Whether it was the memory of the Mick vs. Shark showdown, a flashback to Sharkweek, or just the seemingly endless news reports of shark attacks, most of us surfers find ourselves spending a lot more time and energy in the lineup scanning the depths of the ocean floor than we would like to. Now more than ever, pretty much anyone who wades in past their ankles is seeking shark preventative technology. And no, I’m not talking about building your own homemade metal shark cage.
The Shark Attack Mitigation System (SAMS), for example, teamed up with Radiator Wetsuits and the University of Western Australia to create two wetsuit prototypes with the intention of creating optical illusions to confuse the shark. The ‘Elude Suit’, is designed to mimic the pattern of flowing water and camouflage surfers and divers, and the ‘Diverter Suit’, is a black and white striped wetsuit that emulates the pattern of a poisonous fish and thus deters the predator from taking a bite.
Melanie Hutchinson, a member of the shark research team at the University of Hawaii notes that “almost all marine species have counter shading and other camouflage strategies that have evolved over the millennia for predator avoidance, thus giving the development of these wetsuits potential.” However, a concern with this wetsuit is that, from the depths of the ocean, anything floating on the surface is cast in a shadow from the daylight. The effectiveness of the camouflage and the visibility of the stripes is still in question, especially because great whites attack from below, unlike tiger sharks who are often prowling closer to the surface. According to James A. Foley, an author for the Nature World News, SAMS creators claim that their product is better than radiating electric fields because “while sharks are able to detect prey over long distances using various neuroreceptors, research has shown that in the final stages of an actual attack the ability to see the prey is critical.” But at the final stage, is it too late?
“Sharks and all animals rely on several sensory systems to interpret their environment”, explains Hutchinson. Due to genetic mutations overtime, different shark species use their receptors in different ways in order to exploit their environment more effectively. For example, sharks that live in deep water rely on long-distance sensory cues, whereas great white and mako sharks are visual predators, causing them to have larger optic regions in the brain. In Hutchinson’s research on the electric repellents in hammerheads, she was able to conclude that the effectiveness of the electric deterrents varied randomly from shark to shark—there was no clear pattern. In simplest terms, “if a shark is going to bite you it decided to do that well beyond the effective range of the repellents”. I’m sure that puts your minds at ease, right?
On the other side of the spectrum of this rapidly growing shark repellant industry are the high-tech SharkBanz and Shark Shield. The SharkBanz and Shark Shield both developed unique ways to disrupt the capability of sharks to use their neuroreceptors to determine the size, distance and even heart rate of their prey. The SharkBanz is designed to send out magnetic waves that disrupt the shark’s electro-receptors, thus forcing it to it quickly turn away. Dr. Eric Stroud, chemist and co-founder of Shark Defense, the leading research in shark repellent technology, equates the sensation to a person suddenly shining a very bright light in your eyes in a dark room. Similarly, Shark Shield uses two electrodes to create a magnetic field around the wearer, which tingles the shark’s snout and causes mild muscle spasms.
Although these two methods seem more effective and trustworthy than the SAMS wetsuits, and while both companies claim that their products do not cause harm to sharks, are there long-term effects on these sharks neuroreceptors that can prevent them from using them altogether?
Hutchinson compares the sharks’ discomfort to fingernails on a chalkboard or a bad smell, and thus doesn’t currently see the technology as being harmful to sharks in the long-term “Sharks don’t have pain receptors like higher vertebrates do,” says Hutchinson. “So they probably don’t experience pain the way that we interpret it.”
While these devices are a step in the right direction, scientists have only just scratched the surface. If wearing a colorful wetsuit or strapping a band around your ankle puts your mind at ease, then by all means go buy all three products. But as of right now, complete protection isn’t guaranteed.