Sometimes some of the coolest stories get lost in history. The CIA recently noted one of them – famous French food chef and author Julia Child’s critical involvement in developing a shark repellent recipe for military personnel and explosives during WWII.
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In 1943, then Julia McWilliams worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) - -the precursor to the CIA-- on the Emergency Sea Rescue Equipment Section (ERE). The ERE was developing among other projects, a way to repel sharks to keep them away from downed pilots and underwater explosives.
From the CIA: “After trying over 100 different substances—including common poisons—the researchers found several promising possibilities: extracts from decayed shark meat, organic acids, and several copper salts, including copper sulphate and copper acetate. After a year of field tests, the most effective repellent was copper acetate.
According to several memos from mid-to-late 1943, bait tests showed copper acetate to be over 60% effective in deterring shark bites. Other field tests showed even more promising results. Unfortunately, the copper acetate was deemed completely ineffective in deterring attacks from the other carnivorous fish of concern to the Armed Forces: barracudas and piranhas.
To create the repellent, copper acetate was mixed with black dye, which was then formed into a little disk-shaped “cake” that smelled like a dead shark when released into the water. These cakes could be stored in small 3-inch boxes with metal screens that allowed the repellent to be spread either manually or automatically when submerged in water. The box could be attached to a life jacket or belt, or strapped to a person’s leg or arm, and was said to keep sharks away for 6 to 7 hours.”
The CIA went on to say that in the end the repellent was likely more of confidence builder than an actual repellent. The recipe had a “slight repellence was shown in bait tests” with small sharks…[but] that it is illogical to expect that such effect as was shown in normal feeding behavior would give any promise of affecting the voracious behavior of the few species known to have attacked man,” the CIA noted.
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“The existence of the repellent was soon picked up by the media, and word spread among the various branches of the Armed Forces. Requests for the repellent came pouring in from the Army and Coast Guard. Even if the repellent wasn’t guaranteed to drive sharks away, it would at least provide possible deterrence against bites and have a huge effect on seamen and pilot morale.”
Still, the Navy used the shark repellent based on the original OSS recipe—also known as “Shark Chaser”—until the 1970s, and it was rumored that the repellent was even used to protect NASA space equipment when it landed in the ocean, the CIA stated.
“I must say we had lots of fun,” Child told fellow OSS Officer, Betty McIntosh, during an interview for Betty’s book on OSS women, Sisterhood of Spies. “We designed rescue kits and other agent paraphernalia. I understand the shark repellent we developed is being used today for downed space equipment—strapped around it so the sharks won’t attack when it lands in the ocean.”
The NASA part of the story, however, is difficult to confirm with documentary evidence, the CIA stated.
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