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Fin be Gone

Patrick Rice just high-fived the lunch lady, an unexpected bit of camaraderie that elicits a blush and a two-handed hairnet adjustment from the woman before she returns to slopping gravy over mashed potatoes. That was the part-time bartender in Rice coming out — or maybe it was the full-time scientist. Both seem to like shaking things up.

Rice, a hulking man in his 30s with a graying goatee, sits on the patio at the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, where a private research tank is more cherished than the ocean view. With his Texas accent buried beneath a mouthful of chicken cacciatore and his eyes hidden behind reflective wrap-around shades, he begins to explain a project he's working on that could change the lives of millions of people — and maybe even save a few.

Rice and his team say they've developed the world's first shark-repelling sunblock.

The idea is that the lotion, now in its final testing stage, can protect you from the sun's harmful rays as well as all those great, primordial predators that stalk Florida beachgoers and mangle so many swimmers.

OK, that might be overstating the danger that sharks pose to humans. Wildly. But if perception is reality, then it's a kind of truth, based on the millions of galeophobes who dread shark attacks. Their fears may be overblown, but they have some basis in fact, as recent news reports of sporadic attacks along the Florida coast attest.

Few things drive sales like the fear of being eaten. So Shark Defense, the New Jersey company that Rice works for, has partnered with the Boca Raton firm Teeka Tan to distribute its sunblock/shark repellent. But if the commercial potential is big, so are questions about the still-unnamed product.

"I think it's gonna sound like witchcraft," Teeka Tan co-owner Casey Burt says.

The sunblock/repellent operates on pheromones, Burt explains. One application, he says, "will protect swimmers in the surf, where you run into your ten-foot lemon sharks and reef sharks looking for feeder fish."

Among the skeptics is Lee Dashiell, curator and aquarium director at the South Florida Science Museum. In Florida, Dashiell says, "we have a hard enough time keeping mosquitoes off." Then he deadpans, "Someone could lose a leg."

That someone could have been Rice. He's spent some of the two years he's worked for Shark Defense in the Bahamas, at the Bimini Biological Field Station. The pastel-painted station resembles a cross between a massive wooden lifeguard stand and a Key West surf shack. It's run by University of Miami Professor Samuel H. Gruber, one of the world's leading authorities on sharks and a believer in Shark Defense.

Grad students from around the world have earned their fins at the Bimini station, but it was in the surrounding, crystalline waters that Rice's faith in his sunblock/repellent was tested.

One day last year, conditions were so clear, Rice says, that when a 14-foot hammerhead came after the bait hanging from the side of a 16-foot boat operated by Shark Defense, Rice could see the beast approaching from a basketball court's length away.

"The other guys were screaming, 'Grab the fish heads!' " Rice recalls. "But the first thing I did, as an almost involuntary reaction, was to see where the big bottle of shark repellent was."

He has reason to believe. For the past six years, Shark Defense has been developing and patenting various shark repellents. Some are secret-agent cool, dispensed from hand-held rocket launchers. Others send sharks packing thanks to powerful magnets composed of rare-earth metals. Still others are injected into squid-shaped baits that could someday be deployed on fishers' long lines, to warn sharks away.

It's the cutting edge of a rather troubled quest to engineer the perfect shark repellent. The effort began in earnest in World War II, when FDR demanded that the military protect Navy boys from being gobbled up at sea. Knowing only that sharks seemed to steadfastly avoid their dead brethren, government teams were gathered, sharks were dropped in vats of water, Julia Child helped stir them, and compounds were produced that seemed, in controlled environments, to work like a charm. In the open seas, unfortunately, it worked more like chum, turning sailors into deliciously seasoned, artificially colored snacks.

"They were doing it wrong," Rice says. "They had a lot of the right ideas, but they didn't take them far enough."

Subsequent efforts aimed at frazzling sharks' delicate electro-sensory systems. Shark Defense has persevered on that course, Rice says, by pinpointing several inexpensive metals that emit a slight voltage in seawater. When squirted with such a compound, sharks spit out whatever they're eating. When a pretreated bait such as pigs' ears is offered, the sharks stay away.

The Shark Defense repellents really work, Gruber says. He's just not completely sold on the sunblock. "It's a difficult chemical engineering problem, to get it into the sunblock and have it properly disperse... But I don't care too much about sunblock. I am interested in the possibility of saving sharks."

Rice says a mass-marketed shark repellent in sunblock form would indeed save sharks. If the news-making attacks can be halted or diminished, sharks would be less feared by people. If that happened, he says, people might care more about sparing sharks from unnecessary deaths by fishers' nets and lines. "Oftentimes, by saving the humans, you save the sharks."

Dashiell, from the South Florida Science Museum, is still not convinced that shark repellent is practical. "You're more likely to be eaten by wild pigs than sharks," he says.

Hamicide? Why haven't we heard of this before? There are 50 to 70 shark attacks on humans annually. Since 1948, just eight fatalities have been recorded off the Florida coast. That's less than half the number of fatal alligator attacks in that time. Yet for many folks, sharks are more threatening.

"There's this primal image of an animal that kills with no remorse," Dash­iell says. "You cannot reason with it. That terrifies us."

That's what Teeka Tan is betting on.

To date, the company's reputation rests on distribution of Safe Sea, a sunblock that inhibits jellyfish stings. The new sunblock/shark repellent may be trickier. It works for only 30 minutes before it must be reapplied. And Bryan John, Teeka Tan's president, says he's concerned that the greater stakes with sharks mean more liability.

"If someone gets stung by a jellyfish, no big deal," John says. "Millions of people have been stung by jellyfish. Now, if something happens with the shark repellent and [a shark] swims up and takes a leg off..."

John and Rice agree that the fundamental issue isn't shark behavior. It's human.

Sharks are reliable. They seem to have behaved the same instinctual way for 400 million years.

People are another story. "We could have taken this public a long time ago," Rice says. "But we don't want some idiot lathering up with something, jumping into the middle of a bunch of sharks — and then we get a bad name."

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Jamie Laughlin

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