Close Encounters Man vs. Nature

Australian company creates world’s first shark-repelling wetsuits … but will they really work?

Products designed to make surfers and swimmers invisible, or look poisonous to predators, show promise in studies

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At last, a line of wetsuits has been developed that will protect surfers and swimmers against the threat of shark attack.

Or can there ever be such a product?

Two Australian businessmen believe their line of Shark Attack Mitigation Systems, notably wetsuits developed with the help of a university research project, will protect those who wear them.

If this is true it’s great news, coming in the aftermath of a two-year period during which five people were killed by sharks in Australia.

But only time will tell if these wetsuits and other SAMS products (surfboard and kayak stickers, etc), in fact, will serve as a level of protection … or provide a false sense of security.

One of the wetsuits is the blue and white Elude suit (pictured, top), which is designed to make surfers and swimmers practically invisible to sharks.

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Images are screen grabs from SAMS video

The other is the black and white Diverter (pictured, immediately above), which is supposed to give surfers and swimmers the appearance of poisonous critters sharks generally avoid.

New research suggests that sharks are color blind, a line of thinking that went into the design of the wetsuits and other products.

Shaun Collin, a researcher with the University of Western Australia, told the BBC: “Many animals are repelled by a striped pattern which indicates the potential prey is unsafe to eat.”

One series of tests, deploying dummies dressed in the striped wetsuits and traditional black wetsuits, involved tiger sharks. The large predators avoided the former, while attacking the latter.

That shows promise, but great white sharks are not tiger sharks. They’re ambush predators, which strike from below, violently. On a sunny day, a surfer wearing an Elude suit or Diverter suit might still look like a dark silhouette.

More testing will be done in the next several months, off South Australia and South Africa.

Craig Anderson, one of the entrepreneurs, said demand is already growing.

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Lionfish-patterened rash guard

“Everyone’s looking fore a solution, everyone’s nervous about going in the water around the world now,” he said.

The Australian firm isn’t alone in wanting to develop products to keep people safe from shark attacks.

Surfboard leashes that emit electronic pulses are also on the market, and a small company recently produced a rash guard that has the pattern of a poisonous lionfish (see photo).

Boatstogo.com states on its website: “The unique color pattern of our Rash Guard mimics the features of highly venomous lion fish, therefore minimizing your chances of being mistaken for a sea lion or any other type of favorite food on the menu of local sharks.”

The company does not guarantee that these will guard against attack, which is smart. Especially considering that lionfish, as pointed out by shark ecologist Bradley M. Wetherebee to National Geographic, do not typically encounter lionfish, so they’re not conditioned to leave them alone.

Besides, Wetherebee added, “People spear lionfish and feed them to sharks some places where they are trying to reduce the number of lionfish since they are an invasive species.”

The developers of the Elude suit and Diverter, likewise, are not ready to make any guarantees.

Stated Southern California shark expert Christopher Lowe: “One of my favorite stories is when [famous diver] Valerie Taylor tested out the sea-snake-colored wetsuit, thinking that sharks would avoid sea snakes because they are so poisonous.

“Well, apparently [developers] hadn’t read the tiger shark literature … turns out the No. 1 prey item found in tiger shark stomachs from Australia were sea snakes! So, imagine what that tiger shark would be thinking as it rounded the reef and bumped into the giant, fat sea snake! ¬†Yum, yum!”

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