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June 2002 Vol. 17, No. 6   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Shark Attacks and Shark Bites

and a new $400 electronic repellent comes to the market

from the June, 2002 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

On the first of May, an Aussie scallop diver encountered a great white shark, which the Aussies call a white pointer. After being down for five minutes, Paul Buckland surfaced and yelled wildly to his mate that a shark was in the water. Deckhand Shannon Jenzen tried to pull Buckland aboard, but the shark attacked, pulling him from Jenzens grasp and dragging him under. Jenzen jumped to the boats controls and rammed the shark, eventually forcing the shark to let go, but it was too late. By the time Jenzen hauled Buckland from the water, the shark had bitten off his leg and part of his torso. Buckland died in Jenzens arms.

The culprit in this attack in southern Australia was nearly twenty feet long. It had been taunting boats in the area for several weeks. One fisherman said he had warned Buckland about the shark only a few days earlier, but Buckland had assured him that he was using a SharkPOD, an electronic device used to ward off sharks. The device Buckland used had been developed by the Natal Sharks Board in South Africa, which is no longer operating.

The SharkPOD:
Did It Fail?

This same technology is back on the market, having been introduced on March 27 with great hoopla. The technology was purchased by SeaChange Technology, an Australian company that spent two years and a few million to miniaturize it. In a press release received by Undercurrent, the company says Shields are designed for use by divers, surfers, swimmers, and snorkelers, and soon to come will be a unit to be incorporated in life jackets, a boating version to provide a shark exclusion zone at the rear of boats and yachts, and a larger commercial version for beach protection.

Their press release said SeaChange Shark Shields work by surrounding the user with an electrical field that has an impact on the sharks central nervous system through sensitive receptors near the sharks snout. The initial mild discomfort increases if the shark approaches the field until it causes muscle spasms and becomes intolerable. The shark then veers away and leaves the immediate area. Under normal conditions the closest a shark is likely to approach a user is twelve to fifteen feet for the dive unit and six to nine feet for the general purpose model.

According to SeaChange Technology, Extensive testing in the most shark-infested waters of the world, including Neptune Island in South Australia and the worlds shark capital near Cape Town, South Africa, has shown the units to be highly effective in deterring sharks, including white pointers. . . . It is significant that the worlds largest recreational dive training and accreditation agency, PADI, believes that the SeaChange Shark Shields have the potential to increase significantly the popularity of diving.

A free diver cruising at thirty-five feet off
Deerfield Beach, FL, had a three-foot
nurse shark clamp onto his left arm.
“I had to grab him and make my
way up top to get more air. ”

The unit for divers has a main housing that can be worn on the thigh, in the BC pocket, or attached to the BC. An antenna electrode is worn on the ankle, with the antenna resting on the fin. Its battery life is more than four hours. Company spokesman Chris Rann told Undercurrent that the product will arrive on the American market this summer and should retail for about $400 (go to www.seachangetechnology.com.au for more details).

For the moment, I suspect, the investors are a little shaky, although the company offers a good defense for its product, even in light of the death. In interviews with ABC radio in Adelaide, Rann said, It can be said categorically that there has never previously been an attack involving a wearer and we are talking about thousands of people using the technology in many parts of the world over seven years and a comprehensive scientific test program several years before that.

He said that some commercial divers leave the devices turned off while diving. They try and cons e rve battery power and when they sight a shark they switch the repellent on. Im told this practice is relatively common. He also said that Buckland was attacked while halfway out of the water. If not submerged, the device will not work.

Local police sergeant Bob McDonald said police divers always wear shark repellents when they are in water where there might be sharks, but they are still aware of the risks. We look at it a bit like car air bags 95 to 98 percent of the time they will save lives and prevent serious injuries, but every now and again they dont. Theres always going to be the odd shark thats intent on doing what its going to do and nothing is going to stop it.

Aussies love their beaches, so to keep themselves safe they systematically net and kill sharks. In the past forty years, Queenslands official shark netting program has killed more than 38,000 sharks (not to mention those killed in other territories) and no swimmer has been attacked. Each year the nets catch fewer and fewer, joining shark finning and other practices in wiping out sharks. Only 800 were caught in 2000 65 percent were whaler and tiger sharks, the species frequently implicated in shark attacks.

A government committee said The program has reduced the risk of attack at many beaches where nearby communities have a very significant reliance on tourism, yet at a tremendous cost to other wildlife, as well as sharks. In the past decade more than 800 turtles were hooked and eighty died, including endangered loggerhead, ridley, and leatherback turtles. Last year a rare Indo-Pacific humpbacked dolphin and an Irrawaddy dolphin died in the shark nets. Since 1962, 654 dugongs have been caught in nets (the government acknowledges that the program has contributed to the decline in dugongs). In the past fifteen years, thirteen whales have been caught. Three died last year. This year, in the last week in March, seven whaler and tiger sharks were caught. Several environmental groups have called for removal of the nets, but the government says no. They want the tourists to keep coming.

Here in America

Of course, divers in American waters are susceptible to shark attacks as well. In mid-March, free diver Robert Land, cruising at thirty- five feet off Deerfield Beach, FL, had a three-foot nurse shark clamp onto his left arm. I had to grab him and make my way up top to get more air, he told the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. He had spent five minutes struggling in the water, fighting with the shark while t rying to breathe, when nearby boaters noticed his distress and came to help. The persistent shark refused to release its grip, so the boaters slit its belly to no avail.

It was trying to rip my arm. Scary, Land said. With the shark still dangling from Lands arm, the boaters raced him to the Boca Raton Beach Club, where waiting paramedics pried the sharks jaws open with wood planks and pieces of metal. While his arm was riddled with teeth marks, he was released the same day from a local hospital. Land said he learned one lesson. They said I should always have a buddy with me.

Most divers consider nurse sharks to be benign little creatures, although there are cases of them biting people, including one lady who was seriously bitten last year while snorkeling near an area where sharks were fed. Deerfield, of course, was one of the first Florida communities to ban shark feeding before it was banned statewide.

They Bite Experts Too

Erich Ritter was a leader against the Florida shark feeding ban, saying there is no evidence to support it. Ritter, who says he is a professor at Hofstra University and the University of Zurich, where he received his doctorate in behavioral ecology, has told the press that he can keep sharks away by modifying his heart rate. He says he has never even been nipped, attributing that largely to his ability to understand sharks body language, writes Kellie Patrick in the South Florida Sun- Sentinel .

In early April, Ritter was in waist-deep water with four students at Walkers Cay in the Bahamas when a big lemon shark bit off a large portion of his left calf. He went into shock and was flown to St. Mary s Medical Center in West Palm Beach.

That was an accident waiting to happen, said Samuel Gruber, a University of Miami professor. Erich takes certain chances based on what he thinks he knows about shark behavior, but there is no evidence to support his theories, he said. Hes more like a philosopher than a scientist .

And, to those who persist with their romantic notions about shark behavior, preferring to cotton to philosophers rather than scientists, we offer the words of Keats:

In the dull catalogue of common things, Philosophy will clip an angels wings.

Ben Davison

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