Surfers have more anti-shark gear options than ever before, but scientists say their efficacy is unclear.
On the evening of Tuesday, Dec. 27, 16-year-old Zack Davis was bitten on his right forearm by a shark — possibly a blacktip — while surfing at Avalon State Park near Vero Beach, Florida.
“One part of the wave closed out, so it brought me underwater,” Davis told the TCPalm. “When I was underwater, I felt a pressure, shark teeth going into my right arm.”
Shark attacks in Florida, while still uncommon, are more prevalent in the state than anywhere else in the world, according to International Shark Attack File (ISAF), a database compiled by the Florida Museum of Natural History.
According to its latest annual tally (it has not yet compiled 2016 results), 2015 had the highest number of unprovoked shark attacks worldwide since 2002 — 98 incidents — with a whopping 30 percent of that total occurring in Florida alone.
It was less than a year ago, in April, when a 15-year-old Quiksilver-sponsored athlete was bitten twice in New Smyrna Beach. It was the second attack at that location in a month.
“As world population continues its upsurge and interest in aquatic recreation concurrently rises,” the ISAF concluded in its 2015 summary, “we realistically should expect increases in the number of shark attacks and other aquatic recreation-related injuries.”
But unique to Davis’s injury, unlike other reported incidents, was that the teen was wearing a shark-deterring bracelet at the time of the attack. It was a Christmas gift from his mother.
Davis’s gift, a Sharkbanz, is a product that was launched in January of 2015.
The wrist- or ankle-mounted band, which utilizes a magnet, claims to interfere with a shark’s food-finding electroreceptors. And prior to Davis’s incident, it seemed to have proven effective, with a self-produced video seemingly showing bull sharks’ aversion to the product.
“We’ve already had a lot of testimonials in the last year (of our product) deterring sharks in the wild,” Sharkbanz co-founder Nathan Garrison told GrindTV in April. “We could have already prevented some attacks, as far as we know.”
After the attack, Garrison released a statement on the company’s Facebook page, quoting a scientist who called it a “provoked attack from the shark’s perspective.”
Sharkbanz has self-admitted limits toward white and tiger sharks (the two species with the highest number of confirmed attacks worldwide, respectively).
But for these species, the Shark Shield, which combines an electromagnetic two-part strip that adheres to the underside front and back of the surfer’s board and a rechargeable battery pack that stows under the kicker of the traction pad, expands the shark-deterrent magnetic range to a whopping 15- to 20-foot radius (more than five times the range of Sharkbanz).
And then there are non-electric attempts at a solution: Shark Mitigation Systems, based in the shark-rich area of Perth in Western Australia, has licensed a pattern in a surfing wetsuit that mimics the striping of an unfavorable meal. It’s also available in sticker form for the bottom of a surfer’s board and fins.
But the problem with all these solutions, Dr. Chris Lowe explained to GrindTV, is that we still don’t have a definitive answer as to why sharks attack, despite having studied it since the 1940s.
Dr. Lowe, the director of the Shark Lab at Cal State University Long Beach, explains that while sharks use electroreceptors to locate prey, like humans, the animals use many different senses to hunt — and that’s if shark attacks are the result of hunting, which plenty of evidence would contradict.
Furthermore, because of the rarity of shark attacks, it’s difficult to confirm whether these technologies are even effective in the first place — which itself can create a problem for someone that believes they do.
“[With technology,] they then feel safer when the go in the ocean. Statistically, they’re not,” Dr. Lowe told GrindTV. “What can happen is people change their behavior, they start doing more risky things because they have this false security blanket, which actually increases their chances of being bitten.
“In many ways, I look at [technology] as more dangerous than valuable.”
The only way to reduce an already low risk, Lowe says, is to educate oneself on the risks of going in the ocean and carefully evaluate those risks.
“Your probability of being bitten by a shark is so infinitesimally low, compared to everything else we do on a daily basis, that it’s almost ridiculous to worry about,” Lowe told GrindTV.
And that might be the ultimate conclusion: While emerging technology like the Sharkbanz that Zack Davis wore suggests that ocean-goers may be marginally safer from shark attacks while utilizing it, nothing as-yet-discovered represents a silver bullet.
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