A great white shark circled to within inches of pro surfer Matt Wilkinson's board before darting away in a chilling encounter captured by a drone that is part of an Australian shark warning system. The shark might have been deterred from attacking Wilkinson by the unfamiliar touch of a leg rope on its snout or the overhead noise of the drone, officials said on Thursday.
The 32-year-old surfer from Sydney said he never saw the shark while he was paddling his board but heard a fin or tail break the water's surface during the recreational surf on Wednesday off the tourist town of Ballina.
"I heard, like, the sound of its tail and I kinda looked back and I was like, 'No, there's nothing there,' and I had some weird vibes and just convinced myself that it was all good, as you always do when you're out in the surf," Wilkinson told Nine Network television.
Moments later, Wilkinson heard the overhead drone broadcast a recorded warning that a dangerous shark was nearby and everyone must leave the water.
Wilkinson first saw the shark when he watched the drone footage on the beach. Wilkinson said "my heart just sank" when he realized how close the shark had come.
"It actually, like, went to have a bite and then my stinking little toe must've made it change its mind," Wilkinson joked.
Drone operator Beau Monks said he was frightened when he saw through the drone camera the shark rise from the deep, turn and quickly close in on Wilkinson.
"I'm not entirely sure why the shark decided to turn away at the last minute. It could be something as simple as bumping into his leg rope or it might have been the drone," Monks told Australian Broadcasting Corp.
"Marine creatures have been known to dart away when a drone does come over," Monks added.
Ballina is part of the New South Wales state coast north of Sydney that has become notorious for shark attacks in recent years.
Drones are patrolling Ballina beaches for sharks every day of the current school vacation period.
In 2015, Wilkinson had competed at the J-Bay Open in South Africa when fellow Australian surfer Mick Fanning was attacked by a large great white shark.
Wilkinson had surfed in a heat before the shark bit Fanning's board. Fanning was not injured.
In June, dramatic drone footage showed a great white shark swimming very close to multiple surfers in South Africa.