Out in the open water, the last thing people may want to meet face-to-face are sharks. While not all sharks can be called “man-eaters,” a few species of them do get into not-so-friendly encounters with swimmers and surfers. Some oceans and seas are also particularly popular as notorious shark attack spots, such as the Great Barrier Reef near Australia.
In order to help people survive such fateful encounters, researchers, scientists, inventors, and even entrepreneurs looked for ways to protect humans from probable shark attacks. If possible, the objective is to prevent them from getting dangerously close.
Some sharks, like the infamous Great White, are known to have attacked swimmers and surfers throughout history. A few other kinds are also just as dangerous, if not more – the Tiger, Mako, Bull, and Great Hammerhead. It is good to note that shark attacks are not as frequent as say, lightning strikes on people, but safety is always a good thing to prioritise.
Throughout the 20th century, various patents and trade marks have been created to repel or thwart potential threats from the fierce animals.
Many inventors came up with incredibly smart ways to prevent attacks. Here are some crafty methods and gadgets devised to keep sharks at bay.
Suit up for a shark-free swim
Even on land, the first idea for protection mankind has invented for himself was clothing. It serves as his armour against the elements, and improving it increased its protection factor further.
Sharks can sometimes be very curious animals, to the extent that they take a “test bite” out of things to determine if they’re okay prey or not. This can be potentially harmful for us, who aren’t born with natural protection like other mammals or reptiles. With the help of a little science and engineering, some individuals created artificial armour for use in the open ocean.
Anti-shark suits like this armoured skin diving suit by Jeremiah S. Sullivan gave divers multiple hard shield elements. When sharks get uncomfortably close, or attempt to catch a curious nibble, the diver would be protected by the lobster-like plates that make biting uncomfortable for the shark. The plates also guard critical vital points such as joints and the chest.
Another one by Nelson and Rosetta Fox combines a rubber suit and helmet with spikes so that the shark won’t be able to close its mouth on the wearer. The spikes themselves probably won’t cause the shark much pain, but they will make even a playful bite uncomfortable. Even the ocean’s apex predators won’t bother with things that will cause much discomfort.
On the other hand, inflicting discomfort may just be a great tool for protection from sharks. Hans Peter VanLancker invented a shark-repelling suit that uses a visual aid – or ward, rather. Instead of physical parts that can shield against sharks, the suit uses crazy patterns to throw off sharks’ eyes. Underwater, sharks are known to be able to see up to 15 metres and mostly recognise shapes and contrast. Patterns like black-and-white stripes or large, uneven swaths of colours make for confusing, contrasting lines for sharks. Some say it is a natural deterrent as most poisonous fish have similar patterns, or mask your shape from below.
In 2013, Australian company SAMS, short for Shark Attack Mitigation Systems (formerly called Shark Mitigation Systems) cashed in on the idea of using visual patterns to discourage sharks from attacking surfers and swimmers. Their products were the Elude and Diverter suits, designed especially for use by surfers and divers.
Accessories and portable protection from sharks
Sailors, swimmers, and just about any athlete competing in sea-based water sports are vulnerable to unprovoked attacks by sharks. Suits aren’t always ready for everyone, so other inventors decided on inventing accessories that can help ward off sharks.
Older methods were aggressive against sharks. In 1979, Robert T. Robinson created an anti-shark weapon that serves as a “floating grenade.” The now-expired patent explains how it works: an explosive device was embedded in a tube along with a dehydrated cake of blood. Upon throwing into the water the blood cake dissolves, attracting sharks, and when one attempts to bite the tube, it triggers the explosive.
Several years later in 1983, Angelo Mongiello Jr filed a patent for a handheld anti-shark probe. The device is equipped with a dart, trigger mechanism, and gas cartridge. The probe is “armed” by the user before use.
When a shark attacks, the user stabs the shark with the probe’s dart. The dart goes into the shark’s body, which releases a trigger washer. Upon release, gas from the cartridge goes into the shark’s body, bloating it and causing the shark to rise in the water.
The method will considerably incapacitate the shark, reducing its ability to manoeuvre due to the air in its body. It will also hurt the shark enough to make it reconsider finding another meal.
These devices can pose a danger to the sharks, and sharks are an important part of ocean ecosystems. Moreover, these devices can also be dangerous for the humans that use them.
Many shark species are of threatened or endangered status according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Right now about 25% of sharks and rays are facing a serious threat of extinction.
Because of their conservation status, new shark deterrent patents have become much friendlier to the health of sharks.
Many researchers and scientists have tried using chemical-based shark repellents to drive away sharks. Some have even filed trade marks for their formulas.
Some people have tried using synthetic liquids such as “Dead Shark Juice.” Discovery TV’s show Mythbusters, an Australian-American production, showed that the concentrated “essence” of decomposing sharks can disperse even a feeding frenzy. It is believed that since sharks are opportunistic hunters, the sudden release of the chemical triggers an escape response in them. Sharks are also cannibalistic, but they prioritise safety too. The fresh “smell” of a “shark corpse” may mean to them that a potential threat is nearby, and so the scent causes them to flee.
Michael Wescombe-Down took the electronic approach with his patent for a protective field-generating ankle cuff. The cuff and cord contains two electrodes and connected to a field generator, which fires electromagnetic pulses that disturb sharks’ sensing mechanisms. It also makes sharks feel disoriented, like how loud sounds can send people reeling in discomfort.
Similarly, inventor Brian Wynne successfully filed a patent for a wrist band to keep sharks at a distance. His method instead uses underwater sound waves at a frequency undesirable to sharks. The design involves an elastic material and a portable transmitter system. The transmitter is attached to the band which can be fit around the wrist or ankle, and the user can set the transmitter to fire sounds between 30 to 500Hz underwater. This acoustic system disturbs sharks’ sensing mechanism to prevent them from even coming close to the user.
Protective fields and shark-detecting surfboards
For people who love spending time in beaches or coasts with beautiful but shark-infested waters, shark barriers or fields provide excellent protection.
A shark barrier patent by Craig Patrick O’Connell and his colleagues protects an area of the sea with a “thicket” of magnets. This artificial “kelp forest” is made of resilient but flexible mesh extending from sea floor to surface, with magnets configured to mess with sharks’ electromagnetic sensory perception. The barrier is attached to the sea floor via anchors and buoys to the surface, securing them in place and providing a literal “safety net” for swimmers.
Other methods use similar electromagnetic means such as Ocean Guardian’s Shark Shield technology. It makes use of two electrodes, which when both are submerged, emit an electric field surrounding the area. Sharks that wander into the area will experience uncomfortable muscle spasms, driving them away.
In 2009 Guerry Grune and Marsea Segal created an unusual surfboard. This special surfboard allows users to see underwater and be alarmed of incoming aquatic creatures. A deterrent signal transmitter is also mounted on the lower surface of the aquatic board, which works together with the embedded alarm. The transmitter releases interference signals that mess up sharks’ sensory receptors.
Sharks are for the large part, a vital part of the Earth’s aquatic ecosystem. Without them, nature will lose its top predators that would keep the population of other fish in check. However, due to their predatory nature it is natural that some will get into dangerous encounters with us humans.
To prevent potential dangerous situations with these oceanic creatures, scientists and entrepreneurs banded together to create patents for inventions that repel sharks. With the aid of these tools, swimmers and surfers can safely enjoy the sea without worry and get along well without hurting the magnificent animals.