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Fish and Game Q&A: Will painting my kayak scare away great white sharks?

September 21, 2010 | 11:19 am

Shark images 008 In support of the California Department of Fish and Game and its effort to keep hunters and anglers informed, Outposts, on Thursday or Friday, posts marine biologist Carrie Wilson's weekly Q&A column. NOTE: This is Carrie's column from last Thursday, when I was on vacation and unavailable to publish it:

Question: I bought a former scuba kayak and have retrofitted it into a fishing kayak. I transformed the underside into what appears to be the underside of a killer whale (orca) because I figure if I’m going to be spending lots of idle time fishing, I don’t want, in any way, to attract the attention of great whites! The underside was totally white but now the outer edges are black with a small black patch at the rear so that it looks just like the characteristic underside of a killer whale. I also rigged up my two fins to drag out the back in case I ever found myself in dire need.

My reasoning here is killer whales and great whites are natural enemies, so if I paint the bottom like an orca, any great white within several hundred yards will take off. As I thought more about this aspect though, I now wonder if while I’m sitting in this thing for long periods of time, will I be more apt to be a target rather than a threat? Has there been any evidence of great whites attacking dead killer whales just like they attack dead regular whales? I’m wondering now if I am a soon-to-be "dead duck" instead of a brilliant kayak engineer! Please advise. Thanks. (Mark)

Answer: Well, I can safely say I’ve never gotten a letter and questions quite like yours, but it’s a refreshing change from the many regulation questions! I applaud your kayak engineering prowess. However, I’m not sure painting the hull of your kayak to resemble the underbelly of an orca, along with attaching fins that mysteriously drag out the back, will spook a white shark or prevent an attack.

Most attacks on humans were likely the result of mistaken identity when they resembled seals or sea lions (pinnipeds), the white shark’s prey preference. The sharks focus on outlines or shadows of objects at the surface that they think resemble a prey item, and this is often in murky water. White sharks are ambush predators and usually attack their unsuspecting prey with a charge from below. Orcas are white sharks’ only predators, but whether your kayak hull painting will actually resemble an orca to a white shark spying it through murky water and then alter its behavior will be your experiment.

Keep in mind that sharks are curious animals without sharp eyesight, but they do have an exceptional sense of smell for detecting attractive odors (blood and dead things), even in small quantities. They also have a well-honed ability to detect through the water even the slightest movements they associate with prey or distressed creatures. Given this, the presence of an orca-appearing structure floating motionless at the surface may not increase the likelihood that a shark will mistake your kayak for a dead orca or an easy meal. However, if your fishing is successful and you hang lots of wiggling dying fish on a stringer over the side or put a bunch of fish blood in the water, well then your kayak might just appear more intriguing to them.

Although it happens, attacks on kayaks are very rare, and if all white sharks knew how lousy kayaks tasted, they probably wouldn’t ever bother them. Once a white shark has bitten its prey and found it unappealing (e.g. skinny humans, kayaks or other non-marine mammal items), they will often move on in search of something with fatty blubber that’s more caloric. Unfortunately, it only takes one inquisitive "sample bite" from an inexperienced or curious white shark to do great harm to most people.

Finally, you must realize that white sharks inhabit coastal waters year-round and may be swimming around you all the time, even if you don’t ever see them. However, I would think the less your kayak looks like a seal or sea lion (thus, remove those trailing swim fins!), the less your chance of a negative white-shark encounter due to mistaken identity. Even if you make your kayak look like something completely outlandish that you think would frighten any white shark off, there are no guarantees of anything unless you just stay out of the ocean. And you don’t want to do that now, do you?

For more information on white sharks, please check out our website at www.dfg.ca.gov/marine/whiteshark.asp.

If you have a question you would like to see answered in this column, e-mail it to CalOutdoors@dfg.ca.gov.

Photo: White shark. Credit: Christy Fisher / Sharkdiver.com

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