With summer upon us and reports of shark attacks once again grabbing headlines — like the fatal mauling of a 21-year-old Southern California woman in the Bahamas just last week — a shark deterrent product with Santa Barbara ties is also getting a lot of attention.
Santa Barbara resident Nathan Garrison cofounded SharkBanz in 2014 years after a good friend was badly bitten by a bull shark off South Carolina. He’d spent three years developing and testing the device — a silicone band worn on the wrist or ankle encasing strong magnets that create a three- to six-foot electromagnet field around the user. The field, the company says, deters sharks, which hunt using highly sensitive electroreceptors in their heads and snout. It overwhelms their senses. “It’s like someone shining a flashlight in your face in a dark room,” said SharkBanz brand manager and fellow Santa Barbara resident Tim Nelson. “It won’t hurt you, but it’ll definitely make you turn away.”
SharkBanz has faced more than its fair share of scrutiny since coming on the market, but the company is armed with over a dozen peer-reviewed research papers that say the technology works, and it chronicles ongoing live trials on its website, sharkbanz.com. The company — which has sold more than 70,000 to date — donates 3 percent of its profits to shark and ocean conservation groups. The bands currently sell for $84.
Nelson and his colleagues are quick to manage expectations and clarify what they say their product can and can’t do. “It’s not an impenetrable force field,” said Nelson. “We can’t offer you that.” What they can offer, he said, is a safety device, no different from a seatbelt or bike helmet. It reduces the risk of injury. Ninety percent of shark “attacks” are cases of mistaken identity, Nelson explained. A shark gets curious about a warm, moving body and explores the only way it can, with a bite. “The band tells the shark: ‘I’m not your prey,’” Nelson said.
SharkBanz are sold online and in stores around the country. Nelson said they’re working on getting a retailer in Santa Barbara, and in the meantime are donating a couple dozen to next year’s Friendship Paddle, an annual fundraiser of stand-up and belly-down paddlers who cross the Santa Barbara Channel for a community member with a serious illness. Last year, the procession was interrupted three times by shark sightings.