Swim At Your Own Risk recently ran a story about a new way that Australia is protecting their swimmers from shark attacks. Large sharks are fitted with satellite tags, and when these sharks get close to a beach, it sends a text message to lifeguards patrolling that beach. While I’m thrilled to see a solution that doesn’t involve killing sharks with gill nets, here are five reasons why this is a terrible idea.
1) It cannot possibly accomplish the primary goal of keeping swimmers completely safe from shark attacks. Great Whites, the primary animal being tagged for this program, can swim thousands of miles during the course of a year. It’s pretty darn likely that sharks from far away from the tagging project will be near an Australian beach at some point. These sharks won’t be tagged, and people will mistakenly believe that no shark can approach without the knowledge of the lifeguards. You can never hope to tag all of the sharks that can conceivably pass an Australian beach. It’s just not possible.
2) It’s expensive. These kind of satellite tags can cost thousands of dollars each. While no price is too high to save human lives, this would be a lot of money for a program that won’t work (see #1).
3) Receiving a text requires a functional cell phone, and the phones in question are at the beach. Cell phone + sand + salt water = high probability of broken cell phone.
4) Lifeguards are trained to focus on nothing but their zone of observation. When I worked as a lifeguard, we weren’t even allowed to have phones with us because they would distract us from watching swimmers. It’s easy to imagine a situation where a lifeguard is checking his phone for “shark alert” texts and fails to notice someone drowning.
5) Solutions that sound good on paper often make people stop thinking of other solutions- they believe that the problem is solved. If fewer people went swimming in murky water at dusk, fewer people would be killed by sharks (the number is already pretty small, but it could be smaller if we altered our behavior slightly). People are more likely to take chances with their safety if they believe (in this case, mistakenly) there is a great safety net in place.
This texting plan would make me LOL if it didn’t endanger people’s lives by distracting lifeguards and giving swimmers the false belief that humans can completely control the behavior of wild animals.