Story by Jocelyn Fujii
Photo by Elyse Butler
Wilson Vinano knows the feeling. You’re on your surfboard waiting for a wave, feet dangling—you’re shark bait. “I’ve surfed all my life all over the world, and that is the scariest feeling,” says Vinano. “So five years ago I came up with the idea of developing something that would help people and help sharks.”
That something is the Electronic Shark Defense System, or ESDS, a compact, seven-ounce device that does what its name suggests: It repels sharks. Strapped to an ankle or dangling from the tail of a paddleboard, it emits electromagnetic charges that Vinano says affect the delicate sensors on a shark’s nose. The nerve center of the device is a two-inch-square casing strapped to a belt that activates automatically when immersed in salt water. And it’s good for nine hours on a single charge. But apart from not having been eaten himself, how does Vinano know it works?
Vinano has tested the system repeatedly —on himself, with fellow surfers and most convincingly with a bait bag in warm, eighty-foot waters off Barbers Point in West O‘ahu. A dramatic video on the ESDS web site shows about forty ten- to eleven-foot Galápagos, sand and gray reef sharks circling. They avoid the bait bag when the ESDS dangles near it, but once the device is removed, wham! The bait disappears in a blur of maws.
“It’s pretty exciting,” says Vinano, a Honolulu resident who worked for twentyfive years as an auto painter before becoming an entrepreneur. “I gave up my real job to follow my dream. I sold my house, my cars, everything, and I put it all into this.” After teaming up with engineer Clifford Lau and meeting Collin Kobayashi of 3D Innovations, who helped develop the prototype, Vinano launched his invention in late 2011. It sells for about half the price of a similar system developed in Australia: $335 with the surf leash, $295.95 without, and it’s available in Hawai‘i and Australian surf shops, with South Africa lined up.
How does Vinano know it’s safe for humans? “I’ve had a pacemaker for twentyfive years, and I’ve used this for more than five years, since I built the first prototypes,” he says. “But I would still ask your doctor.”