The great white shark which fatally attacked Rob Pedretti lunged again and again at the two men — a close friend and a complete stranger — trying to save him. One of those heroes, Mark Hayes, has spoken about the ordeal for the first time.
As was the routine on a Sunday, Rob Pedretti drove down to the car park off Dune St in Tugun on the Gold Coast to meet up with “The Dune Street Boardriders” crew sometime after 7am.
Rob, at age 60, was lean and fit and semi-retired. The Dune Street Boardriders were an informal bunch of surf mad fellow tradies in their 50s and 60s. They were his surfing family.
Tanned and weathered hands held cups of tea and coffee and, with decades of ocean knowledge, they sniffed the salt air, assessed the swell and guessed where the best sandbanks might be on that soft, silvery morning.
It was June 7, overcast, but the air was remarkably still and the ocean was a mirror, broken only by small waves rolling into shore. Too small for a surf off Dune St.
But the word on the grapevine that morning was that the sandbanks were good at Salt Beach just south of Kingscliff, 22km away on the other side of the border.
Unseen, and apparently having avoided being caught and released with a “smart tag” to send warning “pings” to a network of government receiving stations, a 3.6m-long great white shark was hunting the Kingscliff coastline that morning.
“It was business as usual to go down that way if the banks weren’t that good at Dune St and he couldn’t handle crowds, so that is why he went down there to find a bit of space,” Rob’s childhood friend Brian Currie said.
Mr Currie said Rob had little time for the hordes of hundreds of hungry, aggressive, younger surfers jockeying for a ride at the nearby local, world famous, point breaks of Kirra and Snapper Rocks.
Life was too short for that kind of stress, and Rob was a fan of a lonely wave.
LIFE’S A BEACH
Working as a tiler and living for the surf, Rob never married or had kids. He was free to roam the world looking for uncrowded warm water waves in his down time.
He’s been seduced by surfing since he was a young teen. As a “grommet” growing up in Geelong in Victoria, Rob would often wag school to go surfing at nearby Torquay.
As his big sister Lily told attendees at his funeral.
“He’d get dropped off at school by mum, walk straight through the school, out the back and into the Kombi with friends and go for a surf,” Lily said.
“It was his greatest passion. Once a surfer, always a surfer, they are a unique breed.
“If he had sun and surf he was happy.”
Rob had made the Gold Coast his home since 1978, building a house in Tugun, and Sundays were the day he’d make the short drive down to the beach to hook up with whoever of The Dune Street Boardriders was up for a weekend surf.
CHASING THE WAVE
Another close friend and member of the Dune Street Boardriders, Craig ‘Tully’ Tulloch, an electrician, missed the regular meet at Dune St that morning.
“He tried to call me to invite me for a surf and I’d didn’t get the call, so I was spared. It was 8.20am when he tried to call,” he said.
“I was having a beach walk with my partner and left my phone in the car, so I missed him. He didn’t leave a message, but he would have been calling me to go for a surf down there with him.”
By the time Tully saw the call, Rob and another of his close mates, Frank Schlee, had headed south, crossing the Tweed River and veering off at Chinderah to head into “Kingy”.
The scene of the fatal shark attack South of Kingscliff.
Near North Point Ave in an area of Kingscliff called Salt, the mates made their way past the multimillion-dollar, whitewashed beachfront mansions and were greeted by clean, three foot waves — surfers still describe waves and the boards on which they ride them in the old imperial measure — rolling in smoothly and already entertaining over a dozen surfers.
But the beach is long, there were good sandbanks along its length, so there was plenty of room for all.
The water was so still, dolphins and whales were clearly visible as they broke the surface. Several fishing boats offshore were pulling in mulloway and mackerel. Families and dog walkers were dotted along the arc of sand. Although dark clouds hung off on the horizon, it was a peaceful, beautiful morning.
