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    Shark Sightings Unlikely
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer

Friday, September 8, 2000

SYDNEY, Sept. 8 Wearing lime green flippers, a lime green diver's mask, a lime green snorkel and a pack on his back labeled "Shark Pod," professional diver Nick Martin jumped off the Man O'War jetty this afternoon in the shadow of Sydney's famous opera house and disappeared into the teal blue water. Diving is one of Martin's favorite activities, but he said he hoped today's practice dive won't be repeated during the men's and women's triathlons next weekend.

Because if Martin goes in the water, that means a shark has been sighted.

Martin is the diving leader of the Sydney Olympic Committee's shark defense team, a group of six experienced divers who are willing to put up with the tingling sensation caused by their electronic shark repellent backpacks, all for the safety and peace of mind of the triathlon competitors. Games organizers insist the threat of a shark sighting, let alone a shark attack, is negligible along the salt-water race course, yet they obtained the $400 devices in April so triathletes could complete the first leg of their swimming, biking and running competition without worries.

"There is a perception that there are sharks in the harbor waiting for athletes," said Dave Hansen, the triathlon competition manager for the Sydney Olympic Committee. "That's not the case at all. . . . [But] we want to ensure that no athlete in any way is concerned about a possible shark in the water."

The South African-designed Shark Pods emit electromagnetic waves that sting and repel sharks and create slight discomfort for the divers but will have no effect on the triathlon competitors, Hansen said. Five divers will surround the field from the race's outset. They will be propelled by divers' motor scooters to keep up with the fast swimmers.

Martin, meanwhile, will remain in an inflatable raft scanning the waters, ready to leap in the water to enhance the defense if a shark should be sighted. The Shark Pods, which are used by the Australian military, create an electronic field with a radius of up to about 23 feet and are said to be more effective the bigger the shark.

The pack "emits a radio frequency which upsets the sharks," said Martin, 32, who has been diving for 10 years and was enlisted in the Australian equivalent of the U.S. Navy's Seals. "It's like an electric shock, an electric impulse. The sharks are very sensitive."

The Sydney Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games did not give such a radical defense plan a thought until a shark bit the oar of a rower in Darling Harbor in March. The shark had been chasing a bag of bait dangling from the boat. The incident caused a minor scare, but no injuries. In fact, in Australia, the news report generated little attention.

"It made page five of our newspapers here," Hansen said. "It made the front page in many newspapers overseas."

A month later, a triathlon the test event for the Sydney Games was held in Sydney Harbor. As the race approached, there were rumblings from competitors about fears of a possible attack. At that point, Sydney organizers decided protective measures were necessary. They considered massive underwater netting and shark guns, but the Shark Pod, invented by the Natal Sharks Board in South Africa, seemed the best option. Martin, a member of the organizing committee staff, quickly assembled a field of competent divers to wear the devices.

Determined to further allay concerns, Hansen also commissioned a study on the likelihood of a shark attack in Sydney Harbor during the 2000 Games. That study, completed in June, in 32 pages reaches the conclusion that "the risk of a shark attack in Sydney Harbor is infinitesimally small." The study noted that, since 1791, there have been 83 unprovoked shark attacks in the greater Sydney area. The last fatality, the study notes, occurred in 1963. In the past 36 years, the report stated, five shark attacks in Sydney Harbor have been reported.

Shark experts say that sharks have no interest in devouring humans and that when they do attack, it's because they mistake them for sea creatures they prefer to eat.

"The weather to me is going to be more of an issue," Hansen said, "than the non-issue of sharks."

© 2000 The Washington Post Company

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