Hamish Jolly

A shark-deterrent wetsuit (and it's not what you think)

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Scientific breakthrough, the kind that can potentially save lives, can sometimes be lying right out in the open for us to discover, in the evolved, accumulated body of human anecdote, for example, or in the time-tested adaptations that we observe in the natural world around us. Science starts with observation, but the trick is to identify the patterns and signatures that we might otherwise dismiss as myth or coincidence, isolate them, and test them with scientific rigor. And when we do, the results will often surprise.


Western Australia has had a particular problem with shark attacks over the last three years, unfortunately and tragically culminating in five fatal shark attacks in a 10-month period during that time. But Western Australia is not alone in this. The incident of shark engagements on humans is escalating worldwide. And so it's not surprising, perhaps, that in July of this year, Shark Attack Mitigation Systems in collaboration with the University of Western Australia Oceans Institute made an announcement which captured the attention of the worldwide media and of ocean users worldwide, and that was around the development of technology to mitigate or reduce the risk of shark attack based on the science of what sharks can see. And I have for you today the story of that journey, but also the notion that science can be as powerful as a translator as it can be for invention.


When we began this process, we were looking, it was about three years ago, and we'd just had the first two fatal shark attacks in Western Australia, and by chance, in a previous role, I happened to be having dinner with Harry Butler. Now Harry Butler, who most Australians would know is a famous naturalist, had spent a lot of time in the marine environment. Harry Butler is a precursor, if you like, to the late Steve Irwin. When I asked him about what the solution to the problem might be, the answer was quite surprising. He said, "Take a black wetsuit, band it in yellow stripes like a bumblebee, and you'll be mimicking the warning systems of most marine species." I didn't think about that much at the time, and it wasn't until the next three fatal shark attacks happened, and it caused me to think, maybe there's some merit to this idea. And I turned to the web to see if there might be some clues.


And it turns out the web is awash with this sort of evidence that supports this sort of thinking. So biologically, there are plenty of species that display banding or patterns, warning patterns, to either be cryptical in the water or warn against being attacked, not the least of which is the pilot fish which spends a big slab of its life around the business end of a shark. On the human side, Walter Starck, an oceanographer, has been painting his wetsuit since the 1970s, and anthropologically, Pacific island tribes painted themselves in bands in a sea snake ceremony to ward off the shark god.


So what's going on here? Is this an idea lying wide out in the open for us to consider and define? We know that sharks use a range of sensors when they engage, particularly for attack, but the sight sensor is the one that they use to identify the target, and particularly in the last number of meters before the attack. It makes sense to pay attention to the biological anecdote because that's time-tested evolution over many millennia. But isn't human anecdote also an evolution of sorts, the idea that there's a kernel of truth thought to be important, passed down from generation to generation, so that it actually ends up shaping human behavior?


I wanted to test this idea. I wanted to put some science to this anecdotal evidence, because if science could support this concept, then we might have at least part of the solution to shark attack right under our very nose. To do that, I needed some experts in shark vision and shark neurology, and a worldwide search, again, led to the University of W.A. on the doorstep here, with the Oceans Institute. And professor Nathan Hart and his team had just written a paper which tells us, confirms that predatory sharks see in black and white, or grayscale. So I called up Nathan, a little bit sheepishly, actually, about this idea that maybe we could use these patterns and shapes to produce a wetsuit to try and mitigate the risk of shark attack, and fortunately, he thought that was a good idea. So what ensued is a collaborative bit of research supported by the West Australian State Government. And we did three key things. The first is that we mapped the characteristics, the physical characteristics of the eyes of the three main predatory sharks, so the great white, tiger and bull shark. We did that genetically and we did that anatomically. The next thing we did was to understand, using complex computer modeling, what that eye can see at different depths, distances, light conditions, and water clarity in the ocean. And from there, we were able to pinpoint two key characteristics: what patterns and shapes would present the wearer as hidden or hard to make out in the water, cryptic, and what patterns and shapes might provide the greatest contrast but provide the greatest breakup of profile so that that person wasn't confused for shark prey or shark food.


