Ocean users turn to shark repellent devices

The unprecedented spike in shark incidents this year in waters off Maui have caused an upsurge of oceangoers buying pricey shark repellent devices they say are worth the money.

“I ordered mine (online) shortly after the German girl got bit,” said Kihei resident Drew Young, who frequently dives and spearfishes in South Maui, often near Palauea Beach where 20-year-old Jana Lutteropp was attacked in August. A shark bit off the German visitor’s arm, and she died at Maui Memorial Medical Center a week later.

A second fatal attack occurred Monday when a shark bit off a Washington man’s foot while he was fishing from his kayak a half-mile off Makena Landing.

Ocean lovers like Young admit that while the increasing frequency of shark incidents is “definitely something I think about while I’m in the water,” it is not enough to keep them out of the ocean.

Young goes diving two to three times a week on average and encountered a tiger shark while diving just last month. He invested in an Australia-made device, Shark Shield Freedom 7, and said he feels a lot safer diving with the device strapped around his ankle.

The lightweight device emits a low-voltage pulse of electricity that deters aggressive sharks from coming within “7 or 8 feet” of the wearer, Young said.

“Skin divers very commonly have their head in holes, and we don’t always know what our surroundings are, especially when we’re pursuing a fish or tako (octopus),” said Young, who is also an administrator with Hawaii Skin Diver network.

The device retails for more than $700, but Young said “it’s a small price to pay for safety.”

Hawaiian Island Surf & Sport is one of only two stores on Maui to carry the Shark Shield products and the only store to carry the similar Electronic Shark Defense System device. It has a hard time keeping the devices in stock because they sell out so quickly, owner Dennis O’Donnell said.

In fact, there’s a waiting list for all of the devices, O’Donnell said, with the best seller being the Hawaii-made ESDS device, which retails for $400 with a leash and $380 without. The increase in shark incidents this year has only caused the waiting list to grow, O’Donnell said.

Honolulu surfer Wilson Vinano Jr., who started developing the ESDS more than seven years ago, said Maui patrons have told him: “If it wasn’t for this product, I wouldn’t be in the water.”

After years of testing and redesigning, the ESDS became available to the public in May of last year, and since then it has sold more than 7,000 units worldwide. While Australia holds the biggest share of the market, Vinano said there is also great demand on Maui, especially after the eight shark attacks reported off Maui shores this year.

The device weighs about 7 ounces and can be easily strapped around the ankle. It turns on automatically when fully submerged in salt water, and can last up to nine hours before it needs to be recharged. While in the water, the device sends out an intermittent electronic pulse that interferes with the gel in a shark’s nose and repels them for about a 30-foot radius, according to the product website. A promotional video on the website records the effect of the ESDS when it is strapped to a bag of bait and dropped in the middle of a feeding frenzy. Sharks circle the bag but quickly swim away whenever they get close to the device. After the device is removed, the sharks rip apart the bag.

Vinano, born and raised in Honolulu, said his product has been most popular with long-distance swimmers like Adam Walker. He used the device during his 26-mile swim across the Kaiwi Channel last June. According to Vinano, Walker said he could see sharks circling underneath him during the crossing, but they never came close.

“So far, nobody wearing this device has ever got bitten, but nothing’s guaranteed,” Vinano said. “It’s like having an airbag in your car, when you get one accident, sometimes people still die. . . . But at least with this you have some safety,” something to repel a shark.

Vinano said he is working on new designs that cater to other types of ocean users like surfers and kitesurfers, and he expects to have new products out in the next six months. Finding a reliable, local manufacturing company to keep up with demand and produce the product in bulk has been the challenge so far, he said.

“This is for humans and sharks, both species, from being attacked by each other, because at the end of the day, if sharks don’t bite nobody, then nobody will want to kill the sharks,” Vinano said. “They have the right to live, too.”

But emerging theories about one or two “rogue sharks” that are more aggressive than others have also inspired some residents to push for the culling of the nearshore species, though aquatic biologist Russell Sparks said it is nearly impossible to pinpoint which ones are biting people, if indeed there were a handful of “rogue sharks.”

“There’s no evidence of territoriality with these animals (tiger sharks). That’s not to say there’s not individual sharks that tend to be more territorial. They could be, but that’s out of the norm from what the research shows,” said Sparks, who works for the state Department of Land and Natural Resources’ Division of Aquatic Resources. “People will say they see this shark here all the time, but the research hasn’t found any evidence of that. What we do know is that they move great distances and are constantly moving.”

A recent University of Hawaii study, commissioned by the state, is the first concerted effort to tag and track tiger sharks around Maui County, he said.

The Web page,, allows the public to track the movements of seven tiger sharks that were tagged in waters around Maui in October. On Monday, the day that the Washington man was bitten a half-mile offshore of Makena Landing, the site reached 25,724 hits, according to a program specialist for the Pacific Islands Ocean Observing System, which administers the site. On the following day, the site had more than 32,000 hits, although it leveled off throughout the week.

Sparks said the spike in shark incidents around Maui this year “cannot be attributed to anything more than chance at this point,” although statistically speaking, having more people in the water increases the odds of shark encounters.

“From Makena to Kapalua, that’s an entire coastline of beaches and accessible shoreline used by tourists and locals,” Sparks said. “If you put more and more people in the habitat of where the sharks are, the likelihood of incidents goes up, it’s just numbers.”

In response to rumors that the flourishing community of green sea turtles, federally protected species, have led to an increase in shark populations near shore, Sparks declined to speculate. But he said analysis of tiger sharks’ diets revealed that “less than 8 percent of their diet is turtles.”

Over the last two decades, the state has averaged about four unprovoked shark incidents per year. There were no reported incidents in 1998 and just one in 2008, DLNR said. In 2012, the 10 incidents reported statewide at the time were unprecedented. So far this year, there have been 13 shark attacks statewide.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at