In Hawaiian culture, sharks are revered. They are considered ʻaumākua, or nā ʻaumākua in the plural, representing a family god or a god-like ancestor. That is, they are viewed differently. Still, if you come upon a surf break that is normally populated with surfers, but not at that moment, perhaps you should reconsider going in. Just ask a local bruddah if the “Man in the gray suit” is there. A knowing smile will tell you there’s a shark out there—maybe more than one, but one’s enough.
Know the Area
Local knowledge, then, is one way to avoid having a chunk taken out of your surfboard, or, worse yet, out of your body (though a surfer’s surfboard is important). Ask around. Is that particular break “sharky”? Most surfing books that describe surf breaks in an area will tell you how sharky an area is.
Is the water murky? Sharks love to sneak up on their prey. Cloudy water helps. A good rain helps (the shark) as well, making the depths a good hiding place.
Know the Animal
Sharks have an incredible ability to detect their prey, both through their sense of smell and the detection of electric fields. PBS presented a Jean-Michel Cousteau “Ocean Adventures” piece that tells us about these abilities. On the underside of a shark’s snout, you will find (or take our word for it) two nostril-like holes, called nares. They can detect a drop of blood diffused in the ocean. Some molecules, coming from a drop of something odoriferous, can be detected hundreds of yards away. Sharks can tell which nare is getting the strongest scent, which helps the shark know the direction of its prey. With this information, you might just want to ensure you are not emitting anything you think might pique a shark’s curiosity.
What about that detection of electric fields? A shark’s head contains electroreceptors. Yet, you’re not a transmitter, you think. Think again. Every time you contract (shorten) a muscle in your body, you produce an electric signal. According to Cousteau, sharks’ sensitivity to electric fields is five million times greater than ours. This sensitivity helps these typically gray-topped, efficient predators to hone in on animals by determining the direction of the field. They’re good at it, you can bet.
Deterrents? They do exist. Keep in mind that some repellents work better with certain species of sharks, therefore not working so well with others. Shark repellent was developed during World War II to help military personnel who ended up in the water, awaiting rescue. The repellant included copper acetate, a chemical quite distasteful to sharks, resulting in a 72-96% effectiveness. Smithsonian Magazine mentioned Shark Defense, a research and development company involved with shark repellent. Check out their link to SharkTec for information on how it works. Also, Repel Sharks is another to review.
Anti-Shark Electric Fields
There are a few other approaches to consider, though they may not yet be fully developed. Ask before you buy. Shark Shield has a product that produces an electric field, one that sharks don’t like. What about acoustic and magnetic repellents? Shark Stopper is working on releasing an acoustic repellent in 2015, one that emits sounds that repulse sharks. Shark Defense has noted that certain magnetic fields over-stimulate the electrical sensors in sharks, driving them away. Keep an eye out for these products—check in periodically with your favorite dive or surf shop.
One idea gaining ground was noted in a Panama Jack blog about the threads that surfers wear. It came from an NPR story about how sharks see only gray scale—black and white. It was tested, with good results, where the underside of a surfboard, and the arms and legs of a wetsuit, had alternating wide black and white stripes. This caused the shark to not see one large, potentially lunch, object in the water. Rather, the shark would see a broken pattern of black segments, appearing as individual small pieces of something—not a delicious meal. Take a look at the Ted Talk.
Whatever you do, know that Nature and her creatures don’t always play by the rules humans attempt to impose. You might think you are repelling all sharks, but there just might be that one that doesn’t see things your way.