The next thing we needed to do was to convert this into wetsuits that people might actually wear, and to that end, I invited Ray Smith, a surfer, industrial designer, wetsuit designer, and in fact the guy that designed the original Quiksilver logo, to come over and sit with the science team and interpret that science into aesthetic wetsuits that people might actually wear. And here's an example of one of the first drawings. So this is what I call a "don't eat me" wetsuit. So this takes that banding idea, takes that banding idea, it's highly visible, provides a highly disruptive profile, and is intended to prevent the shark from considering that you would be ordinary food, and potentially even create confusion for the shark. And this one's configured to go with a surfboard. You can see that dark, opaque panel on the front, and it's particularly better for the surface, where being backlit and providing a silhouette is problematic. Second iteration is the cryptic wetsuit, or the one which attempts to hide the wearer in the water column. There are three panels on this suit, and in any given conditions, one or more of those panels will match the reflective spectra of the water so as to disappear fully or partially, leaving the last panel or panels to create a disruptive profile in the water column. And this one's particularly well-suited to the dive configuration, so when you're deeper under the water.


So we knew that we had some really solid science here. We knew, if you wanted to stand out, you needed to look stripy, and we knew if you wanted to be cryptic, you needed to look like this. But the acid test is always going to be, how would sharks really behave in the context of these patterns and shapes. And testing to simulate a person in a wetsuit in the water with a predatory shark in a natural environment is actually a lot harder than you might think. (Laughter)


So we have to bait the rig, because we need to get the statistical number of samples through to get the scientific evidence, and by baiting the rig, we're obviously changing shark behavior. We can't put humans in the water. We're ethically precluded from even using humanoid shapes and baiting them up in the water. But nevertheless, we started the testing process in January of this year, initially with tiger sharks and subsequently with great white sharks. The way we did that was to get a perforated drum which is full of bait, wrap it in a neoprene skin, and then run two stereo underwater cameras to watch how the shark actually engages with that rig. And because we use stereo, we can capture all the statistics on how big the shark is, what angle it comes in at, how quickly it leaves, and what its behavior is in an empirical rather than a subjective way. Because we needed to preserve the scientific method, we ran a control rig which was a black neoprene rig just like a normal black wetsuit against the, what we call, SAMS technology rig. And the results were not just exciting, but very encouraging, and today I would like to just give you a snapshot of two of those engagements.


So here we've got a four-meter tiger shark engaging the black control rig, which it had encountered about a minute and a half before. Now that exact same shark had engaged, or encountered this SAMS rig, which is the Elude SAMS rig, about eight minutes before, and spent six minutes circling it, hunting for it, looking for what it could smell and sense but not see, and this was the final engagement. Great white sharks are more confident than the tigers, and here you see great white shark engaging a control rig, so a black neoprene wetsuit, and going straight to the bottom, coming up and engaging. In contrast to the SAMS technology rig, this is the banded one, where it's more tactile, it's more investigative, it's more apprehensive, and shows a reluctance to come straight in and go. (Applause)


So, it's important for us that all the testing is done independently, and the University of W.A. is doing the testing. It'll be an ongoing process. It's subject to peer review and subject to publication. It's so important that this concept is led with the science. From the perspective of Shark Attack Mitigation Systems, we're a biotechnology licensing company, so we don't make wetsuits ourselves. We'll license others to do that.


But I thought you might be interested in seeing what SAMS technology looks like embedded in a wetsuit, and to that end, for the first time, live, worldwide — (Laughter) — I can show you what biological adaptation, science and design looks like in real life. So I can welcome Sam, the surfer, from this side. Where are you, Sam? (Applause) And Eduardo. (Applause) Cheers, mate. Cheers. Thanks, gentlemen. (Applause)


So what have we done here? Well, to my mind, rather than take a blank sheet and use science as a tool for invention, we've paid attention to the biological evidence, we've put importance to the human anecdotal evidence, and we've used science as a tool for translation, translation of something that was already there into something that we can use for the benefit of mankind. And it strikes me that this idea of science as a tool for translation rather than invention is one that we can apply much more widely than this in the pursuit of innovation. After all, did the Wright brothers discover manned flight, or did they observe the biological fact of flight and translate that mechanically, replicate it in a way that humans could use? As for the humble wetsuit, who knows what oceanwear will look like in two years' time, in five years' time or in 50 years' time, but with this new thinking, I'm guessing there's a fair chance it won't be pure black.


Thank you.



Hamish Jolly, an ocean swimmer in Australia, wanted a wetsuit that would deter a curious shark from mistaking him for a potential source of nourishment. (Which, statistically, is rare, but certainly a fate worth avoiding.) Working with a team of scientists, he and his friends came up with a fresh approach — not a shark cage, not a suit of chain-mail, but a sleek suit that taps our growing understanding of shark vision.

About the speaker
Hamish Jolly · Inventor, ocean swimmer

Hamish Jolly brings his entrepreneurial eye to the rare but viscerally terrifying issue of shark attacks.

Hamish Jolly brings his entrepreneurial eye to the rare but viscerally terrifying issue of shark attacks.