Shark attacks are on the rise. And alum Dr. O’Connell, who studied shark magnetoreception at UMassD’s School for Marine Science & 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.
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.
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. The barrier is currently deployed in South Africa and is well 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 bait. 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.
While O’Connell’s profession as a shark specialist sounds daringly exciting, it has its challenges. “The biggest challenge we often face underwater is visibility. Some days the water is perfectly clear and within seconds the visibility will change to less than 3 feet. This often makes for a very abbreviated dive because murky water and large white sharks aren’t the best recipe for safety.”
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 behavioral signals to look for in sharks,” 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.