What Jason sees with his drone is taming our fear of sharks – Sydney Morning Herald

The day is brushed with glowing first light when Jason Iggleden runs down the stairs, scanning the sea and carrying a backpack and the lean, coiled energy and hungriness of a surfer. He ignores the dawn watchers at the lookout and takes a path below it past a cross-legged meditator on a rock. At the fearsome cliff edge, 30 metres above the pounding waves at Bondi’s southern headland, he unpacks his kit.

Night lights are still twinkling across the water at North Bondi when Iggleden sends his drone up for its first flight of the day. Almost immediately, as the sun crests the horizon, he spots the first star of the day’s sea show – a bullray missing its tail – and starts his commentary.

“Oh, g’day buddy, you’re a new one, going to have to name you.”

Iggleden has a stable of creatures now: the bullrays Raymond and Raelene, Alex and Alexa the seals, and Slim and Shady, too. Wally the Wobbegong, Homer the Hammerhead, Gary the Groper and the grey nurse sharks Norman and Nelly, Gazza and Newman. Of course, he acknowledges, there is no precision in his use of names; for instance, it’s likely he’s spotted hundreds of grey nurse sharks through the thousands of hours he’s spent scanning these waters.

For four years, seven days a week, with barely a day off, Iggleden has positioned himself above one of the country’s most famous stretches of coastline to update his half-a-million-odd followers across Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, YouTube and his app, Drone Shark, with news of the sea.

He might post a video of dolphins dancing around a clutch of surfers in translucent aquamarine waters (with a dance music soundtrack), or one of Norman, the pale-grey nurse shark, gliding through a swarming baitball of Australian salmon, or a red-bathing-capped ocean swimmer startling at the sight of Raymond’s dark mass beneath him, or a shimmering “fever” of cownose rays in formation.

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“Wowsers,” Iggleden might say. He has recorded dazzling footage of whales – breaching, gliding past surfers, shepherding calves – and in September he filmed a dolphin carrying her dead baby up and down Bondi Beach, as though trying to find help for it.

Another day, he catches Norman lurking near a pack of swimmers who seem oblivious to his presence (the commentary: “Norman, don’t scare people, these humans out on their morning swim; nah, they don’t see him, they never do …” ). Grey nurse sharks are generally harmless but, it has to be said, Iggleden has also seen great whites at Bondi.

Jason Iggleden: “I get a lot of people saying how I’ve changed their perception of sharks, which is great.” 

Jason Iggleden: “I get a lot of people saying how I’ve changed their perception of sharks, which is great.” Credit:Tim Bauer


Iggleden, 50, grew up in southern Sydney’s Sutherland Shire fishing with his dad and surfing. When he left school, he went into building. Marriage, two kids (a son and a daughter), a big house and nice holidays followed, but he wasn’t happy or confident; he was soul-searching. “I was doing all these exercises from this one particular book [Origins by Katherine Hurst]. To find your purpose and passion in life, you go back to your childhood and figure out what you loved to do. So I was writing all these things down: surfing and fishing and all this stuff to do with water.

“But the funny thing was, every now and again a shark would pop into my mind. I was like, ‘You got nothing to do with what I want to do, go away.’ But it wouldn’t stop, it kept coming, just a picture of a shark in my mind.”

Then it dawned on him. “The idea came through like a light-bulb moment. I said, ‘Oh my god, flying drones, some sort of show.’ I said it to the guys who I work with, ‘Some sort of show with drones and then this and that.’ So the idea just came so quick, I went and got it patented.” Iggleden’s idea for “a system and a method for monitoring a predetermined region in a water body” is registered with the federal government’s intellectual property agency, IP Australia.

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Now Iggleden was on a mission. “Nothing was stopping me going on my journey.” His marriage ended, messily. “At first, my whole family pretty much ditched me because they thought I was going crazy wanting to go do this.” He threw his money into the development of his app, with the dream that it could be deployed around the country as a shark and sea-life spotter in the sky, as well as to give surf and condition reports.

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There was another element to Iggleden’s epiphany: “The bigger picture was, I wanted to help people,” he says. “I wanted to create something like a good show … but then talk about emotions and all this stuff, like, help people through life.”

