I am really, really skeptical when it comes to most shark deterrents. For the most part, the studies that are done are done by the companies that are selling the deterrent, and they’ve got a pretty obvious reason for skewing the results. But how to know whether they’re all just selling snake oil? It sucks to find out the hard way when the hard way is getting attacked by a shark. If you’ve got some time, have a look at an extensive (if very sarcastic) list of different options that may or may not be snake oil. But recently a company that makes those goofy looking “shark-deterring” zebra wetsuits did a study that they claim proves their patterned suits work.
According to the Shark Mitigation Systems, an Australian company that makes a variety of shark deterring products, their patterns do indeed work. When they put a regular black suit in the water beside one of their wetsuits, the regular one took 90 seconds to get attacked while it took about 5 minutes before a shark hit the patterned one.
You’ve probably seen their patterns online before. They come in a couple of options, either for wetsuits or for the bottom of a surfboard. Here’s what it’s supposed to be doing: “SAMS is a series of designs based on scientific analysis of shark’s visual systems that can be applied to a variety of applications, including neoprene wetsuits, to disrupt sharks’ ability to visually detect its prey.”
After doing a study in Mossel Bay, South Africa, they released this explanatory statement. “Sharks took an average of 90 seconds to engage with a ‘control’ black neoprene, while interactions between sharks and SAMS disruptive colouration design took between five to six minutes. Unbaited testing is the best way to replicate real-life scenarios. This testing has shown that our technology can increase the time taken before a shark encounter by up to 400% has some obvious safety implications.”
For years, these kinds of things have been the center of some pretty harsh criticism. A common sentiment is that the wearer isn’t buying something that actually deters sharks, but instead gives the user a false sense of security–which, given the actual chances of getting attacked by a shark, is worth something. “It is fantastic that we now have a data set of interactions with white sharks that is large enough to be statistically valid and capable of scientific analysis,” said Professor Shaun Collin of the UWA Oceans Institute. “The outcome is compelling and it is exciting to see results from our scientist’s new knowledge of shark visual systems making an impact on practical outcomes.”
The issue here is that studies like this need to be done by an impartial group, instead of the company selling the product they’re testing. Consumers want guarantees, and that’s not ever going to be possible when it comes to sharks. SAMS, at least, admits this. “All sharks are dangerous and unpredictable creatures. It is impossible for SMS to guarantee that 100% of sharks will be deterred under all circumstances with the SAMS technology,” they write on their website. “Water-based activities in the presence of sharks is inherently dangerous and is not recommended therefore we recommend that if a shark is sighted that the user leaves the water.”