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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, November 6, 2003

Company sold out of anti-shark device

By Timothy Hurley
Advertiser Staff Writer

The day after the shark attack on 13-year-old Kaua'i surfer Bethany Hamilton, the phones were ringing all day at Cetacea Corp. in Foster City, Calif.

The company is one of two U.S. distributors of a new Australian product known as Shark Shield, a gadget that divers, swimmers, snorkelers and surfers can strap to their legs. It emits an electrical field that its promoters say is designed to repel sharks.

"We're all sold out," Clayton Gush, president of Cetacea Corp., said yesterday. "We've got another order on the way, and we're probably going to have to bump it up and place another one soon."

The Shark Shield comes with no guarantees and a price tag of $549. It's one of the pricier items that ocean users can try in hopes of minimizing their chances of being attacked by a shark.

Other methods involve using caution and common sense. The state's Shark Task Force has published a list of tips that include swimming or surfing with others, avoiding murky waters, and staying out of the water at dawn, dusk and dark, and if you have open wounds or are bleeding.

But experts say there's nothing you can do if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time.

"There are so many variables," said John Naughton, National Marine Fisheries Service biologist. "You can come out with a list of precautions, and then the next week someone is killed at high noon in crystal-clear water."

Some oceangoers are taking their chances with the Shark Shield, manufactured by SeaChange Technology. Developed by scientists in South Africa, the device generates an electrical field detected by the shark through sensory receptors on its snout. According to the company, the field causes muscular spasms that induce the shark to avoid an area.

Gush was skeptical last year when SeaChange asked him to distribute the product on the West Coast, but the pitch was convincing and Cetacea began selling the Shark Shield four months ago.

They've been good sellers, and orders increased after Hamilton lost her left arm to a tiger shark Friday, Gush said. Many of those orders were from Hawai'i, or from people planning to visit the Islands.

Gush acknowledged that the device, which covers the entire calf, might be a bit confining for some free-spirited surfers. For others, he said, safety is an important consideration.

"There's an inherent fear of being part of the food chain," Gush said. "This just alleviates that. It's a parachute, for added comfort and calm. It's like the comfort you get by wearing seat belts."

Another new line of products involves less technology — and less cost — while billing itself as a way to prevent "mistaken identity" shark attacks.

Sharkcamo sells rash guards and decals for surfboards and bodyboards that have zebralike stripes that mimic the pattern of certain fish — poisonous fish, cleaner fish, pilot fish and remoras — that sharks do not choose as prey. These fish, in fact, sometimes swim alongside sharks.

"The pattern alerts the shark that your surfboard is an inedible 'fish' and therefore neutralizes the prey reflex," according to the company Web Site at www.sharkcamo.com.

Sharkcamo rash guards for $44.95 and surfboard decals for $24.95 are found primarily at surf shops in California.

In Hawai'i, surf and dive shops say their customers are rarely concerned with the threat of sharks, even after the latest attack.

"They're not thinking about it," said manager Tom Cherry of Hi-Tech Surf Sports in Kahului, Maui. Shark attacks "are a rarity, and they just want to go out into the water, play and have a good time."

Robert Smith, part owner of Aloha Dive Shop in Hawai'i Kai, said most ocean users in Hawai'i accept the risk and view it the same as being hit by lightning.

"I've surfed all of my life, and it's just part of surfing. It's part of being in the ocean, in their territory," Smith said. "If I'm out by myself, my mind starts to wander, but if I'm with a group, I'm just out there to have fun."

Smith said devices such as the Shark Shield aren't sold in Hawai'i because attacks are still relatively rare — an average of three to four a year — compared with places such as Australia and Florida.

"We don't need it here."

The Shark Shield can be ordered through Cetacea Corp. at (800) 223-2833. Find information from manufacturer SeaChange Technology at www.sharkshield.com.

Reach Timothy Hurley at thurley@honoluluadvertiser.com or (808) 244-4880.