Will This Wetsuit Keep Away Sharks?
A team of Australian researchers want to protect surfers by dressing them in zebra stripes.
To understand why so many people are drawn to deadly creatures of the deep, look to the quote by the sociobiologist E.O. Wilson: “We are not afraid of predators, we’re transfixed by them … We love our monsters.”
The best example of this paradox: Even as shark attacks have spiked off the coast of the Carolinas this year, Discovery Channel’s Shark Week kicked off this weekend with the most programming hours in its history. People should be at least a little afraid of sharks, it seems, yet they can’t get enough of them.
Perhaps that explains why surfers brave shark-infested waters again and again in search of the perfect wave—and suffer some of the most gruesome shark attacks as a result. After hearing about a rash of shark attacks—five of them fatal—in Western Australia a few years ago, the kitesurfer and entrepreneur Hamish Jolly began exploring ways to protect ocean-sport enthusiasts without forcing them to get out of the water.
In a 2013 TedxPerth talk, Jolly presented the results of his research: a series of striped wetsuits that aim to confuse and deter sharks, leaving the surfer within the suit (hopefully) unharmed.
Together with the University of Western Australia neurobiologist Nathan Hart and the industrial designer Ray Smith, Jolly found that a suit with a dark panel and striped arms and legs would be best for surfers, since near the surface of the water, “being backlit and providing a silhouette is problematic,” he says. The design also makes the surfer look like a lionfish or sea eel, which sharks usually don’t eat. For SCUBA diving, Jolly’s team crafted a blue wetsuit that aims to hide the diver within the water.
In an test depicted in the Ted video, the striped pattern seems to work when using a non-human bait. While the shark quickly attacked a rig covered in standard, black neoprene, it simply brushed past the zebra-striped canister. Human testing is “ongoing,” Jolly notes.
Other researchers haven’t been quite so bullish about the invention. In addition to sight, sharks use other senses, like smell and hearing, to find their prey.
George Burgess, the director of the Florida Program for Shark Research, told National Geographic that the striped pattern might be even more tempting than a standard wetsuit design. "That striped suit that is supposed to look like a lionfish is about as nice a thing as you can do to attract a shark, because of the contrast between dark and light," he said.
Jolly’s company, Shark Attack Mitigation Systems (SAMS), is selling the suits for about $440, which might be a small price to pay for finishing a surfing trip with all your limbs intact. Still, a prominent caution page reads, “It is impossible for SAMS to guarantee that 100 percent of sharks will be deterred under all circumstances with the SAMS technology.” And that’s not necessarily SAMS’ fault, it suggests: “All sharks are dangerous and unpredictable creatures.”
That is, of course, why we love them.