GETTING OUT ON THE BREAK
Already in the surf was Mark Hayes, a 60-year-old sign writer from Palm Beach, who’d decided to jump the border for the same reasons as Rob.
“That break is really well known. It’s a place I have surfed for years with no crowds,” Mark said.
He had considered moving down to nearby Casuarina where his adult daughter lived, and she too loved to surf the Salt break.
“My daughter said the surf was actually better the day before, but she told me the water smelled fishy, so she didn’t stay out long and went back in.”
There were a lot of “bait balls” visible from the shore that day, dark patches in the water which betrayed tightly packed baitfish schools into which dolphins darted to feed. Many at the beach said they could smell a strong mix of salt and fish hanging in the air, but Mark was not spooked.
You get used to an ocean full of life on the NSW north coast. Mark jumped in, and a little later found himself waiting for a wave with another surfer, someone he didn’t know, a bit further out from him.
Then, shortly after 10am, he saw something large through an oncoming wave.
‘THAT’S NOT A DOLPHIN’
“I just saw something go past at the bottom of the wave in front of me, probably about 30m in front of me, it looked big, it was low in the wave and I thought, ‘geez, that’s not a dolphin’. It was a grey brown colour,” Mark recalls.
“I thought ‘shit that’s a shark’ and I turned to go in, but then I thought ‘I wonder if he got him’, the other surfer out further’.” The surfer he now knows was Rob.
“I saw a swirl in the water next to Rob and I looked over and I saw the attack.”
In that split second when Mark chose to help a stranger, to override every primal instinct to flee, Frank Schlee was also paddling towards the attack to help his mate.
Mark said: “I thought no, they need help and that is when I went over. I didn’t really think about it, I didn’t questioned myself, I paddled over and did what I could.”
“It could have cost me my life because I didn’t know where the shark was at the time and I had to paddle a long way over.”
Frank did not wish to be interviewed for this story, he is too traumatised, but he has confided in Craig ‘Tully’ Tulloch.
“Frank and Mark and Rob were sitting out there, Rob was sitting further out, waiting for the big one that comes through, then Frank hears this scream and there is Rob getting lifted out of the water by this thing and he just paddled straight over to help him out and scared the shark off for a moment,” Tully said.
The clear green water turned red. As Rob bled from an enormous gash in his leg, the shark did not go away. It kept circling and, according to Frank’s statement to police, it came back for more.
“He was gone, by the time I saw the attack and saw the blood in the water and thought ‘he needs a hand’ and by the time I paddled over, there was no blood left, it took me 30 seconds to paddle over,” Mark says.
“He was still alive, but physically drained, Frank had got him on the board, and I was on the other side, he (Rob) was paddling, but then his head hit the board and Frank said ‘looks like he is gone’. I said ‘well let’s just get him in’.”
There was a long and deep channel the two men had to navigate to get Rob to the sand — 150 terrifying metres to paddle, with an aggressive 3.6m great white shark in pursuit.
“It was a good five to 10 minutes before we got him to the shore. All we were doing was holding him on his board so he couldn’t fall off,” Mark said.
“When we were coming in the shark was circling us.
“I’m lucky to be here — very lucky — because she wanted a piece of someone. I’m sure the shark would have taken both of us, it wasn’t giving up, it’s only because we intimidated it.
“It was obviously upset we were moving the object she attacked.
“That shark knew exactly what it was doing, that is what we were worried about. It sat really low in the water as it circled us, it only passed us once (with it’s back and dorsal fin) above water when I went over, and it passed us once on Frank’s side at surface level with its fin up and within a metre.”
COMING IN TO SHORE
The two men, holding Rob on his board between them, edged closer to shore wondering when the shark would next attack. The adopted a stay still approach each time the shark swam directly under them.
“It stayed low the whole time it circled us, all we saw was the shadow. I thought I was gone, I thought we were gone, I didn’t think we were going to make it in. There was nothing you could do, you had to do what you could.
