30 November 2006

How to avoid shark attacks

There's no reason to let shark attack fears spoil your summer. Just take a few basic precautions, and, if you spend a lot of time in the sea, maybe consider getting a Shark Shield.

There’s no reason to let fears of a shark attack spoil your summer and keep you from enjoying the sea, as long as you take a few basic precautions. If you spend a lot of time in the water and want greater peace of mind, there is a further option: the Shark Shield.

Consider a Shark Shield
If you’re involved in a salt-water sport such as diving or surfing, you might want to consider investing in a little extra protection in the form of a Shark Shield.

The Shark Shield, which is considered the only truly effective device of its kind, works by generating an electrical field around the wearer, projected from the unit by two electrodes. It is thought that the shark detects the field through sensory receptors in its snout. This causes muscular spasms that the animal finds unpleasant, and repels it from the area. The Shield has no known harmful effect on sharks or humans, nor on other marine creatures.

This Shark Shield was originally developed by the Natal Sharks Board as the Shark POD (Protective Oceanic Device). The patent for the later version, the Shark Shield, is now held by an Australian company, Sea Change, which markets the product world-wide. The Sharks Board is involved in a consultant role in the Shield’s ongoing development.

Louis Hattingh, of spear-fishing gear company Rabitech, is the African agent for the Shark Shield. “I had the opportunity to witness the Shield being tested at Dyer Island, and I think that anyone who saw that would be persuaded that it works extremely well. We watched it repel six Great Whites that morning.”

The Shield repels sharks approaching from any direction within a range of four to seven metres. Its effectiveness varies according to the species of shark, but has shown good results in warding off the dangerous predatory species in our coastal waters: the Great White, the Zambezi, the Tiger and the Mako. It is less effective on the scavenger species, like the ragged-tooth and pyjama sharks, but these are not considered a serious threat to humans.

“The best thing you can do to avoid a shark attack is to not go into the water at all. The second best thing is to go into the water in a shark cage. And the third best is to use the Shark Shield. I compare it to wearing a seat belt: it doesn’t mean you are completely immune to damage, but it certainly lowers the risk exponentially,” says Hattingh.

“We’ve had one case, at Cape Point, where a shark swam into the Shield's range. The diver made it back into the boat unharmed, however. But that was a very unusual incident, where the shark was disturbed and enraged, and should be looked at beside the large number of positive testimonials from users of the Shield all over the world.”

There are three basic models of the Shield: two models for surfers, which can be used for two-hour or four-hour periods, and a four-hour model for scuba divers. Spearfishermen can use an adapted version of the diving model. The surfer model has a velcro attachment to the ankle, but a new unit which attaches to the surfboard is currently under development. The dry weight of the heaviest unit is 1,5kg. In the water, the units all weigh 400g or less.

“Swimmers can also use the Shield, although it takes some getting used to because it is strapped to the leg,” says Hattingh. “The product is being constantly developed and improved, and I believe we’ll be seeing smaller lighter models in the next few years.”

The two-hour surfer’s model costs R2700 and the four-hour model R3223. The diver’s model costs R2850.

Louis Hattingh can be contacted on 021 9033 905 or 082 573 2794. Email:

General tips
Dr Sheldon Dudley of the Natal Sharks Board suggests taking the following precautions to minimise the risk of shark attacks (which, he reminds us, are rare events):

  • Swim at recognised beaches where lifeguards and medical assistance are available if required.
  • Seek local knowledge before swimming. Locals may know if shark activity has been reported in the area, for example.
  • Don't swim where there are indications that predators might be attracted to the area. Examples are intense fishing activity close to shore or the presence of a stranded marine mammal on the beach that might be leaching attractive substances into the water.
  • Don't venture too far offshore. Most incidents that occur in Cape waters are at the backline of the surf-zone or beyond. Preferably, remain where you can stand.
  • Swim with others. If one member of the group is bitten, the other members can get that person to shore and seek medical help.
  • If someone is bitten, the most important first aid measure is to stop the bleeding.

Dr Dudley says that the caution about not swimming at dawn, dusk or at night will not help to avoid Great White attacks, as they have been known to attack at various times during the day.

- Olivia Rose-Innes, Health24 EnviroHealth expert

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