Shark deterrent WA wetsuits a world first

Angela Pownall

WA researchers will today unveil world-first wetsuits designed to protect surfers, swimmers and divers from shark attacks by using scientific discoveries about how the predators see and detect prey.

The shark deterrent wetsuits come in two different strategic designs - one that blends the wearer with background colours in the water and the other that makes the wearer highly visible but uses disruptive patterns unlike the appearance of a shark's normal prey.

The project began two years after five people were killed by sharks in two years along the WA coastline, making the State the shark attack capital of the world.

Hamish Jolly and Craig Anderson, both keen surfers and ocean lovers, were awarded a $20,000 State Government grant to work with University of WA shark scientists to design the wetsuits based on science of shark vision, neurology and behaviour.

Mr Jolly said yesterday that initial results of testing the wetsuits in the ocean with wild sharks had been extraordinary and had given them the confidence to release the wetsuits for sale.

"There's been a lot of anecdotal stuff about it and attempts at this, mostly trying to make the wearer look like a sea snake or putting stripes on the wetsuits, but what we have done is to put the science to the anecdotes," he said.

The "cryptic" wetsuit is designed to hide the wearer in the water and uses colours and shapes that, from a predatory shark's perspective, make the wearer difficult to see. Mr Jolly said the cryptic design was more geared towards divers. The "warning" wetsuit, which is more geared towards swimmers and surfers, uses bold patterns and shapes to overtly present the wearer as unlike any shark prey or even as an unpalatable or dangerous food option.

The wetsuits' designs have been patented by Mr Jolly and Mr Anderson's company Shark Mitigation Systems.

Professors Shaun Collin and Nathan Hart, from UWA's Ocean Institute, helped translate the latest scientific knowledge of shark sensory systems into specific designs that disrupt the visual perception of sharks.

In January, the research team spent more than four days testing the new wetsuit designs off the northern WA coast. Mr Jolly said in one encounter a tiger shark circled a dummy covered in the "cryptic" design, which helps make the wearer less visible to the shark, for six minutes before deciding to attack a dummy covered in traditional black neoprene.

"We have had a handful of engagements like that. We need to do more. All the early evidence is that it's working," he said, adding that testing would go on for many years and they could not say the wetsuits provided fail-safe protection.