Surf's up - but so are the sharks (and they're hungry)

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The Independent Online

Surf lifesavers, the bronzed young men who epitomise Australia's beach macho culture, were forced to abandon their national competition yesterday after a pack of sharks sent them fleeing to dry land.

Surf lifesavers, the bronzed young men who epitomise Australia's beach macho culture, were forced to abandon their national competition yesterday after a pack of sharks sent them fleeing to dry land.

Competitors waited nervously on the sand at Kurrawa, on Queensland's Gold Coast, as 50 sharks moved into waist-deep water to gorge on large schools of bait fish. Among those in the feeding frenzy were aggressive tiger and hammerhead sharks. The pack was spotted by a helicopter and observer boats as more than 7,500 lifesavers warmed up for the start of the 2002 national surf titles.

An official said: "Fifty sharks swam through the competition area, so we ordered the competitors out of the water. The helicopter is doing runs to ascertain where they are and where they are moving to."

Hundreds of sharks measuring up to 13ft (4m) long have been seen in the surf off the Gold Coast this week, with pods of dolphins and a whale. All were following the schools of small bait fish that swim close to shore in warmer water.

Greg Nance, chief executive of Surf Lifesaving Australia, said the sharks were large enough to be a potential threat. "We immediately enacted our safety plans and removed everyone from the water. It is the largest number of sharks we have had at an event like this." Clint Robinson, the Australian surf lifesaving captain, said: "It's no joke. They've been known to give the odd chomp to surfboard riders and swimmers."

The competition – which features running, swimming, surfboard and boat races – was expected to be moved to another beach. But some local lifesavers decamped to their backyard pools rather than brave the sharks. "I haven't been out since it happened," said one competitor, Mark Williams.

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