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Saturday, July 14, 2012

Myths In The Open Water: Wetsuits Lead to Shark Attacks

Courtesy of WOWSA, Huntington Beach, California.

There is a certain amount of misinformation reported in the media about open water swimming. The World Open Water Swimming Association looked at the data in an attempt to distill fact from fiction, reality from rumor.

One belief that is commonly reported in the press and held sacrosanct among swimmers is that "Wearing a wetsuit will make you look like a seal and therefore more likely to be attacked by a shark."

This oft-used quote is an indication how risky it is to avoid wearing a black wetsuit in areas where there are sharks.

But is it true?

According to researchers at the University of Western Australia and the University of Queensland, sharks are completely color blind and have only one type of photoreceptor in their retina. This means they only see in monochrome and according to Professor Nathan Hart from the University of Western Australia, "It’s the high contrast against the water rather than the color itself which is probably attractive to sharks. So you should wear perhaps more muted colors or colors that match the background in the water better. It may now be possible to design swimming attire that has a lower visual contrast to sharks and is therefore less attractive to them."

That is, these researchers suggest that wearing a light blue wetsuit that matches the color of the sea will make surfers and swimmers less likely to become the victim of a shark attack.

While the U.S. Navy has conducted tests that suggested sharks were able to see yellow most clearly, Professor Hart said it was more the high contrast of yellow, not the color itself, that would increase the visibility for sharks.

During World War II, Japanese soldiers who were lost at sea due to naval conflicts were told to unwrap their fundoshi (traditional Japanese men's underwear) and let the fabric float behind them in order to make their appearance (silhouette) larger in order to ward off sharks. So instead of color, the Japanese believe that size is a greater impediment to attacks than color.

This line of thought is consistent with shark divers who work on the film crews for the episodes of Shark Week broadcast on the Discovery Channel.

But Fred Buyle, a Belgian freediver who is considered to be the world's foremost shark tagger, has a unique perspective and experience with sharks. Because sharks co-exist peacefully with freedivers, Buyle can attach transmitters to their dorsal fins so they can be tracked by scientists.

Buyle and his fellow freedivers wear wetsuits to deter accidental attacks. Sharks reportedly bump their noses into potential prey and emit electrical signals. If the signals conduct, the chances of an attack increase. Wetsuits do not interact with these electrical signals like human skin does. As Buyle says, "I am happy to dive with them; sharks don't like to eat humans."

But he also has an oft-stated reminder, "We will never change the shark's behavior. The most important thing is to respect that the ocean is a wild environment. This is the shark's home. You are just a visitor to it."

Whether as a neoprene-clad triathlete, an open water swimmer or a freediver, Buyle reminds us that sharks are disturbed by things other than wetsuits:

Other commonly held beliefs among open water swimmers include:

1. When there are dolphins in the oceans, the swimmers is safe from sharks (read here).
2. Most body heat escapes through your head in the water (read here).
3. Commercial jellyfish ointments will prevent jellyfish barbs from firing into the skin of open water swimmers.
4. Shark risks increase at dawn and dusk (read here).
5. More people have been in space than have swum across the English Channel (read here).

Copyright © 2012 by World Open Water Swimming Association

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