By Michael E. Miller
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If pretty 19-year-old Ashley Silverman had known about Patrick Rice's invention, a bull shark might not have chewed her forearm near Islamorada last week.
Not only that — she could have improved her tan.
Rice, a hulking man in his thirties with a slightly graying goatee, is a researcher at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. His newest project is the world's first shark-repelling sunblock, a lotion that promises to give you an even tan as it fends off all of those great primordial predators stalking our beaches.
The UM doctoral student has spent two years working for Shark Defense, a New Jersey company, to develop the lotion, which is now in the final stages of testing. He believes the invention might not only help people like Silverman, but also save sharks. If news-making attacks on coeds stop, politicians and fishermen would likely move to protect the millions of tiburones that are killed each year in nets and by fishermen. "Oftentimes by saving the humans, you save the sharks," Rice says. "We could have taken this public a long time ago, but we don't want some idiot lathering up with something, jumping into the middle of a bunch of sharks, and then we get a bad name all of a sudden."
Shark Defense has spent six years developing and patenting repellents it says are proven to work. And they're cool. Spy cool. Some cannon from hand-held rocket launchers that release the chemical compounds to send unwelcome cartilaginous guests packing. Others repel the ancient fish with hyperpowerful magnets composed of rare-earth metals.
It's the cutting edge of a rather troubled quest to engineer the perfect shark repellent. The effort began in earnest during World War II, when FDR demanded the military protect navy boys from being gobbled up at sea. Knowing only that sharks seemed to steadfastly avoid their dead brethren, government teams were gathered, sharks were dropped in vats of water, Julia Child helped stir them, and compounds were produced that appeared, in controlled environments, to work like a charm.
In the open seas, unfortunately, the mixture worked more like chum, turning sailors into deliciously seasoned, artificially colored snacks. "They were doing it wrong," says Rice, whose best repellent is also based on compounds found in dead sharks. "They had a lot of the right ideas, but they didn't take them far enough."
Later efforts have aimed at frazzling the species' delicately balanced electrosensory system. Rice says his company has pushed the science into previously uncharted waters, pinpointing several inexpensive metals that create a slight voltage — undetectable by humans — when lowered into seawater.
Okay, so the actual danger of sharks to humans might be exaggerated. The average number of attacks per year is 50 to 70 worldwide, and only eight have ended in fatalities off the Florida coast since 1948. That is less than half the number of people who have surrendered to the punishing jaws of alligators.
But there are millions of galeophobes, people who have the irrational fear they will be attacked by sharks. "For sharks there's this primal image of an animal that kills with no remorse; you cannot reason with it," explains Lee Dashiell, the South Florida Science Museum's curator and aquarium director. "You're more likely to be eaten by wild pigs than by sharks."
Hamicide? Why haven't we heard of this before?
Shark Defense has partnered with a Boca Raton company called Teeka Tan to distribute the lotion. But if the commercial possibilities are mind-boggling, so, too, are the questions and doubts about the product. "I think it's going to sound like witchcraft," says Teeka Tan co-owner Casey Burt. "People might giggle about it for a while.... But we all know that it actually helps. It operates on pheromones. Just an application will protect people in the surf, where you run into your 10-foot lemon sharks and reef sharks looking for feeder fish."
The company's claim to fame so far has been its sole distributorship of a sunscreen called Safe Sea that inhibits the sting of jellyfish. There are glitches in the new sunblock, or sharkblock, one might call it. The lotion, for instance, is effective for only 30 minutes before another application is required. Another key concern for Teeka Tan president Bryan John is the liability issue. There's a big difference between the damage done by jellyfish and sharks, after all.
"If someone gets stung by a jellyfish, no big deal," says John. "Millions of people have been stung by jellyfish. Now if something happens with the shark repellent and he swims up and takes a leg off...."
So far Shark Defense has been tested at the Bimini Biological Field Station in the Bahamas. The pastel-painted station, which resembles a cross between a massive wooden lifeguard stand and a Key West surf shack, is run by University of Miami professor Samuel H. Gruber, one of the world's leading shark gurus and a believer in Shark Defense. Gruber likes the Shark Defense repellents, but he isn't sold on the sunblock idea. "It's a difficult chemical engineering problem, to get it into the sunblock and have it properly disperse," he says. "That is beyond my realm of expertise. But I don't care too much about sunblock. I am interested in the possibility of saving sharks."