He’d never thought that social media might be an element of his work; he hadn’t even known what Instagram was, but it has become a key plank in what he likes to refer to as “my purpose”.

In his Instagram stories, seen by thousands of people a day, Iggleden delivers homespun messages about positivity, gratitude, the power of the mind and “becoming conscious”. He shares the fact of his own depression with his followers. “Thinking about the past, that’s depression, so I always tell people to be in the moment.” Dawn at Bondi has been Iggleden’s unfolding moment, his meditation and his medicine.

Iggleden uses his drone to broadcast Sydney’s sea life to the world.

Iggleden uses his drone to broadcast Sydney’s sea life to the world.Credit:Tim Bauer


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Iggleden’s first dawn drone task is to check for sharks before he turns his attention to posting about the conditions. Today, with a whoop, he announces: “Happy Friday feel-good!” He gives each day a name – Mindfulness Monday, Terrific Tuesday, Wonderful Wednesday, Thankful Thursday, Super Saturday and So-Good Sunday. “We’ve got blue skies! Conditions at Bondi … it’s looking quite nice. Bit of a nor-east swell, bit of a nor-wester blowing and the clarity is pretty good for all you divers if you want to get in the water; it’s pretty lush, actually. Right, we’re going to check Tama …”

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He manipulates the controls and the drone alters course and swoops south towards Tamarama. The sea seems almost empty. The bullray with the missing tail is still around, but there’s not much else.

“I could have told you it would be quiet: no salmon,” Iggleden says, bringing the drone back to land on a rock. When the massive baitballs of Australian salmon darken the water, that’s feeding time, that’s when the dolphins and sharks come to gorge.

In addition to the grey nurse sharks, he has seen hammerheads, mako sharks, lots of bronze whalers and, in four years, four great whites. In early 2019, he spotted what he estimates was a four-metre great white cruising off Bronte Beach, just south of Bondi. He used his megaphone to bellow a warning to surfers. A month or so later, he filmed a juvenile great white grabbing and shaking a fish off Bondi. He rang the lifeguards, who set off a warning siren.

There was initially some tension in his relationship with authorities. “When I first started, they were like, ‘Who’s this guy? Who does this guy think he is, coming in?’ ” He was summoned to a meeting with lifeguards and Waverley Council workers in suits. “They maybe felt like I was stealing their thunder a bit … I just said, ‘Nothing’s gonna stop me … if I see a shark, I’m gonna tell people.’ They’re fine now.”

Spotting sharks has actually had the effect of lessening Iggleden’s fear of them. Not only does he know now that the water’s not thick with them, he also knows that sharks aren’t, for the most part, interested in humans. “I used to think, ‘Oh, if there’s a shark in the water, it’s gonna come and get us’ … but it’s not the case.” He’s often seen sharks swim right past swimmers or surfers to get to salmon schools.

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“I get a lot of people saying how I’ve changed their perception of sharks, which is great.”

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There have been some technical issues with the actual Drone Shark app and insufficient funds to address them, but Iggleden’s not done dreaming. “I want to create my own sort of theme park, wave-pool-type thing, Drone Shark Park. Just where I can talk to people and they can just come and … yeah, it’s a big idea. But hey, it’s good to have a dream.”

And he wants to take his message to schools. “I want to show the kids, you know, because I can tap into their little minds and show them our beautiful characters out there. But then also at the end of the talk say, ‘Look, you’ve got to believe in yourself, believe in your dreams, don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do this, you can’t do that. If you believe in it and you feel it, you can create it.’ If I change one little kid who goes, ‘Yes! That’s what the drone shark guy said, I can do this,’ I’m gonna do it.”

For four years, seven days a week, with barely a day off, Iggleden has positioned himself above Bondi.

For four years, seven days a week, with barely a day off, Iggleden has positioned himself above Bondi.Credit:Tim Bauer

Iggleden gets messages every day from people all over the world, thanking him for his inspiration and motivation. A woman in England who was filled with fear and wouldn’t leave her house now has a job and happily gets out and about. A young couple who went through a period of struggle call him their “Sea Life Dad”.

Iggleden has discovered that his greatest joy might not be the sea itself but how he has been able to use it to help people. “Dude, that’s the best thing.”

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