoming more and more crowded and because of that people are heading to places where there aren’t lifeguards.

“This season we’ve really noticed an increase in that and for those people we’re pretty much the only people who know what they’re doing, we let the lifeguards and other authorities know of course, but without us nobody would know about them.

“It’s not just swimmers either, we keep an eye out for rock fishermen or people picnicking in dangerous areas.”

The patrol also monitors the region’s beaches for signs of sharks, which Mr Mitchell says have been spotted more frequently this season.

“From mid-December through to about a week and a half ago we’ve definitely seen sharks at a higher frequency than we have for that same period in previous years.

“It’s not uncommon for us to see big sharks, three or four metres long, in the first row of breakers, not long ago we saw a group of people swimming at Hyam’s Beach about 25 metres from a group of sharks.”

While the patrol has proved effective in helping to keep beaches safe over more than 50 years, Mr Mitchell said they would trial some new technology.

“We’re looking at trialling a system where we’ll have cameras mounted to the planes and vision from those cameras will be sent in real time to lifeguards and other authorities.

“That means they’ll be able to see things like where a shark is, where the rips are or what conditions are like on the rock platforms where people fish and that should make things a lot safer.”

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