A Closer Look At How Science Is Trying To Protect Surfers and Divers From Shark Attacks


Uproxx knows that science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines are driving the future of this planet forward. Every day, we see new ideas, fresh innovations, and bold trailblazers in these fields. Follow us this month as we highlight how STEM is shaping the culture of NOW.

Two years ago, professional surfer Mick Fanning was assaulted by a shark on live television in the middle of an international contest. Onlookers at South Africa’s Jefferies Bay, fellow competitors, and surf fans watching from home were all shocked as Fanning struggled to dodge, distract, and punch the apex predator. Though he emerged from the incident a physically unharmed, shark punching, aqua-hero, the rest of the world was, for lack of a better word, shook.

Despite being highly publicized; shark attacks are remarkably uncommon. According to the Florida Museum’s International Shark Attack File (the longest running database on shark attacks), between 2011 and 2015, there were an average of 82 unprovoked shark attacks annually. But the numbers are irrelevant because fear is often irrational and, frankly, sharks are scary as hell.

This helps explain why researchers and scientists have spent decades applying science and technology to the ever noble pursuit of developing a shark repellent. And why surfers, divers, ocean swimmers, and regular old dopes are turning to this new technology after Fanning’s incident and others like it.

There are a few categories of technology that scientists and engineers have developed under the umbrella of shark repellents. They more or less include magnetic wearables, surf wax, shark spray, and wetsuit technology. How effective are these innovations?

Let’s explore:

Magnetic Anklet/Bracelet

Sharkbanz takes advantage of a shark’s keen sensitivity to electrical fields. The wearable technology creates an electromagnetic field that “provides a sudden sensation that is thousands of times stronger than the signal produced by anything in a shark’s normal food chain.”

According to Sharkbanz, it is the equivalent to being flashed with a bright light in a dark room. The anklet/bracelet retails for $69.00

The company relies on relationships with Dr. Eric Stroud and Dr. Patrick Rice of Shark Defense Technologies LLC, where Grade C8 Barium Ferrite (BaFe2O4) permanent magnet repellent testing for Sharkbanz was developed. But there are problems. First, this technology is selective — it only applies to shark species with the Ampullae of Lorenzini organ. Second, the detective range of the Ampullae of Lorenzini organ is effective only within inches because other animals’ electrical impulses are weak. We’re talking inches, at the most.

This means, if you’re wearing Sharkbanz on your wrist, a shark has to get really freaking close to detect your magnetic field. By that point it may be too late. It also doesn’t instill much confidence that Sharkbanz urges users to wear a couple of their devices because, “the electromagnetic field generated by one Sharkbanz does not act as a full-body force field.”

Shark Repelling Surf Wax

Surf wax is like hard cheese and a shark’s mouth is like 1,000 tiny knives. Can a layer of thinly smeared cheese protect you from 1,000 tiny knives? Especially when it looks like flan?

Four years ago, a young Australian man bled to death after being attacked by a shark and Neil Campbell began thinking about ways to prevent similar tragedies. Not long after, he encountered a bull shark in the water, Campbell made a promise to himself that he would do something.

Chillax Organic SurfWax is made from raw, unfiltered bee’s wax and coconut oil. Embedded into the wax is a combination of ten essential oils and spices which either alone, or in combination with others, has some effect on some shark species.

The issue is that, as cool as it sounds, Chillax Organic SurfWax lacks data. While the logic makes some sense (the spices and oils are unpleasant to a shark’s acute olfactory sense), the company is currently crowdfunding in order to do real, scientific testing.

As per Facebook, “We at Common Sense Surf claim it as an effective, albeit passive, deterrent.” And of course, “Its efficacy is to be established in testing (either with Flinders Uni or SARDI), but I am convinced that surfers are being offered a legitimate strategy.”

Shark Spray

Anti-Shark 100 is marketed to be effective in repelling over 15 species of shark and it works by manipulating a shark’s expert sense of smell. A 20oz can costs $29.99. Drawing inspiration from an anecdote that claims sharks avoid areas containing decomposing shark tissue, researchers have begun more seriously studying the potentially protective effects of chemical alarm signals produced during decomposition.

Several scientists including Dr. Eric Stroud (who you might remember from Sharkbanz) tested Anti-Shark 100 in South Bimini, Bahamas. The results of their testing were positive. “A necromone produced from putrefied shark tissue has shown to be 100% repellent to competitively feeding C. perezi (Caribbean reef shark) and C. acronotus (blacknose shark).”

Delivering the spray from an aerosol canister, researchers were able to induce aversive responses from feeding populations of nine sharks. They concluded that further testing is required to identify species-specific variations of spray.

Of course this relies on a person — with a shark approaching — being able to find, then release a spray bottle without fumbling it.

The Shark Repelling Wetsuit

Shark Mitigation Systems (SMS) is an Australian company that has spent the last four years researching and developing technology based on the visual systems of large predatory sharks. In conjunction with the University of Western Australia’s Oceans Institute and School of Animal Biology, SMS has been able to manufacture marine apparel capable of reducing the risk of shark attack based on shark vision, neurology, and behavior.

Using science related to a shark’s vision at certain depths, and distances, and under certain light and water conditions the company has developed neoprene materials and wetsuit designs they call Shark Attack Mitigation Systems (SAMS). Their products include variations on two wetsuits and a sticker. They serve to hide the wearer in the water (aqua camouflage) and present the wearer unlike any shark prey.

According to the SMS website, however, this technology has only been tested once in the field. While the single test conducted off the coast of Western Australia was successful, it may not be enough evidence for you.

The price of SAMS 3/2 shark-deterrent wetsuit is almost comparable to other top-tier wetsuits on the market, coming in at $495, so you kind of might as well buy a “shark repellent” wetsuit, right? God knows, anything that will give us peace of mind.