Can humans and sharks co-exist?
Shark attacks are on the rise. And UMassD alum Dr. O’Connell, who studied shark magnetoreception at UMassD’s School for Marine Science and Technology (SMAST) and earned his PhD in 2014, believes he’s developed a system that promotes co-existence between humans and sharks.
A marine biologist and shark specialist, O’Connell regularly spans the biosphere to lead scientific voyages and engage in the development of new conservation-based technology, such as his Sharksafe barrier – a non-lethal, magnetic deterrent technology.
And if you were one of the millions of viewers who tuned into Shark Week earlier this month, you witnessed O'Connell's daring adventure to prove his magnetic system repels great white sharks, the greatest underwater threat to the human population.
Over the past eight to 10 years, O’Connell has been diving in South Africa, which has involved building the barrier made of anchors and pipes under water. It’s the first barrier built in South Africa over 100 feet in length, and it enables O’Connell and his team to chum through the waters to observe if great white sharks will cross the barrier to get to bate. O’Connell has also completed a similar expedition with bull sharks and great hammerhead sharks as the focal species in Bimini, the westernmost borough in the Bahamas.
“We hope that one day, this technology is adopted and will serve as an eco-friendly alternative form of technology to help minimize the potential of dangerous shark encounters faced by swimmers, surfers, dolphins, and other marine life,” said O’Connell.
While O’Connell’s profession as a shark specialist sounds daringly exciting, it has its challenges. “The biggest underwater challenge is that some days the water is clear and you may have 20 feet visibility one moment, and then three feet visibility the next moment. But at that same moment, white sharks may appear.”
Despite the potential of being confronted with white sharks that have been reported to weigh over 7,000 pounds maximum and be as lengthy as 20 feet, O’Connell says one learns to become secure when submerged in aquamarine life with these defensive species. “After 60 to 80 dives, you become comfortable because you know what signals to look for in sharks’ behavior,” said O’Connell.
If you missed O'Connell testing his harmless, magnetic shark repellent during the Discovery Channel's Shark Week, check out the entire episode of Sharks Among Us.