28 Dec 2019

Great whites used to test new shark-proofed wetsuit material

9:04 am on 28 December 2019

Australian researchers are working on a new shark-proofed material to help keep swimmers safer in the water - and have been carrying out bite tests with sharks in the wild.

A great white shark, South Australia.

A great white shark, South Australia. Photo: Gérard Soury / Biosphoto

The fabric uses strong lightweight plastic fibres built into neoprene - the material wetsuits are made of.

Flinders University's shark group first tested the fabric with a metal-toothed laboratory machine they developed, which simulates shark bites.

Associate Professor Charlie Huveneers said after success with the lab tests, the team travelled to the Neptune Islands, south of Adelaide, where great whites were known to gather.

Great white sharks were ideal to test the material as they are the most deadly species for humans, he said.

"We got white sharks to bite through the different fabrics, as well as standard neoprene, and just compared the damages.

"A lot of people would think that sharks will bite anything and everything at every point, but that's not really the case, and it was actually quite difficult to entice the sharks. So we used a very small amount of tuna as bait underneath the neoprene."

The results were dramatic, and were very promising, he said.

"The holes were much smaller, and also many of the holes didn't actually puncture, compared to standard neoprene where most of the holes were actually completely through.

A machine used for early testing of the shark bite resistant fabric,at Flinders University, Adelaide.

A machine used for early testing of the shark bite resistant fabric, at Flinders University, Adelaide. Photo: Supplied

"It won't prevent bone fracture or internal injuries, but most of the trauma is due to blood loss and tissue damage, so the new fabric should be able to reduce that and contribute to saving lives. It would enable emergency responses to have more time to get to the victim, because blood loss would be reduced."

To ensure none of the sharks would learn that wetsuits contain food, the team only carried out enough tests to get robust data, he said.

International figures for 2018 show surfers and divers - who often wear wetsuits, made up more than half of those who were attacked by sharks.

Last year there were 20 shark attacks in Australia, including one fatality when a man died at Whitsunday Island, where there had been two previous shark attacks shortly beforehand.

There was one shark attack in New Zealand last year a surfer was injured when he was bitten on the arm and hand by a great white at Baylys Beach, in Northland.

Manufacturers are now working with the fabric, and looking into how it could be used in wetsuits, without restricting users' movements.

Prof Huveneers hoped the wetsuits using with material would be available soon.