“When it came close we just stopped paddling and just laid on our boards. It circled us all the way in so we had to stop all the time, stop paddling till it went past then paddle again. It might have been 10 times and halfway it came up and nudged me, hard enough to lift my board out of the water and put a ding in the board,” Mark said.
“Do you go in one direction or the other?” Byron police District Inspector Mike Kehoe, who was called to the beach that day, ponders of the Frank Schlee’s and Mark Hayes’ actions.
“They both decided to go straight towards the danger which is not the usual practice, obviously the natural thing is to go ‘I’ve got to get myself out of here’. Police are different, we are trained if something bad is happening we run right into the middle of it, but members of the public don’t normally, so it was pretty impressive, their actions.”
NOT THE ‘NORMAL PRACTICE’
Frank’s statement to police mirrors Mark’s description: This particular shark was intent on coming back for more after its initial attack on Rob.
Inspector Kehoe said this attack was not the “one bite, mistaken identity” explanation we have been so often given of great white attacks.
Kehoe attended a shark attack on Byron Bay man Sam Edwardes, 41, at Belongil Beach in February 2019, which did fit the one bite/mistake explanation. Edwardes survived.
Shark attack survivor Sam Edwardes, who was attacked on Belongil Beach.
“The bites I’ve been to before, it is usually one bite, what the scientists say: there is something not quite right with human blood, it’s hotter than what they normally eat, so they actually bite a human and go ‘oh hang on I don’t like this, this is different’ and that one bite, depending on the size of the shark is often really serious if not fatal and I would suggest the first bite on this occasion (on Rob) was not fatal, this shark went back and took at least a second and maybe a third bite, which isn’t normal practice,” he said.
“They pretty much had to fight it away from the victim, and it remained circling them for a least a dozen times and when they were trying to get him into shore it swam underneath them a few times and came up on one occasion and rammed the surfboard of one of the guys as they were paddling in, so it was pretty intent on having another go at the fellow or finding another meal.”
On shore, Mark Hayes said people were urging CPR be given but he already knew Rob was gone. Paramedics confirmed the awful truth.
“By the time we got him back to shore, there was no more blood,” Mark said.
Police have nominated both Mark Hayes and Frank Schlee for bravery awards, but it sits uncomfortably with both men.
“It’s selfless what they did, Rob and Frank were real close, the boys joke about it, hearing the word Frank and hero in one sentence, because he’s the last bloke you’d expect to be a hero, but he was and this bloke Mark, even more so, to come to the aid of strangers, it’s pretty amazing,” Tully said.
Mark said: “I don’t know if it’s something your have got or not, there’s no scared or bravery about it, you either have it built in your system or you don’t and luckily enough, I made the choice to do what I did and if it helps, that’s a good thing.
“It was a decision I made and I don’t think I could have lived with myself if I paddled to the beach. If something happened to Frank, and I paddled to the beach I don’t think I could have lived with myself.”
“We’ve all been concerned for Frank, he hasn’t been back in the water,” Tully said.
“What Frank saw no one needs to see, your mate being taken by a shark, it’s a terrible thing. He doesn’t want to talk about it.”
What concerns Hayes however, is the behaviour of this particular shark. Scientific consensus is that great whites don’t purposely target humans, and a bite, which is often fatal, is considered a case of mistaken identity.
“I think it’s a fallacy they make a mistake in biting,” Mark said.
“I need to find that out just to square that up in my mind because I need to know if I go back in the water where I stand, I still haven’t made my mind up if I’m going back in the water yet. That is a long way off, this was too close to home.”
As Rob Pedretti’s body, drained of blood and life, became colder under a blue sheet on the warm sand, the great white which had killed him refused to leave its killing field. It wasn’t intimidated by a jetski, a police boat nor a helicopter as they tried to push it out deeper. Only in its own time did it eventually, reluctantly, dive deeper, and vanish into that warm green ocean.