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SYDNEY (Reuters) - A spate of shark attacks in Australia has left some of world's top surfing beaches deserted and many people having second thoughts about taking a swim as the summer approaches.
Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere typically draws tens of thousands of surfers and other beach lovers to the warm Pacific waters of eastern Australia's New South Wales state.
But there have been 11 shark attacks in the state this year, compared with only three in both 2014 and 2013, according to the Australian Shark Attack database, and many folks will be staying out of the water.
"To be honest, I'm rethinking taking my kids to the beach
this year, it's too risky," said Malcolm Reeder, 50, who has vacationed near Sydney's Bondi Beach every Christmas since his two teenaged daughters were old enough to swim.
"A couple of years ago they got surf boards for Christmas. Maybe this year it'll be hiking boots," he said.
In waters along hundreds of kilometers of coast north of Sydney, helicopter patrols regularly spot Great White sharks lurking near the few surfers still brave enough to catch the waves.
Former boxer Craig Ison of Evans Head was knocked from his board and mauled by a Great White on July 31. After coming out of a coma, he vowed never to go in the water again.
A few weeks earlier, body boarder Matthew Lee was attacked at Lighthouse Beach, suffering serious injuries to his lower legs.
The worst attack came in February, when a Great White tore the legs off 41-year-old surfer Tadashi Nakahara in a fatal attack at neighboring Shelly Beach.
Shark experts are being deployed to try to stem the attacks under an A$250,000 ($184,000) "Shark Smart" campaign authorized by the Department of Primary Industries.
Arlen Macpherson paid A$390 for a device imbedded in his surf board to repel sharks by emitting an electronic force field that overpowers its sensing organs.
"I'm deathly afraid of sharks and I love to surf," Macpherson said. "I needed a greater level of comfort in the water."
The attacks have also rekindled a debate over culling sharks, which are protected in Australia.
"If people choose to recreate in the ocean knowing full well the risks associated with it, it is morally wrong for us to then kill these wild animals when they mistake people for their natural food," animal rights group No NSW Shark Cull said in a statement.
Prime Minister Tony Abbott, a life-long surfer, has described the issue of shark culling as "vexed" because, he says, of the difficulty in identifying the "guilty one".
Those in favor of culling say: "One less to worry about".
Police are seeking a special permit to shoot sharks.
On a recent sunny morning, a powerful swell was rolling in at Lennox Head, which Surfer Magazine has identified as one of the world's top surfing breaks.
But less than a half-dozen surfers braved the paddle out, while 100 or so looked on from a parking lot.
"Surfing is my life and I want to be out there," said Greg Anderson, whose board remained strapped atop his car.
"But something says stay out of the water and just hope the sharks go away."
Editing by Robert Birsel