Western Australia’s 12,000 miles of coastline has no shortage of surfing hotspots, and the likes of Trigg Beach, Margaret River and Yallingup Reef have long been major contributors to its tourism industry. But, a recent rise in the number of shark sightings has put a damper on the proceedings. Researchers aren’t entirely certain as to the cause (an increase in seal populations and whale migration in the area have been mentioned as possible factors), but what’s abundantly clear is the demoralizing effect this has had on the region’s surfing industry.
Experienced surfers claim they aren’t too concerned about it, as they’ve spent enough time in the water to know just how rare shark attacks are. It’s the beginners who are the most affected, but it’s also the beginners who are the lifeblood of the surfing industry. They’re the ones hiring the surfing instructors and buying the new boards and wetsuits.
A single shark sighting is enough to scare potential surfers and swimmers out of the water, and keep them out for days on end. So it’s no surprise that the recent spate of sightings, including one of a group of 100 or so sharks near a Perth beach, has brought about such a dip in activity.
A surfing store in Dunsborough claims that the previous winter was the quietest they had seen in 20 years, while the owner of a boardstore in Scarborough believes that his business was reduced by 20% during the period when the shark sightings were at their height.
Throwing the hunter off the trail
For those thinking, “If only there was some kind of shark repellant”, you may not be far off the mark. Research was conducted into that very possibility during World War II, as the military searched for a means to protect stranded airplane pilots and sailors from shark attacks, and to prevent sharks from causing the premature detonation of underwater explosives.
They found that even the most fearsome hunter in the ocean could be deterred from its prey, though it takes the smell of a dead shark to do so. Indeed, though sharks aren’t easily put off once their electromagnetic senses have locked onto a target, the smell of a dead shark is apparently the one thing that can switch them from “stay on target” mode to “I have a bad feeling about this”.
Since then, attempts to develop effective shark repellant mixtures have made some progress, as researchers have sought to isolate the chemical that sends sharks into retreat. Dropping the mixture into water teeming with hungry sharks has proven effective against six different species so far, causing them to abandon their feeding frenzy and scatter.
Furthermore, the chemical is non-toxic to sharks, and appears to have no effect on any other marine life present in the area, aside from significantly extending their life expectancy.
Surfing stores in Western Australia stock shark repellent devices, which have become increasingly popular in recent times. The Dunsborough store used to sell one device every four years, but a single shark sighting can bring that number up to around 60 in a month.
Another potentially life-saving measure comes in the form of special wetsuits, which have been designed by scientists at the University of Western Australia in collaboration with Shark Attack Mitigation Systems (SAMS). These also take their cue from nature, though they attempt to emulate defense mechanisms that ward off predators through visual rather than chemical signals.
Though sharks rely on smell and electromagnetic senses while hunting, researchers believe they do use their vision when closing in on their prey. Disrupting their attempts to do so may disorientate them enough to halt their attack.
One of the wetsuits, labeled the “elude”, exploits the shark’s color-blindness by cloaking the surfer in colors that allow them to blend into the sea, much like a chameleon. The other, named the “diverter”, takes the opposite approach by adopting a bright striped pattern which the shark might associate with poisonous fish, thus encouraging it to seek more edible prey elsewhere.
Of course, there’s always the more straightforward “shark repellent” method adopted by British shark attack victim Jonathan Pearlman, who convinced the shark he wasn’t worth the trouble by smashing it repeatedly in the face with his board.
But it’s hoped that a combination of tagging equipment and shark repellent technologies under development will be enough to stave off shark attacks, so that such confrontations need not occur in the first place.