ST. PETERSBURG — Shark Shield, a device that repels sharks with an electronic force field, sounds like something the movie character Q would create for James Bond.
But this Australian invention is real, and its owners have recently started aggressively selling it in Florida. They also have opened a U.S. headquarters near downtown St. Petersburg.
“I feel a lot safer now,” said John Falcone, dive instructor at St. Petersburg’s Aquatic Obsessions, who now uses a Shark Shield when spear fishing, a sport that often involves dragging bloody fish underwater. “We’re going after the same thing they want. It’s like cooking a big, nice Porterhouse.”
The base of the electronic component of the Shark Shield fits in a pouch that wraps around the user’s foot. Electrodes on a 6-foot-long coil emit an electronic surge that extends 20 feet through the water. The company says the surge irritates the receptors on sharks’ snouts, causing them to go into a spasm.
“It’s like you tasered them, and they start shaking,” said Falcone, whose shop has sold about 20 of the $599 to $699 devices since July. “They are fine and swim away as soon as they get out of that radius.”
Since starting more than a decade ago, Shark Shield has sold about 25,000 devices, with less than 10 percent of those in the United States. The company’s 2013 revenues were $901,000, according to investor documents.
Amanda Wilson and her husband, part owners of Shark Shield, moved from Australia to St. Petersburg last year and opened the company’s U.S. office in a small space off Third Avenue N. They hope to have a warehouse here in about a year.
Before the move, Shark Shield was in four Florida stores. Now it’s in 40. Soon Wilson, her husband and young son will drive the California coast in an RV to market the product to dive shops along the Pacific.
The company points to three independent studies in Australia that examined the product’s effectiveness. In one conducted by a the South Australian Research and Development Institute, a fiberglass seal decoy was dragged behind a boat almost 200 times. When it was connected to a Shark Shield, no sharks went after it. When it wasn’t, sharks jumped for the fake seal 16 times and had interactions with it 23 times.
Robert Hueter, a senior scientist and shark specialist at Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium, is familiar with Shark Shield and the technology behind it, though he has never used one.
“Sharks have an electric sensitivity they use to find prey or determine if something is alive or dead. This is something that’s grounded in fact,” he said.
Because there are 500 different species of sharks that react differently to any stimuli at various ages and sizes, he said he would never want to say a product is absolutely effective on all of the animals at all times.
For people who spear fish or dive near sharks, the device would be an extra insurance policy, he added. He also believes there is no lasting damage to the shark.
“But there is absolutely no need for every swimmer in the ocean to carry one of these,” Hueter said. “We have less than 100 bites of sharks on people throughout the world every year and less than 10 of those are fatalities.”
Spear fisherman Dean Karikas used his new Shark Shield last summer. He started swimming toward a shadow in the water believing he was after a large cobia. It turned out to be a tiger shark.
“I was thinking: He sees me. I’m not going to out swim him. I’m going to see if this thing works,” Karikas, a St. Petersburg attorney, recalled. “I started swimming closer to it and as soon as I got so the shark was in range of the Shark Shield that thing took off.”
Before when he has been in such close calls, Karikas has had to hit the shark with his spear gun and even shot one once. That’s something people who spear fish hate to do.
Other target markets for Shark Shield are surfers, paddle boarders and kayak fisherman.
Shark Shield already makes a device about the size of a TV remote control that fits on the back of a surfboard. But since some surfers don’t want to add anything to the back of their boards, another product is in the works. It would fit in the rubber grip pad of a board and would be modular so it also could work on a paddle board or a fishing kayak.
The company is recruiting more investors with the goal of raising $1.4 million to help finance the research and development of the new Shark Shield model. Depending on how fundraising goes, the new device could hit the market within nine months. Wilson sees great potential.
“There are 25 million surfers globally,” she said. “Think about all the moms who worry about their sons surfing around the world or even at New Smyrna Beach.”
Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Katherine Snow Smith at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @snowsmith.