Saturday, August 19, 2006

New surfing gear may deter sharks

The experts say surfers stand a much greater chance of getting struck by lightning, dying in a plane crash or winning the California Lottery than getting killed by a shark.

But still. When you’re floating on water, you know there’s a great white shark somewhere. You just hope Whitey’s not in your neighborhood.

"You just feel vulnerable sitting out there in the water," said Cash McConnell, a body boarder from Grover Beach.

McConnell and his wife, Pam, think they’ve designed a product to help ease the surfer’s deepest, darkest fear.

Sharkcamo — a zebra-like design that can be affixed to surf boards or bodies — features a pattern that discourages sharks from attacking, they say.

"One Saturday afternoon, I was watching the Discovery Channel, and they had a documentary about this concept," Cash said.

In the show, sharks would attack a plain pole with chum on it, but they ignored a chum-covered pole featuring a black-and-white pattern. After seeing the special, Cash turned to his wife and said, "I’ve got an idea here."

At the time, he was trying to break out as a country songwriter. While the couple lived in Nashville, Tenn. — not exactly popular in the surf circuit — they often traveled to the Atlantic Coast and Gulf of Mexico to ride waves.

Their Sharkcamo design can be applied to boards in the form of a decal, or they can be glassed into custom-made boards. Black-and-white-patterned elastane suits, Spandex-like outfits which can be worn like a swimsuit or over a wetsuit, are also available.

Various shark repellents have been offered through the years — including one product that emitted bubbles, another that produces an electrical field, and Fangshooey, a sticker depicting a great white shark’s head.

The bubbles didn’t work, the electrical field is expensive (around $550) and Fangshooey has not been scientifically tested.

"One of our customers called and asked me about (Fangshooey)," Pam said, "and I joked that, yeah, that’s a good idea — unless it’s mating season."

After the McConnells designed their product, an investment company from Australia offered to sponsor testing in exchange for overseas business rights. So a team of experts took Sharkcamo to the shark-infested Seal Island, off South Africa, then dumped boards with and without the pattern into the sea.

"Basically, I wanted them to tell me it didn’t work," Cash said.

The concept of Sharkcamo is simple: The design mimics the patterns seen on fish that aren’t consumed by sharks.

"Colored patterns are very common in nature as a warning to a potential predator that you don’t want to take a bite out of something," said Ralph Collier, who heads the Shark Research Committee in Florida, which has investigated shark behavior since 1962.

The Sharkcamo design resembles sea life that sharks don’t eat, including the lion fish, poisonous sea snake and the pilot fish.

"In all the dissections that have been performed by biologists over the years, in what must be literally millions of sharks, no one has ever reported finding a pilot fish in the stomach of a shark," Collier said. "Yet the pilot fish accompanies oceanic sharks all over the world. They swim right alongside their heads."

Collier, one of the experts who conducted the Sharkcamo testing, is often quoted on the slim chances one stands of getting attacked by a shark.

Yet, as he wrote in his book "Shark Attacks of the 20th Century," there are more than 30 species of sharks along the Pacific Coast.

Of the 11 fatal shark attacks recorded in California since the 1950s, two were off the shores of San Luis Obispo County (in 1957 and 2003). And there have been many more sightings and nonfatal attacks.

With that in mind, surfers might take comfort in knowing there’s a product that will protect them from becoming the next victim. But don’t get too confident just yet; Sharkcamo has yet to be a proven deterrent.

While the sharks at Seal Island avoided the Sharkcamo boards (and approached others), bad weather limited the number of tests researchers could conduct, Collier said. And a malfunction in the underwater camera prevented them from observing more shark behavior.

"Right now, I believe it shows promise based upon the very limited results that we have," Collier said. But, he added, conclusions cannot be drawn from those results, which is why more testing is planned for Guadalupe Island off Baja California next month.

Meanwhile, the McConnells are trying to build their business out of their Grover Beach home, where they have lived the past year.

Though pleased by early test results, the McConnells said they’re prepared to deal with skeptics.
"Some people are like, ‘Oh man, great idea!’ " Cash said. "Other people think you’re a complete lunatic."


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