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Dr. Hart’s team tested numerous foam seal-shaped decoys in South Africa. Photo: Macquarie University


The Inertia

The universal fear of death by shark attack looms large in the back of most surfers’ minds – not least of which because of gruesome tales of attacks in Hawaii, San Clemente, Reúnion Island, Byron Bay and the like. That fear has spurred the creation of myriad repellents, some snake oil some backed by scientific evidence. Still, no product has been able to offer consumers a 100 percent no shark bite guarantee and being that even a one percent chance of being attacked still means there’s a chance, no company has yet cornered the market on shark repellents.

Researchers from Macquarie University in Sydney, though, recently announced a promising new technology that has reportedly proven 100 percent successful in trials in the great white rich waters of South Africa.

The concept employs LEDs on the bottom of a surfboard (or any floating craft, really) to hide the surfer’s silhouette from predators below.

“From the shark’s perspective, when they look up they see a silhouette, [human surfers] look a lot like their natural prey, which is seals,” Dr. Nathan Hart, who heads the project, told ABC Australia.

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“If we can break up the outline of that seal shape on the surface, we’ll make the object much less enticing for the shark to investigate, because they’re going to know it’s not their usual prey.”

The idea is actually based on one that occurs widely in nature.

“This strategy is a common strategy used by midwater fish, which are trying to avoid predators swimming below them,” said Dr. Hart.

“Some of these fish have light-emitting organs on their underside, which put out light and help them to camouflage themselves from the light coming from above. Technology and engineering take inspiration from nature, so we’re really trying to use that inspiration that has evolved over many millions of years, and apply that to a very modern problem.”

Dr. Hart and his team tested the LED theory in South Africa with a seal-shaped foam decoy.

“So far with our testing, we’ve tried a few designs, we know some things that don’t work, but we’ve come up with at least two different designs which work extremely well, and the sharks essentially don’t touch it all,” said Dr. Hart.

“So we’re very confident that at least under the conditions tested, we’ve got a very high success rate in deterring those sharks.”

Unfortunately for surfers hoping for peace of mind, a commercially available surfboard using this technology is at least a few years out. Dr. Hart and his team are now working with commercial partners Taronga Zoo and the NSW Department of Primary Industries to create a design that will work on a surfboard. From there, Dr. Hart sees the research project continuing for at least two years before a commercial prototype is even built.


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