By Don Vaughan
As beachgoers and couch potatoes alike gear up for another summer of shark mania, naval history reminds us of the extensive investigations that inform reliable modern-day shark intel. While rare, shark attacks grab the imagination, gnawing as they pull us into the depths of Discovery’s Shark Week (tune in July 23) or adding trepidation to an otherwise idyllic day at the beach. These fears consumed World War II-era military leaders, too.
The mother of invention
Over the course of World War II, servicemembers had something terrifying to worry about in addition to the enemy: sharks. When ships were sunk or planes ditched in the ocean, attacks from one of nature’s most fearsome apex predators were foremost on everyone’s mind.
Hoping to protect servicemembers who might be stranded in the ocean, the War Department established a special program tasked with creating an effective shark repellent. The first product to come out of the program was called Shark Chaser and consisted of a packet of copper sulfate with purple dye. Unfortunately, it proved ineffective because the concentration of copper sulfate, when introduced into the ocean, was insufficient to keep hungry sharks at bay.
Research continued, and in June 1958, the Office of Naval Research provided funding to establish a program to learn more about shark biology and behavior in an effort to better understand why, where, and when shark attacks occur — in hopes of preventing them.
That program has evolved dramatically over the years, eventually resulting in the creation of what today is referred to as the International Shark Attack File (ISAF), currently housed within the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville.
The ultimate goal was developing an effective shark deterrent, says George H. Burgess, director of the Florida Program for Shark Research at the Florida Museum of Natural History. A variety of approaches were investigated, including a type of floating bag that would prevent sharks from seeing or smelling a person’s legs, different-colored attire, and various types of equipment to drive away or kill a shark.
“Most of the things were ineffective,” Burgess says. “As a result, we are, in some ways, at the same place today as we were in 1944. We know a lot more about sharks now, but [we] have yet to develop an effective anti-shark measure.”
Today, the ISAF contains more than 6,000 investigations, the oldest dating back to the 1500s. Accounts of attacks dating back to antiquity exist, but they are not included, Burgess says, because their veracity cannot be confirmed.
While shark attacks can cause significant damage — both physical and mental — to victims, it’s unreasonable to see sharks as a species that must be eliminated, Burgess says. “When we enter the sea, we are engaging in a wilderness experience,” he explains. “We need to remember that we are visitors in their house, and there are some dangers associated with that.
“The goal [of the ISAF] remains the same: to document the circumstances surrounding shark/human interactions from the perspective of both the shark and the human,” Burgess says. “When we do analyses, we start to see patterns, and from those patterns, we can get an idea of where and when sharks are more likely to attack. Armed with that information, we can provide recommendations to beach safety personnel, governmental organizations, and the general public.”